06 May 2015

n.d.p. in abruzzo: 50 years of emidio pepe

So much has been written about Abruzzese winemaker Emidio Pepe's majestic montepulciani and the ethereal delicacy of his equally ageless trebbiani that I despair of the possibility of saying anything new. The wines are landmarks for the region, towering above everything else like the gnarled Apennine peaks through which one passes on the long car ride from Rome Fiumicino to Torano Nuovo.

Still, it remains for me to thank the Pepe family for inviting me to the latter town last November for the estate's 50th anniversary celebrations.

Rather than exhaust a reader with tasting notes of the dozens of vintages we sampled, I thought I'd just relay my own experiences with the estate's wines, in the hopes that by doing so I'll communicate something about their unique place within the pantheons of Italian wine, Abruzzese wine, and, nowadays, natural wine.

That last term never came up in Los Angeles in 2006 or 2007 when I first tasted the wines, while working as wine director for a restaurant called Pizzera Mozza. Emidio's daughter Sofia Pepe was visiting accounts with their importer's rep, a man who possessed the uncanny ability to make himself heard above even the loudest restaurant din.

I was 22, running a baby Italian list with a price cap of $50 retail. I had never tasting anything like the Pepe wines. I still remember the ghostly apricot fruit and marine notes of a '79 Trebbiano that evening... Sofia's English was limited and my Italian non-existent, but I tried to relay my enthusiasm as best I could. Later, working as a sommelier at Osteria Mozza, I sold the wines now and then, principally the reds, though they tended to be overshadowed, on that list as on many others, by pages upon pages of Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello.

The Usti vineyard below the house. Many of Pepe's vineyards are named after members of his family; this one bears his own nickname. 

Consumer perceptions of the montepulciano grape (let alone trebbiano, which remains largely unknown) are too often shaped by its cheapest iterations, which are often gently tannic, blackfruited, lightly rubbery glass-pour wines. The grape punches above its weight in the Marche appellations of Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno, but it achieves outright grandeur in Abruzzo, and there chiefly in the wines of Emidio Pepe and Eduardo Valentini.

Some tanks containing pecorino, which Pepe began to produce only recently.
While the two men considered one another peers, it's interesting to note that their approaches to winemaking share only the most general features - region and grape variety and a certain non-interventionist ethos. Where Valentini employed Slavonian oak botti, Pepe uses glass-lined concrete, famously considering oak-aging an abomination. Valentini took only the greatest grapes from comparatively vast vineyard holdings (70ha) for the creation of the wines bearing his name, selling the rest to the local cooperativo. Pepe, by contrast, holds 16ha, much of which he planted himself, and, except in disastrous vintages, bottles everything. Valentini was an ex-lawyer who returned to agriculture, while Pepe was born a farmer and pretty much stayed one.

Eduardo Valentini died in 2006, and since then his estate has been run by his son Francesco Paolo Valentini. Pepe, for his part, is 82, and although by all accounts he remains present for every aspect of viticulture and vinification, he already has his chosen successors, in his daughter Sofia and granddaughter Chiara. Sofia handles winemaking, while young Chiara somehow manages to balance her pursuit of an economics degree with the task of running the estate's considerable export markets.

Sofia and Chiara conducting a vertical trebbiano tasting.

I was amused to read, in an entertainingly hagiographic book on Emidio Pepe entitled "Manteniamoci Giovani" organised* by Italian wine journalist Sandro Sangiorgi, that Pepe was for many years frustrated by his lack of a male heir. He ought not to have worried, for both Sofia Pepe and Chiara De Iulis Pepe seem to have inherited his almost visionary capacities of foresight. Whatever compelled Emidio Pepe to begin holding his wine in reserve before release - foreseeing the market value of demonstrating the ageworthiness of his then-underrated Abruzzese wines - presumably also compelled Sofia, as late as 2005, to take an interest in biodynamic winemaking, which she says was, in some sense, a formalized system of what her father had been doing all along.

Pepe's first vintages bore the nome di fantasia "Aurora," along with the cartoon image of a comely Danish girl he'd met in 1960. 

Emidio Pepe, who never studied oenology, apparently learned on his own to follow the lunar cycle for vineyard treatments and cellar practices. He has never employed select yeasts. Vineyards are treated only with copper sulfate, plus (since the mid-2000's) biodynamic preparations 501 and 500. I'm told that Pepe has always eschewed sulfur use during vinification, which takes place in glass-lined cement; nor is sulfur employed at bottling, which, chez Pepe, is a particularly complex, multi-tiered affair.

Both montepulciano and trebbiano are held in reserve until the family deems them ready for release, a hugely laudable practice. The first twist comes in the fact that the individual small glass-lined concrete tanks in which the Pepe wines age are never assembled before bottling, which allows for some individual personality among the lots.

The trebbiano, rather fascinatingly, is bottle-aged standing up. 

Furthermore, in most vintages, the lots are divided into reserva wines, which will spend many more years aging in bottle in the domaine's cellars, and non-reserva, which see earlier release - and nothing on the wine labels denotes whether a bottle is riserva or non-riserva.

Since typically the riserva amounts to about 50% of production in a given year, and since older riserva bottles released later command higher wholesale prices, there remains significant room for confusion for retailers and consumers. Additionally, the family (chiefly Emidio's wife Rosa) decants each bottle of montepulciano by hand before release, a laborious and idiosyncratic practice that the domaine says is to remove sediment and aerate the wine before its debut in the market. This has the side effect of obliging the drinker of a Pepe wine to, in effect, keep three dates in mind, as with vintage Champagne: the vintage, the date of decanting (which in Pepe's case is printed on the corks), and the date one is actually consuming it.

Altogether, these practices create more than 'room for confusion' - they comprise a remarkably engineered castella of confusion, a Calvino-esque edifice of unknowability that I can't help but appreciate. As wine lovers, we have the pedantic tendency to try to master the wines we love by attempting to note and commit to memory every minute detail of their production cycle. As with romantic love, this aesthetic love typically fixates on whatever frustrates it most. So I can only applaud the genius of this simple Abruzzese farmer whose bottling practice utterly shuts the door on complete understanding, who proposes, with such inspired dis-ingenuity, his simple montepulciano and trebbiano wines...

It was only after learning details of Emidio Pepe's opaque bottling system that I retroactively understood the amusing remark of a well-known Roman wine merchant, who when I once professed my appreciation for Pepe's wines, shook his head and said, with no further elaboration, "Yes, but he's a real fucker!"

Whatever one's feelings about Pepe's bottling system, his other practices, combined with his successors' market savvy, have ensured that Azienda Agricola Emidio Pepe is among the first truly great Italian estates - alongside that of Elisabetta Foradori - to find its footing in an international market increasingly reorganised by the aesthetics of natural wine.

The company was almost as good as the wines. Here with wine-journo friends Bertrand Celce, of Wine Terroirs, and Alice Feiring. 

It was in this context that I re-encountered Sofia and met Chiara for the first time, at biodynamic wine tasting held in Paris in 2012 at A La Marguerite.

During intervening trips to Italy, I'd fallen in love with the domaine's Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo, a delectably svelte and Pinot-like rosato that the Pepes stubbornly refuse to sell on the export market. So at A La Marguerite that day I gently ribbed the Pepes about the wine's unavailability. (The ostensible reason is that is doesn't have the aging potential of the trebbiano or the montepulciano; the family prefers to keep its export market fully concentrated on its noblest wines.)

But that fact is I'd been surprised to see any of the legendary Pepe wines at a tiny Paris natural wine tasting. Even more surprising was how well the wines all showed, in an entirely new context. After a few years tasting natural wine in Paris, I'd long since come to find many of my former favorite Italian wines a bit polished and overwrought. The Pepe wines, however, were as sonorous, soulful, and expressive as ever. Chiara and I kept in touch after that tasting, and we still try to find time to hang when she passes through Paris, or when our paths cross at tastings in the Loire. Another trait Chiara will no doubt credit to her grandfather is her voracious curiosity for other wines and other cultures; in the brief time I've known her, she's made impressive progress internalizing the French language and wine culture.

Chiara Pepe (right) with Thomas Deck of Deck & Donahue brewery (left) and chef Rodolphe Paquin of Le Repaire de Cartouche (middle). Chiara even managed to make sense of Rodolphe's Normand accent.

I'm curious to see how the Pepe wines are received in Paris, in the context of a vanishingly small market for non-French wines. On the one hand, the limited scope of serious Montepulciano d'Abruzzo available in the world should make it all the easier for drinkers to get a handle on the grape and the region. But Pepe's importers, Oenotropie, take a slightly ambitious margin on their selections, making the wines even more of a luxury than they naturally are.** So cult Italian wines like Pepe's tend, in Paris, to wind up as the sort of thing restaurant industry people sell to each other on their nights off.

With a bottle of Patrick Bouju's lovely Auvergnat chardonnay at Bones.

It's a shame, because if any wines benefit from frequent comparative tasting, Pepe's do. The main event of our visit to the domaine in November was a grand tasting of a wide selection of montepulciani from 1964 - Pepe's first vintage - to the present releases.

It should testify to the quality of the rest of the tasting if I mention only that the 1964 was still showing baroque complexity, with wide-screen, liquereux, cinnamon flecked aromas, and a Thanksgiving-like palate that included everything from cranberry to raspberry confit to wild game.

In today's post-natural wine conversation - at least in Paris - one often encounters tasters who react to unfamiliar wines by defensively doubting how "natural" they really are, as if the quality of a wine could be judged by its resemblance to, say, Pierre Beauger's monster Auvergat gamays or one of Jean-Pierre Robinot's oxidised Anjou chenins. At its worst, this results in a culture that treats garish flaws as signs of authenticity. Whereas this tasting of half a century of Pepe montepulciano served as a reminder that the true test of a wine's purity ought to be how faithfully the wine reflects its vintage and terroir - the sort of picture that can only emerge through an examination of multiple vintages.***

The tasting's only minor drawback was its format. Each wine was accompanied by well-intentioned but heavy-handed narration from Sandro Sangiorgi onstage, whose talents as a wine writer could not overcome that fact that everyone gathered would have much rather heard from Pepe himself, who sat silent, natty, and gnomic onstage, or from anyone in the family. Or, better yet, the audience might have been allotted twenty minutes of silence alone with the wines, which expressed themselves rather well...

Another pleasure of this trip was the company of Levi Dalton, of whose mastery of, and eloquence on, Italian wine I remain in awe.

As it was, tasting these masterpieces with Sandro droning on was kind of like trying to make love to a beautiful woman, while an announcer you have never met stands by the bedside providing input via megaphone.

Anyway, as you might imagine, none of us stormed out in protest or anything. The tasting was followed by a rollicking party that included a mobile pizza oven, a jazz band, a rapping marching band, dancing, and infinite bottles of montepulciano, cerasuolo, and trebbiano. That was how I learned that Steve Wildy, wine director of the Vetri group in Philadelphia, and Alice Feiring are both better dancers than me.

The Pepe family.
By now, the kindness and enthusiasm of the succeeding generations of Pepe's family are almost as renowned as the wines themselves, such that I fear even my most heartfelt thanks will have a slightly redundant ring. But here goes: the Abruzzo region, and wine lovers worldwide, are incredibly fortunate that Pepe's wines have such talented ambassadors, whose palpable reverence for their product is commensurate with the achievement of its creation.

* It would be a stretch to say "authored" in this scenario. Sangiorgio seems to have farmed most of the work out to interns.

** Later I was intrigued to learn that Pepe's wines have always been priced among the top tier of Italian winemaking, a decision seemingly taken through a combination of far-sighted marketing, simple necessity, and, at least in the beginning, insane hubris.

*** I'm hard pressed to think of French natural wine domaines who make a habit of holding reserves of wine and releasing numerous older vintages. Jean-Claude Chanudet of Domaine Chamonard springs to mind, although on a more modest scale. 

Related Links:

Bertrand Celce's considerably more timely and informative post on our visit to Emidio Pepe.
Levi Dalton's splendid 2014 podcast with Chiara Pepe at I'll Drink To That.

A 2009 post about Emidio Pepe at Avinnare that I stopped reading around the point where the author expressed outright surprise that organic wines could age.

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