Every so often a region has a winemaking family or estate which acts as an engine, pulling the entire area upward and into the limelight of international recognition. The Northern Rhône had Guigal, Australia had Max Schubert at Penfolds Grange, Chile has Concha y Toro — and now there is the CERULLI SPINOZZI family in Italy’s Abruzzi region, working with the native red grape, Montepulciano.
Until now, the Abruzzi (Abruzzo in Italian) has been synonymous with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo – a reliable, if often predictable red wine. Indeed, Montepulciano, the local grape, was and still is confused with a town of the same name in Tuscany producing Sangiovese-based wines.
It’s a situation ENRICO CERULLI is working to change. The Cerulli family has been part of the fabric of the Abruzzi for centuries, traditionally prospering not from grapes or olives, but from wool sheared from local sheep and delivered to Florence to be woven into world-renowned textiles. However, the Cerulli family has always been forward-thinking. Grandfather Cerulli founded Casal Thaulero which, under his presidency, swiftly went on to become the Abruzzi’s most successful wine cooperative.
More recently, his grandson Enrico, now 32, has taken over management of his ancestral property, the 148-acre AZIENDA AGRICOLA CERULLI SPINOZZI. Enrico’s passion, however, is to make outstanding wine from the Montepulciano grape. To accomplish this goal he has recruited one of Italy’s most celebrated and sought-after consulting winemakers: FRANCO BERNABEI. Completing the team is PAOLO FACCIN, the on-site winemaker.
How are they raising the bar? First, make your Montepulciano from grapes grown in the best area in Italy for this variety. Most Montepulciano imported into the U.S. comes from the large Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC. However, there is an immeasurably superior quality subzone called Colline Teramane (Teramane Hills), Abruzzi’s only DOCG (awarded in 2002). This tiny area produces a trickle of wine – less than 0.5% of the volume of the larger DOC! Luckily, Cerulli owns 10% of the DOCG’s 100 ha (247 acres) and makes its top bottling, TORRE MIGLIORI, from 100% DOCG fruit.
|On July 9, 2009, Torre Migliori received the ultimate accolade, when the President of the Italian Republic selected it to toast 44 visiting heads of state attending the 2009 G8 Summit|
Here, late-ripening Montepulciano thrives on south – and southeastern – facing slopes, not far from Europe’s southernmost glacier. Extra hang time enables grapes to develop lush cherry, blackberry and black currant notes. At night temperatures drop dramatically, by as much as 20° F, adding perfume and structure. The result: a wine in a totally different class from the workaday quaffing Montepulciano from the lowlands. Deep colored and long lived, redolent with complex fruit notes, this wine is a perfect example of the oft-quoted “iron fist in the velvet glove.”
Next step to realizing the potential: farm organically. Only use organic manure and use it sparingly, control pests with eco-friendly copper salts and give leaves plenty of air space. Then replant most of the vineyard. Increase planting density fivefold to reduce plant vigor (a particular problem with the Montepulciano grape) and therefore dramatically improve quality. Keep a small area of 30-year-old vines for the complex must they produce, despite the exorbitant cost of farming these low-yield plants. Hand-harvest organic grapes in small boxes. Design a gravity-flow winery (opened in 2003) to minimize handling and damage to grapes.
Lastly, take a page from savvy Napa Valley marketers: welcome the public to the estate with a well-stocked shop selling local products (including grape jelly, honey, biscotti), and open a gem of a 10-room family-run B&B close to the property.
Certainly not all estates in Abruzzi have the same resources as the Cerulli family, but the Cerullis’ commitment to quality has made this family a standard-bearer for the land where you can ski in the Apennine Mountains in the morning and swim in the warm Adriatic in the afternoon!