Emidio Pepe: Tasting Iconic Montepulciano D’Abruzzo

I often tell people that wine has the capacity to transport me across space and time. Tasting Emidio Pepe vintages back to 1979 with the Pepe family amidst the insanity of VinItaly proved this to be true. Small sips of old and more recent vintages had the power to evoke intimacy, connection to place, and emotion even there.

Beginning with his first vintage in 1964, Emidio Pepe, put wine in the cellar because he knew it had the capacity to evolve over time. Everyone else making wine in Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and almost everyone else in the world thought he was crazy. But it turns out, he was completely right.

The vintages poured for this vertical were: 1979, 1985, 1993, 2001, 2007, 2010. The most stunning takeaway for me was how little the wines differed. Emidio Pepe has relentlessly held fast to his way of making Montepulciano D’Abruzzo for over 50 years.

Looking at the 1979 wine in the glass versus the 2010, the color was very similar in its intensity with the dark, violet red on the edges changing to brick. Likewise, the aromas of the wine were still rich and complex. And the taste was extraordinary…still fresh with acidity and full of the rare combination of elegance and power that characterizes Pepe wines.

2010

1979

I drank every drop of the 1979 in my glass over the course of the tasting, almost incredulous that a wine bottled 42 years ago could taste like that. I once tasted a Bordeaux from the late fifties and a Brunello from the sixties, but they didn’t have the vivacity of this Pepe. So what’s the secret?

There is not one secret. There are many. All derive from Emidio Pepe’s belief in the unique characteristics of his grape varieties and his terroir. His goal (which he has passed on to his daughter, Sofia, who has taken primary responsibility and his granddaughter, Chiara, who works full time at Pepe) is to exalt that uniqueness.

– From the beginning, Pepe followed traditional contadino wisdom to revitalize the soil, never using fertilizers, pesticides, etc.. He respected old ways of planting, pruning and harvesting even following the phases of the moon. Since 2005, Pepe is certified biodynamic.

– Most of the Pepe vines are planted in pergola, a traditional method that is the perfect match for Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and for the climate and location of Pepe vineyards. It allows the grapes to mature in the shade, without direct sunlight. This gives the grapes their “velvety” flavor (not burnt or overripened by the sun) and their distinctive acidity.

– The grades are de-stemmed by hand to keep broken stems from releasing harsh tannins into the must. This is truly an extraordinary feat. I once spent an hour de-stemming grapes by hand and can testify to what hard work it is.

Fermentation occurs spontaneously over 28-30 days with an 8-9 day maceration on the skins in concrete tanks without temperature controls (The concrete naturally holds temperatures down and keeps fermentation going slowly.) and without “pump overs”.

– The wine is left two years in the tank without racking so that the sediment slowly falls to the bottom of its own accord.

– The wine flows into the bottles by gravity (no pumping) and the bottles go into the 350,000 bottle Pepe aging cellar. The wine never touches wood.

– Any wine older than ten years is decanted by hand into a new bottle before sale. Again, extraordinary. The process takes 30-40 seconds, just enough time to allow the wine to release whatever it doesn’t need in the way of sentiment and reduction.

Here Sofia (right) describes the various vintages…

1979: a “perfect” year with just the right timing and amount of rain, sun and warmth. The tannins have become delicate and velvety, but the wine is still full, robust and full of life.
1985: a warmer year. The wine is stronger and more tannic.
1993: a very balanced vintage.
2001: a year that seemed to speak both of the sea and the mountains…strong but very balanced.
2007: a beautiful vintage that was very warm. The wine is soft, elegant and even delicate.
2010: still very young, but a wonderful vintage. Of the 45,000 bottles made, 37,000 (80%) went into the cellar instead of being sold because this will age really well.

It was beautiful to see how proud Emidio Pepe is of his daughters and granddaughters. Here he stands with Sofia’s youngest daughter (Chiara De Iulis Pepe’s sister).

Chiara, who organized the tasting and did all the translation was hard to catch on film. I captured her grace and enthusiasm better at Fornovo last October.

The Pepe family recommends pairing their Montepulciano D’Abruzzo with any kind of meat dishes or the pecorino cheese of Abruzzo. A local producer came to the tasting to give a sense of how Pepe wines, like almost all great Italian wines, bring out the flavors of local food and vice versa.

I have one bottle of Emidio Pepe Montepulciano D’Abruzzo in my cellar that I’m now planning to hold onto for as long as possible. Pepe deserves his mantle as one of Italy’s truly great winegrowers.

Emidio Pepe

Via Chiesi 10

64010 Torano Nuovo

 Tel. (+39) 0861.856493

 info@emidiopepe.com

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