Le Marche & Abruzzo

A visit to the producers of our Society Verdicchio & Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, ending up at the home of Rocco Pasetti - superstar of the Abruzzo region

The Society's Verdicchio The Society's Verdicchio

The purpose of the next leg of our trip was to visit suppliers of our Society's Verdicchio - Monte Schiavo in Marchigiano, Le Marche and then on to the Roxan co-op in Abruzzo - who make our Society's Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. We would finish up the day with Rocco Pasetti, one-time consultant winemaker at Roxan and now head of his own set-up - Contesa/Vigna Corvino and whose story is intertwined with our own wine from Roxan as we were to discover.

After an initial hold-up on the autostrada coming out of Soave all too reminiscent of home, we are on our way. The scenery becomes ever more Mediterranean as the miles slip away, but the never-far away foothills of the Appenines still snow-topped even in March, remind us that it is still chilly outside.

The story of The Society's Verdicchio

I can tell that Sebastian is trying to manage my expectations as we draw near to Monte Schiavo. This isn't your usual cosy little family set-up but was purposely chosen for our Society-label verdicchio as they consistently seem to be the star-turn when it comes to making this speciality of Italy's east-coast region.

Some say that verdicchio is Italy's best Italian white grape; it certainly could be described as one of its most versatile, capable of producing everyday, eminently gluggable dry white, late-picked dry wines, aged Riserva wines, sparkling, oak-aged and sweet wines. I for one have always rated our Society's Verdicchio but I had no idea of the grape's versatile credentials!

Monte Schiavo is in fact family-owned, by Pieralisi - manufactuers of olive oil presses exported the world over and who own their own airport! But its managing director, Davide Orrù has been here since 1997 and knows us, and the style of wine we are after, very well. We learn that there is a new winemaker, who has spent some time with Montana in New Zealand, and that famous consulting winemaker, Carlo Ferrini spends one day a month here.

We talk of the 2015 vintage - the best Davide has ever seen, he says, but quite challenging for the whites, with little rain and a hot wind drying the grapes in September. But there are smiles all round as we start to taste the new wines. Davide says that he has never seen such a high standard across the board at all quality levels.

The 2015 vintage of The Society's Verdicchio

Working lunch at Monte Schiavo with Davide Orrù and new winemaker Simone Schialoffino Working lunch at Monte Schiavo with Davide Orrù and new winemaker Simone Schialoffino

Our wine has just been bottled, so it is a bit tricky to taste, but gradually the flavours come out - the typical fresh apple and white peach aroma start to emerge with the characteristic saline quality on the finish which makes is so good with food.

We taste through a range of wines, including older vintages and the unusual red Marzaiola, Lacrima di Morra d'Alba - an odd muscaty, rose-petal scented red wine that is great with pizza, we're told, and gets its name because as the grape becomes ripe it 'weeps', the juice running out, showing it is ready for picking.

The consultant winemaker is mostly concerned with the vineyards - when he visits he insists on going to each of the vineyards (they have 105 hectares!) and then will taste from every barrel in the winery. His influence is concerned mostly with the red wines.

We make a quick tour of the winery and witness first-hand all the changes underway - lots of experiments with different types of oak barriques as well as the traditional large old oak botti. After a working picnic-style lunch reminiscent of, but oh-so-superior to our working lunches in Stevenage, we hit the road again to Abruzzo.

Experimenting with different barrels at Monte Schiavo Experimenting with different barrels at Monte Schiavo

Abruzzo & the Cantina Roxan at Rosciano

It is getting dark by the time we roll up at the Roxan co-op and there is a posse of men waiting expectantly for us. We are quickly shown into the tasting room and get down to the business of discussing prices and quantities and sampling the new vintages. Judging by the speed the guys roar away at after we have finished, I imagine they were anxious to get home to their dinners!

Before tasting the 2015 vintage, we taste the current blend based on the 2014 vintage and are reassured by just how well the wine is still tasting, considering it was not such a great year. But as we taste the various pre-prepared component parts of the 2015 vintage it is easy to see just how successful the crop had been.

Sebastian had already tasted some samples sent through to our tasting room in Stevenage, so this exercise was really to confirm that the blend was how he wanted it. Of the samples tasted, I simply wrote:

Tank 39 - Lovely dark colour and blackberry nose; great length.

Tank 29 - harder, not so fleshy

Tank 85 - Slightly sweeter…

Just as well, I'm not the buyer! Sebastian was very pleased with the blend of the three chosen tank samples and instructed the oenologist to vary the blend slightly towards the end of the year so that the wine remained consistent throughout.

An early blend of the 2015 was sent ahead of the shipment so that it could be included in the line-up of this year's Wine Champions' tastings - Sebastian had the feeling it would wow his fellow tasters, as indeed it turned out to do.

A typical photograph of a Wine Champions' tasting at Stevenage A typical photograph of a Wine Champions' tasting at Stevenage

> Browse for the 2015 Wine Champ - The Society's Montepulciano d'Abruzzo

As we left and the Roxan sign was lit up in neon (prompting impromptu renditions of Police's 1980s hit song…..) Sebastian explained that the Roxan co-op were unusual in that they kept plots of grapes separate, vinifying them apart and knowing the provenance of each before they are then blended together. The other important factor is that they only keep the best wines and bottle these themselves, selling on the rest in bulk, so that even from the outset we have the opportunity to pick some of the best of the best from the region. There's more to this story as we would learn later over dinner with Rocco Pasetti - the co-op's former consultant oenologist and our next port of call.

Rocco Pasetti of Contesa/Vigna Corvino and superstar of the Abruzzo region

Rocco Pasetti of Contesa/Vigna Corvino and superstar of the Abruzzo region Rocco Pasetti of Contesa/Vigna Corvino and superstar of the Abruzzo region

Having written an article on Rocco Pasetti for Societynews in the past, I was aware of the story of his saving the local pecorino grape from extinction, and that he has become the leading light in the Abruzzo wine region. Sebastian had told me that it is always a joy to visit his cellars as there is always something new to discover and insights to be gained.

It was late by the time we turned up at Rocco's new winery just outside Pescara so we immediately went down into the cellars, glasses in hand. No doubt Rocco was conscious of keeping his wife (who was cooking dinner for us) waiting, but you can't deter a man from showing off his new babies!

In such a successful vintage as 2015, the experience of tasting Rocco's new wines was better than ever. The 2015 Contesa Pecorino (another Wine Champ winner), had lots of flavour and length with a great seam of lemony acidity. Rocco said that he had initially been worried about the whites, but in the end the grapes had been refreshed at night and he said that he was 'very happy' with the outcome. He also informed us that pecorino is becoming popular in the US and that he had managed to acquire some more vineyards. Worried that we might run out of our wine, Sebastian immediately asked to reserve more for Society members.

Next we tried the Contesa Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo 2015 (cerasuolo means cherry and describes the colour), made from 100% montepulciano, this was summer in a glass; floral and attractive and great with food I imagine.

One of Rocco's 'experiments' was next - a wild-yeast trebbiano (trebbiano d'Abruzzo which is the same grape as the trebbiano di Toscana NOT the trebbiano di Soave, which is a synonym for verdicchio!) I really liked this; it had a slightly funky nose and savoury character to the fruit. Only a tiny amount was made, but I get the impression Sebastian was taken with the wine too, so perhaps we'll be able to persuade Rocco to part with some!

A chance to try out new things with top-quality grapes

Because the montepulciano grapes had been so good this year, Rocco had experimented with lots of different fermentation techniques, using cold maceration before fermenting, fermenting some grapes for longer, trialling batches of similar quality grapes. The 2015 Vigna Corvino Montepulciano d'Abruzzo was bursting with ripe, peppery fruit; lush and perfumed.

Our appetites well and truly whetted, it was time to follow Rocco (at break-neck Italian speed) to his casa where his wife Patrizia had been cooking up a storm for us.

The story behind The Society's Montepulciano d'Abruzzo

The Society's Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2015 The Society's Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2015

Over dinner at the Pasetti house with his wife Patrizia and youngest son Piero-Paulo, Rocco told us about the background to his family business. We heard the story that connects us, and our Society's Montepulciano, through Rocco, to one of Italy's most-revered producer, the late Edoardo Valentini.

Once again we were treated to a series of delights from the sea - fresh gambas, then gnocchi and a huge Dentrice fish (a kind of snapper, we thought), accompanied by some of the wines we had tasted earlier - a trebbiano d'Abruzzo 2014, a 2012 wild yeast trebbiano, a 2006 pecorino and 2013 Cerasuolo. All went beautifully with the food, as you'd expect but the only one I wrote a note for was the rare Trebbiano d'Abruzzo 1995 from Valentini.

The wine is pretty much unknown commercially, though it is a collectors' item for the cognoscenti. The normally rather anonymous trebbiano di Toscana sub-variety, in the hands of the practically reclusive late great Edoardo Valentini, is capable of making a wine of incredible depth that can last a long time. I wrote down, 'smokey, sweet, coconut nose with hints of coffee and caramel. Intense and nervy but also soft with a vanillin texture.' You get the idea - it's something special!

I asked Rocco to tell us more about his relationship with this producer of almost mythical proportions. He started by telling us a bit about his own history - it gave a fascinating insight into the history of the region too:

The history of the Pasettis and the Abruzzo region

Rocco's grandfather had a vineyard and roadside trattoria serving wine by the glass to passing truckers to wash down with the simple dishes they prepared. In the old days before tourism made land by the sea expensive, there were many olive groves and moscato grapes grown as bush vines on the sandy soil on the coast. When the vineyards were forced to move inland they switched to planting trebbiano and needed to put the grapes on pergolas to stop them getting too sunburned. Rocco says that his father started planting trebbiano and montepulciano in 1960s - already there was a move towards making quality rather than quantity.

The grape montepulciano, even though it has genetic routes in Tuscany, is indigenous to Abruzzo, Rocco tells us, adding that it is the second-most planted grape in the world!

Born in 1956, Rocco was immersed in wine from a young age. He had a choice to either go to Milan to find a job or stay put. He thought that wine could give him a good income and saw it more as a commodity in those days and stayed working for the family. When his father was 72, he sent Rocco off to wine college at the now world-renowned Conegliano wine institute.

This period sparked a new enthusiasm in Rocco. He was fascinated by all the new things happening in the wine world and immersed himself in the new wave of quality-conscious wine producers who were emerging in the late 1970s (the same period that Sebastian Payne became a Master of Wine).

Rocco returned home with lots of new ideas, 'more of a philosophy than technical know-how at that point,' he says. He wanted to help transform his region into one that believed, as his grandfather did, that it was the wine in the glass that counted - you must enjoy it and it must be good quality! He built up contacts and found out who was doing exciting things in his area.

The 1980s was a big turning point for Rocco, he was one of the few to have a view from the outside world, having spent time in Bordeaux - something that is so normal now, but was little done in those days. He started consulting for the Roxan co-op and through that built up relationships with growers.

A rare treat: Valentini Trebbiano d'Abruzzo 1995 A rare treat: Valentini Trebbiano d'Abruzzo 1995

One such was a certain Edoardo Valentini - owner of one of the top estates in Italy. Rocco was unusual in being able to get close to this man who was a virtual recluse and most bad-tempered, so it would seem! They tasted together and Rocco learned a lot from him. Valentini's family were from a noble background and had been bottling their own wine since the unification of Italy!

When Edoardo died, he told his son not to worry about anything as Rocco would be able to help him out. Rocco said that out of respect he had never really had the temerity to ask Edoardo how he did things but the son, Francesco, was more open and one day showed Rocco a library of detailed research on every single plot of land going back to 1874 - over a hundred years of documentation. This was his secret! They had realised how to produce good grapes because they knew their land intimately.

The other part of their secret was that they only ever bottled a tiny proportion of their grapes - they were only interested in the best. The rest went to the local co-op - the Roxan co-op, who have the good sense to recognise quality grapes when they arrive at their cellar door and vinify them separately. Luckily for Society members, we were put in touch with Roxan when Rocco was still closely involved and together our Society's Montepulciano was created.

And what of the young Valentini? Seemingly he is almost as eccentric as his father and now doesn't make any red wine at all, feeling that the climate is too warm to get the necessary phenolic ripeness to achieve the all-important balance he is after. Fortunately, vines are still tended and grapes harvested and make their way to the co-op as they have done for years.

As dinner came to a close, Rocco was keen to hear news from Sebastian about the wider wine world. This curiosity is what sets apart the top players and makes me realise why the name he chose for his business - Contesa - 'to be a contender' is so appropriate.

We took our leave and rolled down the hill to the rather swanky but ever-so-convenient Villa Maria hotel. The next day we would be heading across the Apennines into Umbria and up to Tuscany, Rocco had advised us not to take the mountain road as it was due to snow heavily - so much for an Italian spring!

We'll cover the next part of our Giro d'Italia as we go into the wilds of Umbria and up to Tuscany in another Travels in Wine instalment soon.

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Members' Comments (3)

"The Dentrice (Comon Dentex) is a member of the Sparidae family, which includes Gilt Head Sea Bream etc. All 70 varieties of Snapper, on the other hand, are members of the Lutjanidae family."

Mr Russell Jones (27-Aug-2016)

"An interesting article as I know little about Italian wines. I always like to hear about less well-known grape varieties too as they often produce wines that are enjoyably challenging and distinct from the mass market. Looking forward to the next instalment."

Mr David Knowles (27-Aug-2016)

"Further south from the places covered in your travels lies Campania, a region I have visited numerous times since 1991, going mostly to Sorrento or Amalfi. For a long time I have been at a loss to know what local (red) wine to go for and have had too often to settle for very indifferent offerings. Then, in a revelation, I came across wines from the local Aglianico grape, widely available at different prices. I found them to be reliably good, and... Read more > this is now the only wine I choose when there. I even ask for Aglianico as the house wine. Since lots of people visit the region I think a mention of this lovely grape would be greatly welcomed. The current list includes the superb Aglianico del Vulture Armand, Alovini 2012."

Mr Julian Tippett (14-Sep-2016)

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