When Kayce told me she booked us for two nights during our honeymoon at the Emidio Pepe agritourismo in Abruzzo, Italy, I thought, ‘no way.’ Seemed too good to be true. Emidio Pepe is a legendary wine producer. Legendary Montepulciano d’Abruzzo red wine, and legendary trebbiano white wine. It’s essentially the winery of Abruzzo, at least according to what I know, and it’s not always easy to find bottles in the United States. I had heard great things, but had never actually verified them since I’d never tasted any Emidio Pepe. I was hoping this wasn’t going to be too good to be true.
Months later, as we drove up the winding road on our final approach to the winery, I allowed myself to transition from skeptical to hopeful; if my first step inside the place carried any trepidation, I’d jinx it. The Pepe estate, which consists of the family home, winery, vineyards and an agritourismo (essentially a full service boutique hotel serving food grown on and near the property), is perched on top of one of the many hilltops in the rolling countryside of Abruzzo. The property has an idyllic setting: affixed atop a hill with a roughly 270 degree view of the surrounding rolling hills, which are mostly draped in vineyards and topped with either agricultural estates or small villages. Beyond them are large mountains, some of which go into the several thousands of meters above sea level.
The view from our room
Even though our stay at Emidio Pepe was part of our honeymoon, Kayce was understanding in recognizing that, given the weight of Emidio Pepe in the wine world, it should be leveraged for a Good Vitis piece, and so I sent an email ahead of time asking for some one-on-one time with a representative of the property in order to collect information for a post. We were paired with Gianluca, who runs the commercial side of the property, for a tour and tasting the day after our arrival.
A side note on Gianluca: He appears to be a true asset for the company, and for its visitors. Though not part of the Pepe family, he was hired to run the agritourismo and represent the winery around Italy. Having spent time in England for work previously, he speaks very good English and knows how to connect with Anglos, an important skill for Pepe because of the high percentage of visitors they get from the US, UK and other countries with whom the common language with Italians is English. He is a gracious and warm host who cares about every visitor’s experience.
A second side note on Gianluca: He also really knows his wine stuff. He took us on our tour of the winery, explaining numerous aspects of the process and providing answers to questions that are only known by people who study the craft. We had a great discussion with him about skin contact wines from Italy, and he wrote down several suggestions that we are eager to pursue. It’s clear he’s a true wine lover.
As a wine region, Abruzzo hasn’t had much recognition in America, at least the type of recognition that a winery focused on quality and uniqueness like Emidio Pepe would want. Most of America’s experience with Abruzzo comes by way of inexpensive and fairly simple wine, the three most common of which are made as varietally-labeled wines from the signature grapes of the region: white grapes pecorino and trebbiano, and the red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. In Washington, DC, where we live, it’s much easier to find these wines on a bar’s happy hour menu for $8 a glass than it is in a wine shop for more than $15 a bottle. Abruzzo is vastly overshadowed by Italy’s better known region, though Emidio Pepe is one that transcends this reputation of simple wine.
Part of what sets Emidio Pepe apart is the focus they have on making wines that transcend themselves with significant aging – we’re talking twenty-plus years for the better vintages of montepulciano and five-plus years for trebbiano.
To say “transcend” with age rather than “improve” or “evolve” is to imply more gravity, namely that there is a significant transformation that happens from an early stage of the wine’s life to a later stage. This kind of change can be exemplified by two tasting notes, two experiences, that are almost, if not completely, different: the structure, aromas and flavors show little resemblance to each other as the structure becomes more regal and the common themes are reduced to (critical) things like quality and style. Transcendence on this scale is limited to the best wines in the world – some, but not nearly all, Bordeauxs, Burgundys, Barolos, Brunellos (lots of B’s now that I think about it), Riojas, Vouvrays, etc. Pepe’s transcendence puts it in the most elite of company.
Gianluca and the author walking the Emidio Pepe cellar
Nearly half of each year’s production is placed in Emidio Pepe’s cellar for future release, and when I say “future release,” I’m talking five to twenty years later depending on the vintage and variety. Each year, these older vintages are made available to a maintained list of collectors. America is the biggest destination of these library releases.
I’ve come across serious library programs before, but none come close to this level of dedication to releasing “wine that is very good and elegant,” as Gianluca put it. Walking the cellar is an experience: rows and rows of unlabeled bottles segregated by vintage. Every vintage since the first in 1964, save the eight they skipped due to poor quality, are there. Finding the section reserved for a personally important year is a lot of fun. I scoured the room for 1983, my birth year, while Kayce was disappointed to learn that her birth year, 1989, was one of those skipped.
To go even further, the wines are bottled unfiltered and made in a very reductive manner, which are factors that contribute to the wine’s ability to improve with age. “Reductive wine” refers to wine that is made with techniques that limit its exposure to oxygen. Because oxygen inherently and irreversibly kills wine (it ages wine to death just like it does humans), the less the oxygen exposure, the longer-lived the wine. Also, oxygen exposure forces a wine to release its aromas, flavors and textures, and so if you’ve had a wine that becomes significantly more interesting as it sits in your glass or decanter, you’ve likely experienced a reductive wine opening as it takes in oxygen for the first time.
When the older Pepe vintages are released, it is because the winery believes the vintage is beginning to hit the early part of its drinking window. Before bottles of old vintages are shipped, each wine is opened, decanted and re-corked with a new cork. This process helps rid the wine of the significant amount of sediment that has built up. Given the amount of reductiveness in Pepe wines, the brief decanting does little to stunt its growth. By the time a bottle of 2000 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo makes its way to a customer in 2019, for example, it’s beginning to reveal its promise. I can attest to this example as the 2000 was one of the wines we tasted.
Making wine for the long haul is centered on the belief that when good wine ages, it gets better. While “good” is the operative term in that sentence, the underlying premise is that the wine is made in a way that allows it to become better with age. “Good,” therefore, carries the implication that the winemaking is done intelligently and purposefully with the goal of the final product being better later than it is sooner. This leads to practices in grape growing and winemaking that may not otherwise be followed. I point this out because unless this conscious choice is made, the wine likely won’t improve much beyond a more limited amount of time.
This is the starting point from which Emidio Pepe makes its wine. At the winery level, there seems to be some correlation between interest in making reductive wines and interest in making what is being referred to these days as “natural wine,” an approach characterized by minimal human intervention and minimal use of “unnatural” products (e.g. synthetic pesticides, fining agents, etc.). Emidio Pepe is often considered a “natural” wine producer. Though there is no definition of natural wine (a fact that in my view undercuts the argument for natural wine), when a wine is good, it’s good, regardless of how it’s made.
A Pepe vineyard
Natural wine proponents argue that following minimalist techniques, like limiting pesticide use in the vineyard or refraining from additives in the winery (some go so far as to exclude all additives, including sulfur, a natural element and effective preservative in even small doses) produces a wine more inclined to taste like the terroir and vintage than if more human intervention and manipulation were used, and is better for nature and human health.
This means that unless someone really, really knows what they’re doing, a poor vintage of natural wine can taste like a poor wine. It also means that if something goes wrong in the vineyard or winery, the winemaker has few tools to correct it. I’ve had truly terrible natural wines that would’ve been better with some human intervention, and I’ve had great natural wines that would’ve been worse under a heavier human hand. I see no reason why natural winemaking is inherently better. If a property can produce better wine by following some natural winemaking process, I’m all for it. If they can’t but still chose to, then they should re-evaluate the business.
We had an interesting discussion with Gianluca about the topic of natural wine during our tasting with him because Emidio Pepe is often categorized by others as a natural wine producer. We got an answer not that different from the paragraphs above. It effectively went like this.
Part one: We’ve been making wine from these vines for a long time (the trebbiano vines are 35 years old, the montepulciano are 50) using the same vinicultural and winemaking techniques, and so we’ve learned what we need to do to get the best harvests. Further, because all these vines and our winemakers know is what we’ve always done, both have learned how to adapt effectively to nature’s various curveballs.
Part two: Because we love our grapes so much and want to show them off, we only do what is necessary to showcase them as they are, and nothing more.
Part three: If at any point we decided a change in the vineyard or winery would lead to better wine, we’d probably make it, but only after serious study.
Part four: This process is the original winemaking process – it is organic and biodynamic by its own nature, not by a desire to get a certification – and we like its outcome. If this happens to fit someone’s definition of natural wine, great.
Though Pepe could easily be called natural wine and few would argue with it, I think a more appropriate term, if we need one, is old school winemaking. Emidio Pepe was established in 1964, and though today’s vines aren’t the originals (the montepulciano is 50 years old and the trebbiano is 35 years old), it is easy to maintain organic and biodynamic methods, as they do, when that’s all the vines have known their entire lives. Pepe has effectively been organic and biodynamic since 1964 in practice, though actual certifications came later (when organic and biodynamic became a thing requiring certification to commercially claim). The idea is a “natural expression of the viniculture” as Gianlucca explained it.
Gianluca explaining the foot treading phase over one of the wood vats
The winemaking process is similarly straight-forward and consistent from year-to-year. All grapes are handpicked and foot tread, which represents the entirety of the pressing process. The whites and reds are tread in different vessels, both made of wood. The skins from the white grapes are not reintroduced to the juice, while the red goes through fifteen to twenty days of maceration. Naturally occurring yeast is allowed to initiate and complete fermentation. Tightly-trimmed stems are included with the white grapes in the treading, but removed for the red. The whites are aged in temperature-controlled stainless steel while the red is aged entirely in concrete.
These aging vessels are critical to their respective varieties because of Abruzzo’s searing heat and the desire to make reductive wines. While we were there in mid-June, temperatures were consistently in the mid-90s. They rise through July and August. It is imperative that the whites go into cold jacketed tanks in order to maintain safe temperature, and the concrete tanks that the reds age in are fantastic for maintaining low temperatures on their own. Given Abruzzo’s heat, it shouldn’t be surprising that canopy management in the vineyard is imperative as well to protecting the grapes from sun burn and keeping sugar levels reasonable, which can build quickly in this kind of heat. Vines in Abruzzo are allowed to maintain thick layers of leaves across their tops to provide shade and protection for the grapes.
Additionally, because montepulciano is so strongly expressive and naturally inclined to produce big wines, concrete is preferred at Pepe because it tames this tendency by allowing little oxygen to come into contact with the wine compared to what oak barrels would allow (more oxygen means bigger wine in this context). Punchdowns are used once per day, and no batonage (stirring of the wine while aging) is performed. This combination of stainless steel for whites and concrete aging for reds (versus oak for either), a small amount of punch downs (versus pump overs) and zero batonage (versus some) are all reductive techniques relative to their alternative methods.
The moral of the Pepe story is that the two things that do not change from vintage to vintage is the unique qualities that come from this approach and Pepe’s terroir. What does change is the influence of the vintage on the wine. The dinner we ate the first night of our stay included the current releases of the pecorino, trebbiano and montepulciano. Later, when we met with Gianluca, we tasted some different vintages.
We started with the 2016 Trebbiano, which pours a dark, golden honey color that belies the absence of skin contact in the winemaking process. The aromatics are tropically themed with a linear spice that cuts through the center. Pineapple, mango, marzipan, Key Lime and a petrol-like quality not unlike that found in high quality riesling waft at first sniff. Over time, a gorgeous sweet aroma develops as well. So saturated, the bouquet has its own structure, a quality I’m not sure I’ve experienced before and one that blew me away. On the palate, it is medium bodied with round and sturdy acid that creates great tension. The flavors lead with a crisp mineral Key Lime pie, followed by peppery spice, saltiness and pineapple. It broadens with as it takes on air, coating the mouth with sweet peach and vanilla spice notes. This brilliant wine is among the very best I’ve had, red or white. 95 points. Value: A+.
From there we moved to the 2015 Pecorino. This variety is normally planted at 500-700 meters in elevation in Abruzzo, but Pepe put theirs at 250 meters because it packs on sugar very quickly. This lower elevation helps with limiting direct sun exposure on the grapes, and they harvest the pecorino before their other grapes to keep sugars low as well. Aromatics are tricky when producing pecorino, and Pepe actually shuts fermentation down a bit early in order to do that. Given all this, I know now why I’ve never had great pecorino until I tried Pepe’s, which is phenomenal.
The nose starts off slightly funky and a bit muted, but with air it takes on mushed banana, lanolin, apricot, orange plum, orange marmalade, sweet Thai chili sauce and Kiwi. The body is plush and soft, offering less acid than the Trebbiano. The flavors are similarly soft and a bit salty. Citrus carries the day despite the preponderance of tropical flavors, including banana, quince, passion fruit, zesty lemon peel and white pepper that really pops. It has a wonderful light oiliness sensation. 93 points. Value A+.
At this point, we transitioned to the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Gianlucca opened the 2000 and 2010, both exceptional vintages for the estate that he called “among the best for Abruzzo.” The 2010 will be re-released soon. There are six sectors of the oldest vines on the property, and the grapes from them are made into a separate batch that goes into the lot that is held back in the cellar for future release. The 2000 and 2010, taken together, exemplify the transcendence I discussed earlier. You’ll see in the tasting notes below a number of differences that could suggest two different wines. I had a difficult time picking a favorite as each has so much to offer and left me wanting nothing more than another glass. What was evident in tasting them side-by-side is that 2000 was a warmer year: the body, structure and alcohol are all more significant than the 2010.
The 2000 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has an exquisite nose showing signs of sweet tertiary aromas with a sherried/carmelized note. I also picked up roasted and jarred piquillo peppers, sweet mint and canned cherry. The palate remains quite robust in structure and weight; in fact, it appears to just be hitting puberty. The flavors are similarly sweet as the aromas, but the spice is really taken up a notch. The fruit is mostly red and crisp, but somehow also saturated and dense. The acid and tannin spine is keeping everything perfectly framed and structurally integral, developing a slight chewiness as it takes on oxygen. There are strong elements of scorched earth and wet pavement, with smaller doses of tomato paste and mint. This is a perfectly balanced wine with serious depth and elegant structure. It has another ten-plus years of great life ahead of it. 96 points. Value: A.
We finished with the 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The nose offers an interesting combination of primary, secondary and tertiary notes with some funk thrown in for very good measure. Nevertheless, it remains a bit muddled and needs time to delineate and develop clarity. The palate delivers a full-bodied wine that is quite broad, but also surprisingly soft for its youthful age compared to where the 2000 is right now. A funkiness similar to the nose is found in the mouth, and and pairs nicely with red fruit, tomato leaf, blood orange and loads of pepper spice. Extended oxygen brings out fine, slightly chewy tannin and elevates the peppery kick. Those who decide to buy this should consider laying it down for at least another ten years. 96 points. Value: A.
Some old and new vintages that are ready for release
We were completely taken with Emidio Pepe’s wine (as well as the agritourismo, which we can’t suggest strongly enough). Putting aside the romanticism added by the fact that it was our honeymoon, the tranquility and beauty of the estate and surrounding area, and some of the best food we’ve ever had, I don’t remember a winery that I’ve been more excited to follow and collect since my discovery of Oregon’s Cameron in 2017. Pepe has immediately jumped into my top-5 favorite producers, maybe even top-3. Their wines are especially appealing for me as my favorite wines are those built to age, and then aged. Emidio Pepe deserves the highest marks on quality, personality, process and business model. If only more wineries did it this way…