The wonders of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo: 1998 Illuminati Zanna

In these heady days of single-vineyard Barolo and Barbaresco with designer labels, lieu-dit Brunello with astronomically impossible scores, and the coveted-by-conservative-elites and dreaded-by-liberal-populists Super Tuscans (if, in the course of my research for my upcoming Friuli trip, I come across the expression “Super Whites” one more time, I’m going to heave), we often forget an earlier chapter in the renaissance of Italian wines when grapes like Aglianico (ever tasted a 1968 Mastroberardino Taurasi?) and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or Montepulciano Nero (1979 Pepe, anyone?) stood proudly side-by-side with their Tuscan and Piedmontese counterparts.

“Montepulciano d’Abruzzo,” wrote Burton Anderson in 1980 (Vino, p. 368), “ranks among the ten most prominent DOC wines of Italy.” (The appellation was among the earliest to receive DOC status, long before the DOCG-system was implemented, in 1967.) Two years later, in Italy’s Noble Red Wines, Sheldon and Pauline Wasserman infer (erroneously) that Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is a clone of Sangiovese Grosso and classify it as one of Italy’s three noble red grapes, together with Nebbiolo and Sangiovese (see the opening lines of chapters 13 and 14).

Last week, on a freezing night in the Goose Island neighborhood of Chicago, at a dingy BYOB Cuban joint called Habana Libre, I met up with three men I’d met over the internet, each bearing fantastic bottles of wine (mamas, don’t let your sons grow up to be wine bloggers!).

Phil, Nathan, and Lars and I got to know each other through wine-related social media (and Lars actually saw my French band play back in Detroit way too many moons ago). And this was the second time the de facto tasting group convened when I was in town. Many fantastic bottles were opened that night, including a brilliant Vouette et Sorbée NV Champagne Extra Brut Fidèle, an incredibly savory Willi Schaefer 2007 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett, and a Raveneau 2000 Chablis Vaillons (!!!) — all thanks to my hosts.

But the wine that I can’t stop thinking about is the Illuminati 1998 Montepulicano d’Abruzzo DOC Zanna (above).

Phil had found a small and forgotten allocation of 98 Zanna at a local wine retailer and he wisely picked up as much as he could (at an obscenely low price). I’ve tasted a lot of Zanna in recent years and Alfonso made a point of taking me to meet and taste with his good friend winemaker Stefano Illuminati a few years ago at Vinitaly — great guys, both of them.

But, man, I’d never had the chance to taste a Zanna at 12 years out! This wine showed bright, youthful acidity (the secret to its longevity, no doubt) and rich layers of red stone fruit and crunchy, salty red earth. As I munched on my delicious stewed pork and my lightly breaded and fried flattened chicken breast, the aromas and flavors of this wine danced like wild beasts on my tongue, with sweaty horse and bramble notes, evoking, in my mind, an era when Abruzzo was one of the centers of the intellectual outdoorsman’s universe (did you know that King Frederick II of Swabia, emperor of the Holy Roman empire, named the the region’s capital “L’Aquila,” meaning the eagle, because of his love of the art of falconry?).

An unforgettable bottle of wine, thanks to these dudes. But then again, that’s what you get for making friends on the internet!

Phil, Nathan, and Lars: THANK YOU, THANK YOU! Alla prossima… (and ya’ll know what I’m talking about)…

Remember the victims of the Abruzzo earthquake

The Latins liked to say that nomina sunt consequentia rerum (names are the consequence of things). If ever there were an irony to that saying, it applies in the case of Alessio Occhiocupo, above, 28 years old, a native of Abruzzo, a photo reporter, based in Madagascar where he’s working on a photo essay of life there. His last name, Occhiocupo, literally means dark eye.

I was recently put in touch with Alessio by Stefano Illuminati of the Dino Illuminati winery, one of Abruzzo’s leading wineamakers (I am a big fan of his Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane Zanna Riserva).

Alessio was kind enough to share some photographs of wine country in Abruzzo, like the one below.

My friends Alfonso, Alessandro, and Mosaic Wine Group have remembered Abruzzo by posting about the region today. If you’d like a photo of Abruzzo to post on your blog, please send me an email and I’ll send you some of Alessio’s beautiful photos (I’m working all day today in Dallas so I’ll send out the photos tomorrow).

Please remember Abruzzo and help the victims of the April earthquake there by drinking Abruzzo wines and visiting Abruzzo on your next trip to Italy.

If you’re planning your vacation in Italy…

If you’re planning your vacation in Italy this summer, think about Abruzzo…

After breaking away from the phalanx of wine professionals with whom I was traveling on my last day at Vinitaly in April, I had the great fortune to taste with Abruzzo winemakers Sofia and Emidio Pepe. The next morning, the earthquake struck the region in the hours before dawn, taking the lives of nearly 300 people and leaving 28,000 homeless.

You may remember Eric’s post “Aftershocks” which appeared on The Pour in the days that followed the tragedy in L’Aquila. As Eric pointed out, even though the Abruzzo wine industry wasn’t affected directly by the earthquake, the long-term impact will be drastic because 10-50% of the wine produced there is sold and consumed locally.

Above: I have always loved Emidio Pepe’s Montepulicano d’Abruzzo, made in a totally natural style. “Emidio Pepe may be even more of purist than Valentini [another one of Italy’s iconic natural winemakers],” wrote Burton Anderson in his landmark book Vino. “He crushes his grapes by foot” and “possesses not a single piece of modern equipment in his rustic winery.” Drinking these stinky elegant wines is like listening to Thelonious Monk’s “Ugly Beauty.”

Abruzzo is a pristine region of immense natural beauty. Its hills are dotted with wonderful medieval villages where life was never contaminated by the industrial progress forged during fascism.

L’Aquila (where the epicenter hit) was so named (“the eagle”) by 13th-century emperor Frederick II of Swabia who was one of the greatest falconers of his time. Dante condemned Frederick to his Inferno for being an epicurean.

If you’re considering/planning a trip to Italy this summer, think about Abruzzo.

In other news…

You can find info for Nous Non Plus shows in San Francisco (tomorrow), San Jose (Friday), and Los Angeles (Saturday) here. Hope to see you at the shows. Tracie B will be Tracie B there too! (well, just in LA)