Montepulciano: The Next Great Grape?

Montepulciano: The Next Great Grape?

The wine industry is always eager for the next big thing: a previously overlooked category, often defined by a grape hailing from a region with remarkable terroir, yielding wines of great value and made by independent-minded winemakers. Oregon Pinot Noir is a prime example. In Languedoc, a range of producers are currently demonstrating that France’s appellation system isn’t necessarily a handicap to innovation. And in Sicily, winemakers have taken older, lesser-known (and even derided) grapes and turned them into wine-geek darlings.

Could the same happen with Montepulciano, an Italian red grape that’s mostly grown in Abruzzo, in the middle of Italy’s Adriatic coast? For decades, it has been known primarily as a grape used to make or fill out bulk wines. But Montepulciano is beginning to attract more attention, at least in the US, a country that is obsessed with Tuscan and Piedmontese reds.

Gerald Weisl, the owner of Weimax Wines & Spirits, in the San Francisco Bay Area, says, “The entry-level [Montepulciano] wines often sell because they’re in the pricing neighborhood that’s comfortable for consumers. They offer good value—easy-to-drink wines with character, at a sensible price. But we sell a lot of the more high-end wines, too.”

There are obstacles, however, to Montepulciano gaining wider acceptance. But what are a few obstacles among wine drinkers?

Michele Bernetti, the CEO of Umani Ronchi, a producer of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, says, “In terms of flavor and taste and tasting profile, many people don’t know exactly what it is. So when there is surprise, it’s often a fantastic moment.”

All about the Grape

Montepulciano is the red grape of Abruzzo. It is even part of the name of the appellation, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which is uncommon in the wine world. There is also another regional appellation, called Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, for lighter-colored and fruitier rosé-style wines made with the Montepulciano grape.

Although statistics vary, Montepulciano is roughly the sixth most planted grape in Italy, and about half the grape’s approximately 35,000 hectares (86,500 acres) are in Abruzzo. It is also grown in Puglia and throughout central Italy, including in Marche and Molise. In Marche, wines from the Rosso Cònero and Rosso Piceno DOCs are well known among aficionados for their quality.

There is minimal Montepulciano grown elsewhere in the world, save a smattering in the US and New Zealand. It has been experimented with in Australia, where substantial test plantings have been established over the past several years. Heat- and drought-tolerant, it has become an attractive option there in this era of climate change.

Little is known about Montepulciano’s heredity or parentage. Most sources agree that, while it shares some characteristics with Sangiovese, the two are not related, though Montepulciano may have originated in Tuscany. It resembles another northern Italian red grape, Pugnitello, but the most recent DNA research shows that Montepulciano isn’t the same variety.

Typically, Montepulciano has medium berries and thick skin, but it’s not especially tannic. Budbreak and maturity are late, and, since it is so prolific, overcropping is common. Because of its late maturity, it is not well suited to regions with climates cooler than that of Abruzzo, such as Tuscany, but it thrives in warmer regions and may be even more drought and heat tolerant than similar Italian reds.

In Abruzzo, Montepulciano is grown in a distinctive terroir. Located in the middle of Italy’s Adriatic coast, about a two-hour drive east from Rome, Abruzzo has scenic mountains (as high as 2,700 meters, or 9,000 feet) that descend to a lengthy coastline. As in similar regions elsewhere in the world, the coast is warm and dry, while inland, as the altitude increases, it’s hotter in summer and colder in winter. The high altitude causes classic diurnal shifts, as well as the sloping and rocky hillsides that are so respected by winemakers, wine critics, and wine enthusiasts.

This geography can result in impressive wines, says Clara Klein, the lead sommelier at Sunday Vinyl, a restaurant and wine bar in Denver. “Great Montepulciano can be good for so long,” she says. “It can age as well as many other Italian wines that cost three or four times the price.”

Confusion and More Confusion

Perhaps surprisingly, there aren’t many high-end varietal Montepulciano wines. A handful of producers, such as Emidio Pepe, are well known, but most Montepulciano is used by Abruzzo’s co-ops, which focus on the lower end of the market. It’s even becoming more difficult, says Weisl, to find the wines priced around US$15 that have been making inroads in the US.

That has also limited the grape’s popularity in Canada, says Christian Perreault Hamel, a wine consultant and sommelier in Toronto. He explains, “Most of my sales of Montepulciano aren’t regionally defined but are more about style—people looking for a big, bold red.”

Tony Laveglia, a longtime importer of Italian wines, comments that, among consumers in the US, “Abruzzo isn’t a well-known region, and Montepulciano isn’t a well-known grape. The region isn’t wealthy, and it’s one of the least populated, and since the production is still controlled by co-ops, the focus is on inexpensive wines and high production.”

The reasons for this are many. First, Montepulciano is a vigorous grape that produces large crops, often with minimum effort in the vineyard. That is attractive to the co-ops that dominate production, says Brian Larky, the founder of Dalla Terra Winery Direct, whose portfolio focuses on Italy and includes two Abruzzo producers. Hence, he says, quantity over quality.

Bernetti explains, “That’s one of the problems with that generosity in the grape. We have a situation in which the grower—not the producer—is easily tempted to push the production further. And then, of course, you lose something in quality, and you lose something in value from an economic perspective.”

There is also a lack of clarity around Montepulciano wines. Confusion with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano has been an issue, according to some retailers and importers in the US. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the centuries-old Tuscan appellation, is for wines made with Sangiovese, not Montepulciano. Consumers familiar with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano may be puzzled by Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wines and wonder why they’re so much less expensive.

Perhaps most importantly, however, there is an ongoing controversy over what wines made with Montepulciano should be called if they do not come from Abruzzo. There is a proposal to require that Montepulciano grown elsewhere in Italy be called Cordisco, and to allow grapes only from the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo appellation to be called Montepulciano. Colline Teramane Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOCG, among the most prestigious regions within Abruzzo, has joined the Consorzio Tutela Vini d’Abruzzo trade group, which includes most Montepulciano d’Abruzzo producers, to push the Cordisco proposal.

Bernetti, who is also president of the Istituto Marchigiano di Tutela Vini trade group, says, “We have to get this fixed, and we have to get it fixed soon.” He is optimistic that a compromise can be reached in what many have called a uniquely Italian problem.

The dispute started in 2023, when Italy’s Ministry of Agricultural Food and Forestry Policies agreed to allow Cordisco to be used as a synonym for Montepulciano. Cordisco, as another name for Montepulciano, had not been used for centuries, either in Abruzzo or elsewhere in Italy.

The request, according to news reports, came from the Consorzio Tutela Vini d’Abruzzo, which wanted to distinguish between Montepulciano grown in Abruzzo and examples grown elsewhere in the country. (The group did not respond to email requests for an interview.) If approved, all Montepulciano grown outside Abruzzo would have to be called Cordisco, which, says Bernetti, would confuse consumers not only globally but in Italy.

Bernetti explains, “There is now a new law that is in discussion that basically goes around a concept which I think is very fair, very correct, which is—the grapes do not belong to anybody. No, they cannot be protected by a specific territory.”

What Comes Next?

Proponents of Montepulciano say it has a bright future if these challenges can be overcome.

Hamel says, “Even within the somm community, there isn’t much exploration when it comes to Montepulciano in Canada. The rare exceptions [are] Emidio Pepe and Valentini, where people get genuinely excited. Masciarelli will come up as a bold red alternative, and there are some more natural-wine inclined producers, like Cirelli, [that] will also gain some spotlight, but that’s it.”

Yet Montepulciano seems to have the qualities that are attractive to the North American market. Bernetti calls it “generous in terms of fruit and flavor, alcohol, and richness,” and Laveglia notes its consumer-friendly tannins.

Perhaps these US$15 wines can begin to compete with similarly priced Chianti and Italy’s Sangiovese-based red blends. Laveglia says, “If you’re seeing the prices of Chianti go up but the quality remain the same, then there’s room for something else. And that’s what has been happening with wines from Abruzzo, as well as Puglia and Sicily, filling that niche.”

But education might be needed, says Hamel, among not only consumers but sommeliers and wine professionals. He comments, “[These wines] fit a lot of cases [in which] people are looking for great value—but I guess they come across as not as sophisticated as Tuscan wines.”

It’s worth noting, say several people interviewed for this article, that Montepulciano’s career as a varietal wine is only about 20 years old; before, it was used mostly for blending and in bulk wines. In this way, Abruzzo resembles several other regions, including Languedoc and Sicily, whose reputations have improved as the quality of their wines has improved. Larky compares Montepulciano to Lambrusco, which for years was known for its simple, sweet red wines. Lambrusco’s image has been enhanced and its critical reputation has grown as more producers have opted to make higher-quality and more-interesting wines, though still in the Lambrusco style.

Larky says, “I think that’s what you’ve seen in the last couple of years, small producers that used to sell grapes to the co-ops starting to make their own wine, because they see an opportunity that wasn’t there before.”

As Montepulciano producers capitalize on this opportunity, the grape is well positioned for success in the international market—a meaningful achievement, regardless of its name.

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Dry, Peter. “Montepulciano.” Australian Wine Research Institute Wine & Viticulture Journal 31, no. 3 (May/June 2016): 61.

Foundation Plant Services–University of California, Davis. “Grape Variety: Montepulciano.” Accessed May 14, 2024.

Wein-Plus. “Montepulciano (Grape Variety).” Lexicon. Accessed May 14, 2024.

Wine News (website). “The ‘Montepulciano’ Controversy on the Label: ‘Cordisco’ Returns to the Register of Vine Varieties,” November 21, 2023.

Wine-Searcher (website). “Montepulciano Grape Variety.” Grapes. Accessed May 14, 2024.

Wine-Searcher (website). “Pugnitello.” Grapes. Accessed May 14, 2024.

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