What a a privilege it was to start our adventure in Abruzzo with a winery that specializes in “natural winemaking”. What does this mean exactly? A family owned and operated estate that uses only their own fruit, no chemical sprays in the vineyard, only natural yeasts (whatever is in the air and on the grapes – yeast is all around us), no oak treatments whatsoever, and next to no sulphites. (If they are added, it’s done after fermentation and only up to 40 mg/L; very little) In fact, no fining or filtering is done on the wines before bottling, and when an order comes for product, the winery always gives a timeline of 2 weeks to fill…because “Nonna” decants everything by hand, before labeling and boxing for shipping! Now that’s some serious natural winemaking – in ALL areas!
Emidio Pepe learned to make wine from his father, who learned from his…very typical for Italians to learn the art of making wine at a young age. These are the men (& women) with no formal training, just generations of it being taught from one to the next. Sofia, Emidio’s daughter, spent 10 years watching her father make wine, before she was given the green light to make it herself. Wow…that’s dedication!
Chiara, granddaughter to Emidio Pepe and our expert tour guide, was there to give us the goods on the estate. Cantine Pepe has 15 ha, with 70% Montepulciano, 30% Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and a small amount of Pecorino, (which amounts to 6000 bottles) and a total production of 80K bottles per year. The vineyard is completely organic, and since 2006, biodynamic. All the fruit picked for harvest is done by the family members only. There is no sorting table at the winery, because the family will only pick the best clusters in the vineyard. And because they are the best, there’s no need for further sorting. The white grapes are crushed, or rather stomped, with those participating, wearing their rubber boots (7 straight days of foot crush) and getting on in to break down the fruit! The white grape harvest is already in progress!
The red grapes are placed in a big tray with a screen, with one person at either end of the tray, pushing the grapes back and forth to crush. The juice, skins and seeds fall to the large barrel below, while the stems are left behind on top. The must is then transferred to the concrete tanks lined with glass, bucket by bucket to begin the (spontaneous) fermentation process. Concrete tanks (the preferred vessel at this winery) are lined with glass – a neutral vessel with steady temps from the concrete and glass to keep oxygen out. During fermentation, there are around 100 strains of natural yeasts working for 35 days. This is where much of the flavour profile and complexities come from for these wines. It’s completely mindblowing that nothing is added or taken away, it’s just the grapes- as it should be. Chiara quoted her grandfather many times during our tour, and I loved all the wisdom he was instilling in his family members. One of the things she quoted (that came from her grandfather) was this: “We are not powerful enough to change nature – we need to use what nature gives us. Wine speaks to us like a book and we must listen to what it says.” If the grapes aren’t the quality they expect, no wine is made that vintage. Since the first bottling of 1964, there have only been nine vintages where wine has not been made. Originally called Aurora which means “beginning”, but because everyone referred to the wine as “Pepe’s wine”, the name was officially changed. Again, like many of the wineries we visited, they export only to eastern Canada. A serious shame, as these wines were stunning! We were served a lovely selection of wines of all varietals with different years for comparison.
2013 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo – an elegant nose of fresh green fruit, green figs, citrus peel and fresh dairy and nuts. Lovely high acidity made this wine easy to drink and very appealing. A balanced season weather wise, made this wine 12.5% abv.
2007 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo – as with age, the wine was darker in colour with more baked fruit on the nose and palate. Amber, hay and sunflower on the nose with candied aromas and sponge toffee. Great high acidity, but with a round, soft mouthfeel. Again, at 12.5% abv, 2007 was characterized by warmer weather, which might be the reason for a rounder, fuller and fatter wine.
2004 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo – some light tannins on this wine and although no oak, I certainly got many aromas of such with lots of popcorn, kernel and hay notes. Herbaceous on the palate with baking spices, it had a dense mouth feel, but again with balanced acidity and alcohol. This and the 2002 were rainy and cool seasons, and according to Chiara, for the white wines, the cooler seasons produced better than warmer seasons!
2002 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo – seriously my favourite white. Simply outstanding with bright floral, lemon zest and baked pear on the nose with smoky minerality, hay, candied and sponge toffee on the palate. Super complex and interesting. High acidity with a great texture and mouthfeel. Also from a cooler vintage, this wine has years of ageing ahead of it!
2014 Pecorino – a bright, floral, herbaceous, lemony highly aromatic wine. Tangy acidity with almonds and lemon basil on the palate with amazing texture. An expression of Pecorino I’ve never had before.
And then came the reds with some of their best vintages: 2007 & 2001
2007 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo – a nose of balsamic, tomato leaf, mushrooms and forest floor along with red fruit of red currants and cherries on the palate with hints of smoke, balsamic and balanced tannins and acid.
2001 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo – very savoury with tomato leaf and basil along with saddle leather. More savoury herbs and balsamic on the palate with very strong tannins, high acid and a long finish!
Perhaps it was the scenery, the beautiful winery, the company I was with that made these wines amazing…maybe so, but my palate doesn’t lie. And as we were leaving, there was “grandfather”, Emedio Pepe himself, standing by the family table, waiting patiently for us to leave so he could sit down for pranzo with his entire family. It was a beautiful sight to behold. Salute!
Great post! I’m going to be in Italy and the Balkans in a few weeks and really enjoyed this article – inspiring! Thanks for sharing.
Thank you! Where in Italy will you be visiting?
I will be in Venice and then driving to Ljublana, Zagreb, hitting the Plitkvice Lakes, Split, Dubrovnik (some wineries on the way), then to Serbia, Bosnia&Herzegovina.
Sounds fantastic! Be prepared to get lost in Venice! 😉
I’ve lived in Europe for 10 years, I have dual Spain/US citizenship. Somehow…somehow…I’ve never been to Venice??!!! Can’t wait.