Abruzzo is a spectacular region full of picture- perfect villages and Roman remains nestled amid dramatic, mountainous scenery, but it remains something of a hidden gem for tourists. The resulting lack of foreign influence means it offers a window to an Italian lifestyle that has not changed for centuries.
Hemmed in by remote national parks to the north and south, the powdery peaks of the Apennine mountains to the west and the azure waters and pristine beaches of the Adriatic coast to the east, you could say that Abruzzo is defined by its isolation.
It offers Italian cuisine at its purest and most humble, born out of mountain austerity and raw agriculture, free of gimmicks – a riot of saffron, fresh fish, Pecorino cheese, pasta and the best olive oil you will ever taste.
The wine is similarly unique and bursting with provenance, heritage and regional distinctiveness. For those in the know, from foodies to outdoor types to oenophiles, unspoiled Abruzzo is a secret worth keeping. But for the region, suffering from declining tourism and the aftershocks of devastating earthquakes, remaining a hidden gem is not a viable option and it is on a mission to expand its international footprint, reel in visitors and boost exports.
COMPLEXITY IN WINE
As such, DRN teamed up with the regional generic body, Centro Estero Abruzzo, to take some retailers on a buying trip to Abruzzo and shine a light on its wines for our readers across the UK.
Everyone knows Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, but not everybody may appreciate its varying levels of complexity, while there are numerous points of difference beyond that.
There is the versatile Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, a vibrant wine somewhere between a rosé and a light red, with a rich cherry colour, an enticing aroma of ripe red fruit and wild roses, enough flavour to match a broad range of food and an excellent level of acidity that keeps it refreshing enough for any warm day.
Excellent levels of acidity which keep the wines well balanced and refreshing is a theme running through the whites of Abruzzo, from Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and Pecorino to international varieties such as Chardonnay. The jewel in the crown is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which can be juicy, fruit forward and approachable at the lower price points but develops into a wine of serious complexity when it has seen some oak and matured.
The region is particularly interesting for independent retailers looking for a point of difference. While its quality most certainly puts it on a par with the likes of Tuscany and Piemonte, its isolation has made it historically less prestigious in export markets, so you can find superb wines at competitive prices.
“Overall the wines of Abruzzo are good for independents,” says Carlos Blanco of west London fine wine retailer Blanco
& Gomez. “Montepulciano d’Abruzzo offers good value for money. On this trip we tasted nice wines from different wineries and they were around €2.50-€3 ex-cellar, so they offer a good price-to-quality ratio. This is an advantage it has over other Italian regions, such as Tuscany or Piemonte, where the wines can be a little bit pricey. As an independent, its value for money is a strength. You can get some good entry-level whites and everyday drinking reds.”
Abruzzo is Italy’s fifth largest wine-producing region, ahead of Tuscany and Piemonte, with annual production of 3 million hl, encompassing a DOCG, eight DOCs and eight IGPs, so there is plenty to choose from.
“There are a lot of hidden gems,” says Mark Flounders, wine buyer at five-strong London indie chain Vagabond Wines, which is increasing the proportion of wine it imports direct each year. “You have to sift through a lot of stuff before you find some good things. There were a few options worth getting over to the UK and seeing how they go. I try to look for what the locals drink and encourage our customers to try that.”
There are plenty of producers in the region that have UK distributors such as Liberty Wines, and a large number that are still seeking representation in Britain, which makes them perfect for indies such as Vagabond that are seeking something unique.
Charlie Brown, who runs Vino Vero in Essex, believes Abruzzo naturally has wines that are well suited to UK palates. “The whites are high in acid and fresh and light, and the reds are quite fruity and juicy and a bit more complex when you get them into oak,” she says. “It’s definitely an area that works well, particularly for where we are. They are the sorts of wines that will be really popular with our customers. Sometimes price is a bit of an issue because it’s not an area people know. They know the Montepulciano grape, but sometimes they see it as a £4.99 supermarket wine rather than something that can be more complex, so you have to do a bit of work [to convince them] on that. I will absolutely increase listings on the back of the trip.
“I liked that there were a few points of difference, like the Cerasuolo wines. I knew about them but I had never had one, so it was really interesting to try, learn and discover more. Pecorino as well is not a well-known variety in the UK. There are a few points of difference, not just Trebbiano and Montepulciano, which are great, but things that are a little bit different as well.”
The producers DRN spoke to are extremely keen to have a presence in the UK market. Luciano de Luca, marketing manager at Fattoria Teatina, which produces a 15-strong range of elegant and good value-for-money wines, says: “The UK market is very important for us. We have always believed in it as it’s at the centre of the wine trade and it’s a door to the US.”
Fattoria Teatina, which exports to the likes of Germany and Belgium, is in contact with Naked Wines about making a specific wine for its customers. Some wineries the buyers were particularly enamoured of are selling DOC whites of exceptional quality for €2.95 ex-cellar and highly complex, aged reds for €5.90 ex-cellar. All are from low- yielding vineyards, and they are a viable proposition for indies because the quality-to-price ratio is there, they can make a healthy margin and they can hand-sell those wines to their customers at reasonable price points. “Finding the regions that are lesser known is key in helping you find a point of difference from your competitors,” says Flounders. “These trips can be really rewarding because you can be at the forefront of something and if you find a gem you get really good pricing and you can support it.
“There was a really good level of education. When you taste as many wines as we did, you get a really good window into how the local wine market functions, because you see almost the entire range of wines and that reinforces the education side of where it comes from and how much they care about their land and how they cultivate their vines and make their wines.”
The region wants to increase exports, particularly to the UK, and is working with Cube Communications on a busy programme of tastings, pop-up bars and other initiatives in the UK market. “
Abruzzo is promoting the region lately in a good way for the independent trade,” says Blanco. “In the past six or seven years in which I have focused on the independent trade, I have not seen Abruzzo have such an input into the independent trade.
“The wines from Abruzzo I stock mainly come from one of the biggest producers in the region. I am happy with the quality and the price, but on this trip I discovered new things, such as Cerasuolo. That’s an interesting wine to play with in the summer, depending on how you promote it. I got a better understanding of the Pecorino grape, which is something you find in the independent trade but not generally at the supermarkets. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is something you will find everywhere, but Pecorino d’Abruzzo you can play with.”
It is certainly a region worth considering or reassessing for buyers of all shapes and sizes and there is a sense that its isolation will not endure for much longer due to the quality of its wine and the ambitious marketing drive backing it up.