Here are some of my notes, combined with Mark’s, from Emidio Pepe’s 50th harvest celebration, which we attended this weekend at the winery in Northern Abruzzo. All my mistakes Mark already corrected; the remaining flourishes are mine. Thanks to the Pepe family for such a good time, and the chance to calmly taste so many of these back vintages. Grazie di cuore, a heartfelt thanks, to the man himself, Emidio Pepe, who had the vision to be a contadino speciale, when it wasn’t at all the cool thing to do way back then in 1964.
Pepe’s Latin tag-line of in vino vita could also be a caveat to tasting notes for these wines, as the wines are all unique ‘human beings’ (essere viventi), as the all-female cast of Pepe successors often say. I would usually cringe at that catch-all phrase, but it works in the context of Pepe family and its wines. First and foremost, the wines change dramatically in the glass. I found myself crossing out and re-writing quite a bit. These wines call for a little patience before being speared by the zealot pen.
The second point about these wine as ‘human beings’ comes through in how the Pepe family talks about and brings up these wines, through a very thoughtful, protracted, and humane élevage. The family lives, tastes, checks in on, drinks, and generally celebrates these wines together at their table and others: from vintage to vintage, vineyard to vineyard, cement tank to cement tank… from microscopic slides of the native yeasts, to the bottles being examined and topped off by mamma Rosa before being shipped. The details of raising a family of wines, extending back fifty years, didn’t happen by not minding the details.
Speaking of shipping, I’ve seen some fast and loose chat on the wine boards about off bottles. I don’t find it to be the case in the wines I’ve tasted in Italy these last seven years. In my experience (I am happy to be corrected here), these wines are not masked by any more than at most a spicy Brett. They are also not bacteria-ridden. Some need a moment or two to clean up in the glass or decanter before drinking. I know this probably doesn’t make scientific sense, but lots of the VA seemed to blow off (or maybe it got filled in). In short, you wouldn’t have kicked any of them out of bed for eating crackers.
I personally came to know the wines through the white Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, yet I gather Pepe is probably more famous for the red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The family’s total production is about 70,000 bottles per year, of which about 30% is Trebbiano and 70% Montepulciano (‘d’ ’or ‘from’ Abruzzo nothing to do with Toscana).
You can drink the rosato Cerasuolo when you visit them. The 2013 with the local specialty of lamb skewers called arrosticini hit the spot on their patio this weekend.
The Pepe Trebbiano reminds me a lot of tangerines and cider; those pop up in my notes quite a bit. Their acidity was never unnerving or crunchy; just delicious and integrated. Part of that fresh acidity comes from the Pergola training system that gives the grapes a little shade and succor during the Summer’s heat. Another factor of this integrated acidity comes from bottle age, and, possibly, from the fact that the wines go through a long malolactic fermentation in the bottle. Some brief notes:
Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2010
It’s much more open than 6 months ago when I had it at the winery. The vintage had lots of sole / sun and rain. Great stuffing, some fruit (tangerine), and acidic structure. Svelte and one to watch.
Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2009
Very precise and intricate in naso. Celery salt, tangerine, yogurt. Rain during the vendemmia (harvest); the structure of the wine is built on acidity instead of fruit. I really enjoyed it quite a bit.
Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2006
In naso: complex, smoky, cement, dried orange rinds, apple cider. Opulent in bocca. Very different than the lean-mineral years of say the 2009 and 2002.
Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2004
Sip-n-spitters could love the opulence of the 2006, while commenting that the 2004 was similar but less complex. They’d be wrong. A lightness and length on palette to make this wine grande. A shy wine worth hearing out, IMHO. Reticent but beguiling; vino da meditazione.
Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2002
If I were thirsty, I’d try not to drink too quickly this classic annata brutta (bad year). Minerals, chalk, acid. 2002, 2004, and 1995 were my trinity during this flight. With air it really snaps into focus and even the oxidation goes away. They each gave a unique facet of Pepe’s Trebbiano: 2002 being a lean-mineral wine from a throw out year; 2004 being shy, suave, and light as air on the palette; and the 1995…
Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 1995
Try to find some. Here’s a bit of white-wine math: 2014 – 1995 = 19 years. And soon: 2015 – 1995 = 20. Smokey and deep; a wise teenager. Right now I find it to be one of those nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita kinda wines. It reminds me of youth and age; life and death. A soulful match would be with the local dish called Le Virtù. It’s the ancient dish traditionally eaten May 1st to keep the seasons in rhythm, mixing together in a stew, among other ingredients, dried beans from the Winter with the fresh ones from the Spring.
I don’t think anyone still confuses Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a grape variety, with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano from Toscana. If you do, stop that. I often find that Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has notes of cured black olives and bay leaf. Bay leaf is a really distinct smell. I found it very clearly in Pepe’s 1964, 1979, and 2001. In bocca, I find Montepulciano similar to Sangiovese with its levels of fruit, tannins, and acidity. Montepulciano’s tannins seems less structured, say more chalky, than Sangiovese’s; the fruit’s also a little more sunny. Both are reds that can be found in a fresh and juicy style, a rustic style, an over-barriqued-extracted style, and a very nobile but sanguino style.
We tasted two red flights: 5 older wines from 1964 to 1985, and then 5 wines from the range of 1990 to 2010. There was some delicious abruzzese food the Pepe’s cooked for us all from their home cucina as a pranzo-interludo between some of the wines. Deep respect for mamma Rosa (for the food and more).
Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 1964
A real honor to drink this radiant gloria, and not only because it was Emidio’s first vintage. Perfectly integral; becoming even more precise and light-as-air as it opened up; high-toned and ethereal spice. That this wine’s greatness didn’t overshadow, with one exception, the other wines was the revelation for me.
Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 1975
So, this was the exception. The nose just never cleaned up for me. I like brooding, but this just stayed cranky (balsamic), even as I continued to air-spank it. Maybe these wines are making me more humane, but I feel obligated to check in on this again.
Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 1979
Delicate and precise nose: those long thin Japanese white mushrooms (Enokitake), chalk, dried raspberries, bay leaf. If there was a difference between smelling and drinking this wine I didn’t notice it. And, just as the nose to mouth was seamless, so was the spaghetti alla chitarra they served and sips of this wine. A couple points off if you’re feeling pointy for a bit of a short length.
Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 1983
One of Emidio’s favorite vintage nowadays. This was a cranky wine when first vinified. It took a good ten years of waiting for it to start to come around. That makes this wine taste better for me: the foresight and perseverance that a whole family had when they had a cranky one in the cellar. A wine of fruit and sole (sun). Here’s one for the late bloomers out there. A pretty wine. Lots of ♥ here.
Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 1985
Balanced, earthy, sultry, smokey. Dried bitter cherries and cured black olives. I switched between this and the 1983 while eating the local lasagna-like dish Timballo.
Next flight; here are my condensed notes:
Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 1990
Sprightly acidity, salty, serious, seriously drinkable. Mint and sour fruits.
Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 1993
Dynamic interplay of sweet and bitter elements. As soon as you think it’s too serious, you find a dark-chocolate smile. Not a subtle wine but gratifying nonetheless.
Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 1998
This one hugs you. Dark chocolate, graham cracker, cherries. Never lush, but more sole than sangue.
Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2001
Back to spice. Sauvage. Guarded, slightly vegetal – absolutely stunning. I will be laying this down for my 7 year old son for when he’s old enough to drink together with me and for when he’ll have to drink it without me.
Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2010
Athletic, dark and young-blooded, very primal fruit and floral notes. Emidio Pepe talks about the Montepulciano grape skin being vellutato, silky; that holds here for this wine’s texture. Lots of sole-fruit stuffing.
Pepe’s one of only a few producers in Italy that has such a storia of back vintages bottled and waiting to be explored. He’s also, now with the family, one of only a few producers with a vision that beats the drum of natural wines and fine wines. I know of few other Italian producers that brings together better those two values in the current wine world milieu.
Emidio Pepe, as always impeccably dressed with his suite and wool Coppola cap, came on stage for a bit during the tasting. Emidio’s not the chatty type. Here’s a back and forth between Emidio Pepe and Sandro Sangiorgi, who guided the tasting and recently wrote a book about him.
Emidio Pepe: ‘Traveling around the world shapes a man.’
Sandrio Sangiorgi: ‘Did you learn something?’
Emidio Pepe: ‘No.’
We’re really proud to be very small part of having Pepe’s bottles, with their history, story, and adventures traveling to tables in the U.S.
San Casciano in Val di Pesa