Emidio Pepe is one of the true legends in Italian wine – a man who set out in 1964 to make some of the best wines in the world through entirely natural and manual methods in the vineyard and in the cellar. They’re wines of exquisite personality and balance that always express the nuances of vintage. The wines unfold slowly but inexorably and almost magically; the family maintains a library of 350,000 bottles, going back to Emidio’s first vintage. He completed his 50th vintage in 2013. Emidio’s daughters Sofia and Daniela and granddaughter Chiara have taken over much of the work in the winery and in promoting the family’s wines, while he continues to work in the vineyard.
The family farms 15 hectares of vineyards and some additional hectares of olive trees, all clustered around their cantina and home in the village of Torano Nuovo, in the northern-most part of Abruzzo. All work in the vineyard is organic and now biodynamic. The grapes are hand-harvested.
In the cantina as well the Pepe family works entirely by hand – or by foot. Each parcel is vinified separately. All fermentations are with natural yeast; Emidio has never added yeast to his musts. For the Trebbiano, they tread the grapes by foot in a large wooden trough with narrow slits between the boards that allow the juice to flow through to a basin below. For the Montepulciano, they de-stem by hand using a sort of giant grater with wholes big enough to let the grapes fall through. The berries begin fermentation almost whole, which helps soften Montepulciano’s tannins. After fermentation, the Montepulciano is tread by foot as well. Both the Trebbiano and Montepulciano are then pressed in a traditional torchio, or basket press.
The Pepe family are great believers in cement – and specifically in glass-lined cement. (Il vetro è sincero, they like to say: “Glass is honest.”) All of the wines ferment and age in glass-lined cement tanks of about 20 hectoliters. They’re about 50 years old and are revitrified every five years or so. None of the wines see any aging in wood. The Trebbiano ages for 15 month and the Montepulciano for two years in cement tank. No sulfur is added to any of the wines at any point in the cellar, including before bottling. Each bottle is an essere vivente, a living being, as Emidio points out.
These are wines made to age for decades, and for Pepe, it’s equilibrium (rather than sulfur or aging in wood) that enables a wine to age and improve. The 350,000-bottle library of both Montepulciano and Trebbiano date back to Emidio’s first vintage in 1964. When they receive an order for an older vintage, Emidio’s wife, Rosa, goes down to the cellar, opens the requisite number of bottles, decants them by hand, and recorks the bottles. (13 opened bottles make 12 finished bottles.) This hand decantation just before sale is for the Pepes a more natural and gentle way to remove sediment than filtration. In addition, the brief exposure to air is beneficial to Montepulciano, which is prone to reduction.
The family’s total production is about 70,000 bottles per year, of which about 30% is Trebbiano and 70% Montepulciano. Each bottle is a hand-made part of the history that Emidio Pepe began creating 50 years ago.
The family also maintains an agriturismo (farm bed & breakfast), which we recommend enthusiastically. The scenery is breathtaking, with the Gran Sasso, the highest mountain range in continental Italy south of the Alps, looking down on the village and its vineyards. And the Pepe family is as warm and hospitable as you’ll find anywhere in Italy.
Some notes on the bottles and labels:
* There is an Italian bottling with the exact same front label. These are not from the pergola trained vines, costs less, and less complex.
* There is no Riserva labeled wine, some websites list the wine to that effect.
* Trebbiano is never decanted, it doesn’t need the oxygen.
* Montepulciano is decanted, topped up, and given a cork with stamped date of decant. Pepe sells the more recent years without them being decanted or given a date-stamped cork. That same wine, once aged more in cellar, is then decanted and given date-stamped cork.