Chances are, if you had passed through the Valle Peligna between the burghs of Vittorito and Corfinio, Abruzzo, Italy in 1791, one of Alice and Roberta Pietrantonj’s relatives would have offered you a satisfying cup of red wine in welcome. After all, Abruzzo is the birthplace of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grape varietal and, ‘a bottle of wine begs to be shared.’ Fast-forward to October, 2012, some eight generations later, and Alice and Roberta offer similar warmth and hospitality on my visit to the Pietrantonj Winery. It’s clear immediately that the sisters share the same love of the land, passion for tradition and dedication to the family heritage of producing superior wines that predates them by over two hundred years. Over the centuries, and under the keen tutelage of recent relatives, the wine list has expanded to include nine award-winning varieties.
A picture perfect fall day last October was the backdrop for a private tour of the harvest in progress. Doctoressa Alice Pietrantonj, viniculturalist and agronomist, loads my friend, Louise, and me, and Alice’s faithful companion Argo, into her 4×4. Windows down, the scents of fresh earth, living, thriving vines and sweet fruit surround us. We cruise off-road through 60 hectares of vineyards, as Alice shares her incredible knowledge of the family terroirs.
Traditional native grape varieties such as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and, in lesser production, the Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Malvasia, Pecorino, Campolese and Passerina varieties stand sentry in perfectly aligned graceful rows along the sloping hillsides of the Valle Peligna.
The richness and bounty of these terroirs owe much to this valley. Almost constant sunlight, plentiful ventilation and an important fluctuation in temperature between day and night, benefit the ripening process of the grapes. Add to that soils rich in clay and organic material, and the result is a welcomed high level of acidity that lends an assertive attribute to the wines.
Back at the Cantina, Alice deftly maneuvers between the multitude of conveyances transporting grapes from the fields. Massive modern grape harvesters cough out remarkably intact bunches of grapes prime for pressing into huge stainless steel containers. In the 17th century courtyard, local pickers mill around, waiting patiently to have their day’s work checked-in. Wicker baskets perch on their shoulders or hang from their hips, each filled to overflowing with handpicked grapes.
The cantina is a living museum. Artifacts collected over the span of two hundred years of active wine making are everywhere. Enormous wooden wine presses the size of city busses, rows of hand-hewn oak barrels that stand 15 feet tall, and cobbled floors with slanting troughs over which enormous quantities of grape juice has flowed are still visible, some even in use today. Hand scratched marks, nearly one hundred years old, line the rock walls like cave drawings, evidence of pickers documenting loves lost and found, friendships formed, and the quotidian experience of the annual harvest.
Perhaps the most magnificent, creative and spiritually vibrant innovation are the two enormous vats built in 1893 below street level. Together, these vats hold 1402 hectolitres of wine. Astonishingly, one is lined with thousands of individual Murano glass tiles, resulting in an architecturally beautiful, pristinely crafted holding environment.
On a return trip this past April, we are treated to a tasting in a chamber lined floor to ceiling with dark wood cupboards standing on square terracotta tiles. A long, dark table bisects the center of the room. All of this darkness is mitigated by the white vaulted ceiling and a row of leaded glass windows through which dappled sunlight shines.
We sip, we nibble, we chat. The wines are very, very good. I am especially taken by the Pecorino and the Cerano, neither available yet in the US. Here’s what one reviewer said about the Pecorino: “unique, dry white wine offers coppery, citrusy, slightly oxidized notes on the nose and a concentrated, balanced palate. The slightly oxidized aromas are the result of the sheer difficulty of keeping such a large oak barrel (1500 hectoliters) topped up with wine. This is a great food wine that truly comes alive at the table.”
The Cerano was a big surprise. I’m not a lover of reds, and because the Cerano has a deep blush color, was reluctant to even try it. Big mistake, that. This deep ruby red wine has rich aromas of wild berryfruit and subtle notes of vanilla. It’s smooth and warm in the mouth, and satisfies with long-lingering aromas and flavors. I imagine serving it with nutty, full-flavored aged cheeses, and Jonathan imagines it with wild boar. Either would be superb.