“Bacchus amat colles, as the Romans observed, so the wine god must adore the Abruzzi,” wrote Burton Anderson in The Simon and Schuster Pocket Guide to Italian Wines in 1982. “Between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennines, which reach their highest point in the snow-capped Gran Sasso range above the regional capital of L’Aquila, there is little else but hills.”
The slopes run that land quickly westward from the long Adriatic coastline “so narrow that even today only one important city of the region is established on it, Pescara,” wrote Waverly Root in the 1992 edition of his Food of Italy. Roaming those beloved colli between shore and slopes, sheep, goats and a concentrated array of climates: mediterranean, continental, alpine. Palm trees in close view of white stony peaks, forested patches of mineral-rich soils that yield their secrets through agricultural place-richness; wheat, say, or potatoes, more deeply themselves in flavor and smell. Though located in central Italy, Abruzzo is by topography and history the furthest reaches of both south and east and, unsurprisingly once you find out, a celebrated grower of saffron. “Rugged mountains, difficult roads, isolated towns have made Abruzzi a tough inward-looking land,” wrote Victor Hazan in 1982’s Italian Wine. “Civilization after civilization have slid around it, stopping elsewhere to deposit its glories.”
It’s its own glories this unwittingly protected region has amassed. As recorded in the 2005 issue of sadly no-longer Wine Report, “The best wines in 2003 will tend to come from the most mature vineyards, which favors the more traditional zones like Puglia and Abruzzo.” The region is known as Europe’s greenest zone and from those uncontrived hills in the earlier 20th century production was focused on cooperative wineries making bulk wine, in the 1990s and 2000s an en-masse switch to estate- and territory thinking by both cantine sociali and private producers. In a reoccuring theme in Italy of poverty helping preserve quality traditional winemaking, “during the economic crisis, prices for bulk wines dropped, so it also made sense to make your own wine,” Tenuta i Fauri’s Valentina di Camillosaid during an Abruzzo panel at Collisioni’s Progetto Vino&Food last year. Many vineyards here are decades old, trained Pergola Abruzzese — a system which can be exploited for higher yields but when used correctly (more on that below) has been here so long for nobler reasons.
3. Cement tanks: Valentina di Camillo, Tenuta i Fauri
In Ari in the Chieti province, Valentina di Camillo and brother Luigi continue their family’s winegrowing, which their father, Domenico, turned to in the 1970s. The duo are currently reclaiming their family’s cement tanks in all aspects of their winemaking, aging and even fermenting in them, spontaneously when possible
Before, the family was grape-growers and brought their fruit to a local cooperative. Then, Domenico began to vinify their Montepulciano grapes himself, in cement, cellar material since the time of ancient Rome and relied on in this region for decades, until fashion and newer technology changed many minds in the second half of the 20th century. “In the ‘70s, cement was synonymous with cantina sociale so to the new generation of winemakers it symbolized an inglorious past,” says Valentina. And so wood and steel became the new norm for those who could afford it. Domenico renovated an ancient fienile, and built the first cellar of then–Azienda Agricola Domenico di Camillo with 14 cement tanks (“purchased from a small Assisi-based manufacturing company,” explains Valentina) sized from 25 to 100 hectoliters, selling his wine directly, sfuso. “In our first vinifications of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, we used the tanks without automation, either during pumpovers or for temperature control. The wine finished with its fruitiness intact and ready to drink after the cold months,” she tells me. They would begin bottling much later, in the early 2000s.
“From the 1970s to the 1990s, the [cement tanks] were the only winemaking and storage option in our cellar. At times after that they shared space with fiberglass containers that briefly held new wine during harvest and then with stainless steel. When steel entered the cellar, the function of the cement tanks remained essentially that of storage. But they were never abandoned thanks to their mechanical resistance, which is the pressure that a material can withstand before breaking, and especially because of their stable thermal properties, a characteristic of the cement that allows the wine to vary its temperature slowly in response to changes in the external temperature, so that the temperature remains stable during the alcoholic fermentation, which is particularly useful during cold harvests. Also, in red wines the constant temperature helps malolactic fermentation take place.” All this helped secure cement’s place in historic Abruzzo cellars: “Today more than ever they represent the most authentic way to produce our wines.”
(A generation before Domenico, cement had not arrived without its own set of challenges. “In the 1950s, the first raw cement tanks were passivated naturally with the tartaric acid present in the grapes, but there were problems of cation transfer in the wines, especially calcium and iron,” explains Valentina. Lining the tanks with epoxy resins solved this problem, and by the 1970s’s “vitrification was, and still is, a mandatory practice in Italy.”)
“Years later when we used stainless steel to vinify our red wines, we became more and more convinced that in cement tanks there is naturally a lower tendency to reduction, a greater ease in carrying out malolactic fermentation and better color stability. This is partly due to a constant gradual exposure to oxygen from the outside. In terms of exchanges with oxygen, cement is between steel and wood, and it’s an alternative to large barrels that doesn’t affect the taste of the wine. In the past few years, we’ve gone back to using our cement tanks in winemaking and, for the first time, we have started using them for white and rosato wines intended for bottling. Today we have gone so far as to use them in the vinification of Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo and of our whites starting from Pecorino. This gives us wines that are ready to drink early, but that are not any less long-lived, with a surprising flavor and roundness. And so we have rediscovered the varietal characters of all our wines.” Pecorino, grown in two vineyards, one loamy and one more calcareous, “is a vertical and mineral wine,” says Valentina. “The cement allows a rapid evolution of the primary fermentative notes and balances the wine. Montepulciano is from a pergola-trained vineyard with a clay-loam soil: smoky red fruit, structured but extremely drinkable: the cement stabilizes its color and gives silkiness to the tannins. Cerasuolo, from Montepulciano grapes grown in a Franco-sandy vineyard, has the same strong character of the red wines, so its freshness and flavor are emphasized by refinement in cement. These discoveries have given new life to our tanks, which preserve the expression of our territorio.”