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Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Dueling Montepulcianos: Vino Nobile vs d'Abruzzo

The Dueling Montepulcianos: Vino Nobile vs d'Abruzzo

One thing that often follows the common "I was at a restaurant last night..." beginning of a sentence from a wine consumer to a wine professional is its completion with "and I had a Montepulciano." This is one of those I love my job moments because now I get to completely geek out with a customer so I can help them. Not only do I need to dig for clues to figure out what kind of Montepulciano they had and prevent them from purchasing the wrong kind, but more importantly I get to educate the public! "Come with me, citizen," I think to myself, "Step into my domain and we shall explore the world of Montepulciano!"  

Essentially there are two different Montepulcianos. There's wine from a Montepulciano region and then there's wine made from the Montepulciano grape varietal. Both are red. Have you seen Vino Nobile di Montepulciano or its little brother Rosso di Montepulicano? And have you seen Montepulciano d'Abruzzo? These two Montepulcianos share the love of confusing us Americans with fancy Italian words but they're drastically different. This is because at its very core Italy doesn't like to do anything if it's not complicated. But let's start with the basics:

So Vino Nobile di Montepulciano or Rosso di Montepulciano are mostly made from Sangiovese, which is the grape used in Chianti, from the village named Montepulciano in Tuscany. Carpineto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva 2010 was my wine pick of the month in September of 2016.

Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is mostly made from the grape called Montepulciano in the more southern region of Abruzzi. Because the Montepulciano referred to here is a grape variety, this is the Montepulciano you'll see come from other places in Italy (without the d'Abruzzo part) and even across the world. Back in April of this year I reviewed THP Montepulciano 2014 by Llano Estacado out of Texas! That's right; TEXAS!

Now, that's a very simple explanation. Easy enough, right? But you know I'm not going to just leave it like that for this blog. Just like Italy, I don't like to do anything if it's not complicated. Alright, tell ya what, I'll go easy on this article and won't get too technical, okay? I need to ease my way back in to writing these monthly articles. Now let's go even further in to the dueling Montepulcianos. And let's drink them, too.

Vino Nobile and Rosso di Montepulciano

Tuscany. Let's set up the scene: Rolling hills. Gorgeous vineyards. Romance. Castles. Medieval shit everywhere. Dragons, I think. Maybe. Tuscany is both beautiful and badass.

Sangiovese grapes
Within Tuscany, to the east of Chianti, is a village named Montepulciano. It has been appointed its own wine region called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, classified as a DOCG. Without getting too descriptive, DOCG is a designation of Italy's wine quality tiers given to its wine regions. There's IGT, DOC, and DOCG, in that order of quality. So, for a wine from Montepulciano to qualify and label itself as a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, it has to meet the great standards and strict rules for its practices in the vineyard and winemaking, and thus its quality as a wine, at the DOCG level. There's also a DOC option called Rosso di Montepulciano, which we'll get into later and even have a taste of.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano must be at the very least 70% Prugnello Gentile, which is the name the region calls Sangiovese. As I stated earlier, Sangiovese is the main grape of Chianti and basically the all-star grape of Tuscany overall. It produces wine that is almost always very high in acidity, a big contributor to why it's arguably the best food wine in the world, and I almost always get tart cherries and dried clay on them. The Sangiovese variety is said to go as far back as the Romans, or even earlier with the Etruscans, but it wasn't actually documented until 1590 CE when Giovanvettorio Soderini wrote about Sangiogheto. Regardless, its name means "blood of Jove", Jove being the Roman god Jupiter.

A hotter climate, a lack of limestone, and far more sand in the clay soil of Montepulciano make the Sangiovese here bolder than their neighbor's Sangiovese in Chianti. Usually a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano will be 100% Sangiovese, but they have an allowed 30% to use on other grape varieties if they so wish. Cabernet, Merlot, Colorino, Canaiolo, Mammolo, Gamay, and even the white Trebbiano are common blenders when used.

Rosso di Montepulciano is pretty much guaranteed to use blenders. This is the DOC tier of wines for the region. Commonly made from younger Sangiovese vines that may one day make Vino Nobile, the wine is lighter bodied, lower in quality, and friendlier to the wallet. Let's try one!

Poliziano Rosso di Montepulciano 2014I have purchased two solid and affordable wines from Montepulciano and Abruzzi to taste and use as examples for this article. From Montepulciano I have Poliziano Rosso di Montepulciano 2014. Poliziano was founded in 1961 and was named after the poet "Il Poliziano" Angelo Ambrogini, who was born in 1454 in Montepulciano and died in 1494. The winery started off with 22 hectares of vineyard land and has grown to 120 hectares.

This Rosso di Montepulciano is 85% Prugnolo Gentile (Sangiovese) with the remaining 15% a blend of Colorino, Canaiolo and Merlot. The color of the wine is a cherry red, and cherries are going to be a theme here. On the nose there's aromas of maraschino cherries, orange bitters like Campari or Aperol, strawberry licorice, cigar tobacco, and dried clay. On the palate it's light bodied with very present and dusty tannin that's kept in check with a tart and crisp acidity. There's flavors of maraschino and black cherries, tart wild red berries, dark chocolate, and dried clay. The finish is all about the maraschino cherries and salivating acidity. For $12, this is a solid Rosso di Montepulciano that you should be able to find easily. It's a perfect fit with traditional red sauce pasta dishes. But Sangiovese like this can be paired with almost anything. After all, it is the king of food wine.

Montepulciano d'Abruzzo

Montepulciano grapes
The Montepulciano here is the grape variety! It's mostly grown in central and southern Italy, but I've had Montepulcianos from California and one even from Texas with THP Montepulciano 2014 by Llano Estacado.

Montepulciano may have very well originated in Tuscany and could actually be an offspring of Sangiovese. Even with so many things recorded in history, so many things are lost. So maybe the Montepulciano variety was called that somewhere along the line by, say, the people of Abruzzi because that's where the initial vines were imported from? Maybe? Just a baseless thought on my part. Still, even if the Montepulciano variety is indeed a descendant of Sangiovese, it's definetely grown up to become its own man. "Mister Sangiovese? Pffft. That's my father. Call me Monty."

Montepulciano is typically low to medium in acidity, has a soft texture and is fruit-forward with bold dark fruits, as opposed to the high acid and classic tart cherry of Sangiovese. It can also get a bit rustic at times. Am I the only one that finds it similar to Spanish Monastrell? Anyways... it's a late ripener, making it a warmer-climate lover. So it won't be caught enjoying northern Italy.

Of all the Montepulciano that's in central and southern Italy (and there's A LOT), by far the most famous region dedicated to the grape is the DOC called Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. This covers the entire region of Abruzzi. Head southeast from Tuscany on the west coast, hop over the landlocked Umbria, land on the east coast, and you're in Abruzzi. They make all sorts of wine in Abruzzi but Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is their big one for reds, while Trebbiano d'Abruzzo is their big one for whites (made from, you guessed it, Trebbiano).

The Adriatic Sea provides a nice breeze for the vineyards on the hilly landscape here, cooling them from the heat of the sun and the dry climate. The DOC of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is made all throughout Abruzzi, but there's also the DOCG of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane. This is restricted to the province of Teramo, and it's the best Montepulciano made in Abruzzi. And let's not forget the DOC of Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo. Cerasuolo means "cherry red", and this Montepulciano sees less fermentation time and skin contact to make a young, fresh, chillable, pinkish-cherry-red wine.

Cantina Valle Tritana Capostrano Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2014
I have here a bottle of Cantina Valle Tritana's Capostrano Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2014. Cantina Valle Tritana is a wine firm located in the heart of Abruzzi that is dedicated to finding and marketing quality wines from the region at "favorable prices". Cooperatives like these basically run the entire wine industry in Abruzzi.

The color of the wine is a reddish purple. On the nose there's an overlay of a graphite minerality above aromas of plums, raspberries, and mocha. It's medium bodied with fluffy mouthfeel, smooth tannin and just a little tiny perk in its acidity. The aromas of plums, raspberries, and mocha repeat themselves as flavors on the palate. It finishes with a burst of raspberries that levels off into plums and graphite.

At $10, Capostrano's Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is one of my top suggestions for an affordable wine to always have at your house just in case there's an unplanned pizza delivery. Especially when it's pepperoni. But this wine is also good all by itself.

In Conclusion

Do you see the difference in the Capostrano and the Poliziano? They are nothing, NOTHING, alike. The Poliziano Rosso di Montepulciano, because of its tart acidity and its flavor profile, is far superior as a food wine. It's ridiculously versatile and will elevate dishes way more than the other guy. But, because of those very reasons, I would absolutely not drink it by itself. The Capostrano Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is going to show better at a tasting table, for example, or at the couch with popcorn and a movie because it's more about the juicy, dark fruit. It stands better on its own.

This is why, my fellow wine professionals, it's important to give a quick run-down to your customers and clients on the difference between Vino Nobile and d'Abruzzo when they are asking about, simply, "Montepulciano". They'll love the lesson and appreciate your service.

And this, readers who are those customers and clients, is a rather basic example of why wine is so fun and captivating for people like myself. The drastic differences are in the details of every aspect involved. Because of this, there's so much to learn, so much to taste, and so much to teach.

- Joey Casco, CSW/CSS

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  1. Great article. Italy's wine classifications do seem to be a bit bewildering, but from what I've tasted so far it's worth persevering. Valpolicella/Amarone is a favourite style of mine at the moment.

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