Montepulciano’s a wine for hard times

East of Rome, Abruzzo is high above sea level and brimming with sheep. (It’s also where you’ll find montepulciano grapes, which are recommended for planting in 20 of Italy’s 95 provinces.) (File Photo) East of Rome, Abruzzo is high above sea level and brimming with sheep. (It’s also where you’ll find montepulciano grapes, which are recommended for planting in 20 of Italy’s 95 provinces.) (File Photo)

If ever there were a wine that could answer our prayers in this winter and economy of discontent, it would be Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. It’s red, alcoholic, consistently tasty, meant to be drunk young, divine with weeknight pasta, and best when it’s under $15.

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is made from the montepulciano grape—not to be confused with the Tuscan town of Montepulciano where they also make wine, but from a clone of sangiovese called prugnolo gentile rather than montepulciano. A late-ripening workhorse of a grape, montepulciano is recommended for planting in 20 of Italy’s 95 provinces, but is most at home on the steep mountains and hillsides of Abruzzo, where it’s been growing since ancient times. Due east of Rome, this craggy region with Apennine peaks reaching up to 9000′ above sea level hugs the Adriatic Sea and boasts a sheep population that rivals its human one.

The DOC region for montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which was established in 1968, covers almost the entirety of the area and although a subset of this larger zone was carved out and advanced to a DOCG in 2003 under the name Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane, the DOCG wines are not appreciably better. DOC laws mandate that 85 percent of the wine be made from montepulciano grapes (with 15 percent of sangiovese grapes allowable) and a wine labeled Riserva be aged a minimum of two years (with at least six months of that in oak) prior to release. The DOCG calls for 90 percent montepulciano grapes and a Riserva minimum aging requirement of three years. There is a minimum alcohol requirement of 12 percent for both.

A wine that I’ve never known anyone not to like at first sip, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has it all. You get intense aromatics, bright red and black fruit, rustic earth, baking spices, minerality, low acidity, and soft tannins. It cuddles up to anything with tomato sauce and shines alongside the spicy chiles used in much of the regional cuisine. The first time I drank Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, it was with a totally bizarre, but delicious Abruzzi dish that we made in cooking school in Italy—fried celery with spicy tomato sauce. The wine’s roundness smoothed out the tomato’s acidity and the chile’s heat and it’s ample fruit brightened the dish into something much more memorable than it sounds. Don’t feel hemmed in by red sauce though—the wine’s a hit with meat (light or dark), pizza of all kinds, legumes, roasted vegetables, and anything else with an Italian accent. Oh, and with moderate alcohol and tame tannins, it does just fine on its own too.

Six ways to drink well on a budgetLa Quercia Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2009. Feast!. $13.95

Masciarelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2008. C’ville Market. $9.99

Montevento Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2009. Foods of all Nations. $8.99

Pirovano Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2009. Whole Foods Market. $8.99

San Lorenzo Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2009. Market Street Wineshop. $10.99

Villa Bizzarri Girone dei Folli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2008. Wine Made Simple. $11.99

The wine’s also a dream for those who make it. The montepulciano grape is plump and juicy with a low skin-to-juice ratio, which means high yields. The deep purple grapes have tons of pigmented tannins and color-producing phenols (see Winespeak 101) that with maceration produce a deeply extracted, ruby red wine. Sea breezes and summer showers help retain acidity in the grapes, keeping the wine from getting too flabby. Many producers also use the grapes to make a rosé-style wine called Cerasuolo, which means “cherry-red,” because even just a few hours of skin contact gives it exactly that color. Fuller-bodied and redolent of orange zest, pink peppercorn, and dried cherries, Cerasuolo is a rosé for red wine-lovers.
Some producers are restricting yields and using longer oak-aging in more expensive bottlings, but I think “fancy” Montepulciano d’Abruzzo misses the point. It should be like your favorite sweater or your oldest friend—easy, comfortable, reliable, forgiving, and always makes you feel like everything’s going to be O.K.

A world-class wine travel destination in our backyard
The February issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Virginia among the top 10 best wine travel destinations in the world in 2012. Our state joins only two other U.S. destinations (Santa Barbara and Napa Valley) along with the winners from around the world (Mosel Valley, Germany; Priorat-Cambrils, Spain; Central Otago, South Island, New Zealand; Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary; Champagne, France; Colchagua Valley, Chile; and Veneto, Italy). The article states that “historically significant sites, picturesque pastoral landscapes, elegant equestrians and affable winemakers set Virginia apart as an excellent wine destination on the East Coast.” We’ll raise a glass of Virginia wine to that.

Winespeak 101
Phenols (n.): A group of several hundred chemical compounds that exist in wine and affect its taste, color, and mouthfeel.

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