I believe that much happiness be to those who are born where good wines are found.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)
Records indicate that the first masters of the wine market were the Egyptians. In fact, a painting in a Theban tomb, dating from about 1500 BCE depicts two farmers harvesting bunches of grapes from an arbor, while other workers press the grapes in a large vat and one harvests the must in urns. It was then the Phoenicians and the Greeks who spread the wine and techniques of its production to the rest of the world. However, the credit for substituting terracotta jars for wooden barrels and introducing the bottling technique goes to the Romans.
The ancient Etruscans and Picentes began producing wine in Abruzzo, the birthplace of Montepulciano. Many figures from the Roman era, from Cato the Wise to Pliny the Elder, celebrated Abruzzian wine in their writings. In his epic poem, the Metamorphoses, Ovid—who himself was a native of Sulmona in Abruzzo—celebrated the beauty of the vineyards of the Valle Peligna, which is the plateau of the Abruzzo region between Aquila and Pescara in central Italy. From there, the grapes were sent westward to Rome for the emperors and their court.
As Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has something of a storied past, there exist several versions of its origin. In his narrative of the Punic wars, Greek historian Polybius recounts how this particular wine was used to reinvigorate Hannibal’s tired solders. That is, according to the legend in which the same Hannibal cured his horses of mange simply by bathing them in Montepulciano. At that time, the wine was produced at the edge of the Adriatic coast in the Praetutii territory, or modern-day Teramo. However, for a long time, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo was considered the only type of Tuscan Sangiovese derived from Prugnolo Gentile, a grape used for the production of the Nobile Montepulciano. According to some, in fact, the Montepulcian vine was brought to Abruzzo in the 9th century by a Tuscan traveler. This posed the question of whether Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is really a Tuscan wine. The answer was finally uncovered in a writing from the 8th century and was attributed to the historian Michele Troia, who named the Valle Peligna as the birthplace of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
The homonymy of the Nobile Montepulciano, therefore, is mere coincidence. The latter takes its name from the Tuscan location where it is produced (Montepulciano, in this case), whereas the Abruzzian wine takes its name from the vine that characterizes it. Starting in the 19th century, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is traditionally cultivated only in the hinterland, planted also in the soil closer to the sea. Today it is the principle red wine in the territory.
First and foremost, wine is poetry. It is art. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is Abruzzo, strong and gentle, which it conveys with emotion. At its heart is the entirety of the greenery of Europe, between the hilly countryside, mountains, and sandy beaches. At first approach, it can be timid, but as it lingers on the palate, it commands respect. If you’re patient, it will show the wild notes that only it has. Its intense, attention-grabbing ruby-red color is dark at times with lighter shades tending toward violet and turning garnet and orange with age. In young wines, the typical fragrance is that of red fruits, such as cherry and mulberry. In aged wines, one catches hints of spices like pepper, tobacco, and liquorice. The finale is savory, sensual, and full-bodied with a prominent aroma and long-lived aftertaste.
Structurally, it is tied to the climatic conditions of the territory with the determinant presence of the Adriatic Sea at the east and of the Gran Sasso at the north-west. The temperate climate with crucial thermal excursions throughout the day and night and a vast, hilly countryside, enriched by the breezes, create the optimal conditions that make Montepulciano d’Abruzzo one of the most well-known and well-loved wines in the world.
Montepulciano can be cultivated in the Marche region, in Umbria and Puglia, but it is in Abruzzo that the vine finds its height for purity in wine-making (100% Montepulciano grapes), for the most part. From the oenographic point of view, the true cradle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the Teramo province, where it is raised to a valuable level of finesse and complexity that has carried the recognition of a specific subzone of excellence, that of the hills of Teramo, which today became the first Abruzzian DOCG.
In the end, we cannot neglect to mention the prestigious DOC Montepulciano d’Abruzzo that, in its composition, is required to be derived from the purest grapes of the Montepulciano vine, with periods of maturation no less than 18 months, at least 9 of which must be spent in barrels. The minimum maturation nearly doubles to qualify for the label “Reserve.”
At the Table
From here, all that remains is serving Montepulciano and knowing how to put the right dishes with this marvelous, full bodied Italian wine “of the mountain.” It pairs well with strong flavors of lamb. Try it with roast veal (ciavarra), namely skewered meat is connected to the pastoral Abruzzian tradition. Yet Montepulciano d’Abruzzo truly shines when paired with smoked or barbecued meats.
Preparations of porcini mushrooms or truffle marry well with aged Montepulciano, giving prominence to the earthier notes of this fine red wine. Though duck à l’orange or fatty fish like salmon or swordfish is better if the wine is younger.
It elevates the flavors of aged cheeses such as Pecorino d’Abruzzo, or even better, Pecorino di Farindola. This is an absolutely original pecorino that takes its name from its place of origin, Farindola, in this case, in the province of Pescara, near the Adriatic Sea. It is uniquely prepared using pork rennet, which gives renders a particular aroma and flavor and distinguishes it from others in Italy—perhaps even the world. Fun fact: the production of Pecorino di Farindola is exclusively handled by women, who have passed down the recipe from generation after generation.
That said, nothing left to do but try it! Note however, the suitable temperature of a young, fruity Montepulciano is 16 C°. If the wine is vintage, serve it at 19-20 C° to coax out the finer flavors. Conversely, for best results in the summer months, opt for a lower temperature and pair it with fish (13-14 C°).
If you find yourself in Abruzzo, stop by one of the many agriturismi present in the territory, especially in the province of Terama where happiness, folklore, and abundance are the setting for the much-appreciated Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.