By Frank Cipparone
Six years ago this month, my first column featured a summary of the state of wine in Abruzzo and Molise, Adriatic neighbors who had once been joined politically. The reality and public perception of their wines ranged from indifference to faint praise. By any measure that’s still the case. Modest gains in the market, mostly by Abruzzo, haven’t moved the dial substantially for either region. The more things changed, given how slow that happens in Italy, the more they stayed the same. While not exactly in neutral, progress was intermittent and sputtering.
Abruzzo will always be more dominant for four unalterable facts: a grape that gives it an identity; financial resources; more land suited for viticulture; a larger population and agricultural workforce. Molise has the second smallest area and number of inhabitants in Italy.
Naturally, even with a slight drop due to Covid in 2020, Abruzzo outproduced Molise and it wasn’t close – 32 to 4.5 million cases, which was down for Molise from good harvests in 2018 and ’19. Both rely on one white (Trebbiano) and one red (Montepulciano) grape. The major difference is there are about 81,000 acres of those two in Abruzzo and a mere 13,300 of all the grapes in Molise, with about 63 percent planted to Trebbiano and Montepulciano.
You don’t need a degree in higher mathematics to figure out that Abruzzo’s wine industry put the cork in 384 million bottles compared to Molise’s 54 million. What those numbers don’t indicate is that less than 30 percent of Abruzzese wine is DOC level, or that most of Molise’s output, even with four DOC designations, is basically table wine made for local consumption.
That has always been Abruzzo’s story, a tale it had in common with most of southern Italy. Reliance on two very productive grapes had been fine when the emphasis was on bulk wine or flooding the international market with inexpensive house wines. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo became the face of
Abruzzese wine. Familiarity generated profit if not prestige for large co-ops turning out over 80 percent of the region’s commercial volume. Elevating Montepulciano from
just another ho-hum Italian red to one of significance has been far from seamless and taken time and money.
An important step was creating well defined areas inside the sprawling, all encompassing Montepulciano d’Abruzo DOC. Smaller, private wineries in the cooler, mountainous northern part of the region could opt to become part of the Colline Teramane or Contraguerra DOCs to separate themselves from the co-ops of the warmer and more fertile vineyards of the south. It was an acknowledgement by Abruzzo’s winemakers that was the beginning of treating their premier red grape as more than just a workhorse but as one to be taken seriously.
Montepulciano is nowhere near the level of Sangiovese or Aglianico and may never be. Part of that is the grape itself. Its deep color, soft tannins and dense blackberry flavor are appealing. It maintains its freshness for years but rarely gets better with age. It can be drinkable and ordinary, overly fruity and oaky, or rich and ripe depending on where and by whom it’s made, but in fairness that can be true of most grapes. If you’re browsing the shelves look for Cataldi Madonna, Masciarelli, Barone Cornacchia, Nicodemi, and Barba.
On the white side Abruzzo offers Coccociola and Pecorino, varietals that were localized blending grapes given a rebirth by growing interest in all things native and authentic. Coccociola has lots of lemon and citrus aromas and flavors, lively acidity and a crisp salty finish of apricots and peaches. I’ve had two and liked both. Pecorino has experienced a meteoric rise since 2000 thanks to the dogged determination of the Cocci Grifoni and Cataldi Madonna estates. They basically saw potential and reinvented the grape and it’s becoming a staple on restaurant wine lists. Four I’d recommend are Cantine Tollo, Marramiero, Cantine Frentana, and Terre d’Aligi – they all have the typical white fruit flavors, light body, round texture and herbal aromas of lavender and sage the grape is known for.
Molise has been making wine since pre-Roman times, a longer history of viniculture than Abruzzo, but has little to show for it. Walled off from Campania by the Apennines to the west and hemmed in by Abruzzo and Puglia to the north and south it’s isolation and stagnant economic development have made it difficult for winemakers to expand their efforts. The DiMajo Norante winery is still the only one with meaningful distribution outside Italy. Most wine is farmer made and consumed locally, and only 2 percent is deemed DOC grade.
Favorable natural conditions exist for grape growing. There are rolling hills with plenty of solar radiation, valleys of arable, mineral rich soil, and a balance of maritime and mountain climates. Investment and commitment are in short supply as are recognizable and commercially viable local grapes. Barbera, Sangiovese and Aglianico have made a home, as have transplants from Campania like Falanghina, Fiano, Bombino Bianco and Greco. A scattering of Coccociola can be found.
Molise’s future may ride with Tintilia, a little known, long forgotten red grape that is making a comeback of sorts in limited quantities from a handful of true believers. It’s dark and inky with lots of bold red fruit flavors and herbs, full bodied, earthy, and almost creamy without becoming too dense or tannic, and enough acidity to keep it on track. Hard to find standouts are Cantine Salvatori and Vinica.
Does Molise’s mountainous terrain hold other secrets, maybe old semi-abandoned vineyards of grapes waiting to be found? It’s Italy, so anything is possible – but I’m not getting my hopes up.