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Decoding Emidio Pepe: 13 Vintages of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Vecchie Vigne
BY ERIC GUIDO | OCTOBER 20, 2022
There is certainly no denying that Emidio Pepe is an icon, not only in Abruzzo or Italy, but throughout the entire wine world. And while the reality is that the Trebbiano and Montepulciano made by this traditional estate are not always easy to understand, the wines are absolutely worth the effort. For the average consumer, the expectation of what Montepulciano should be is easy, fruity, youthful and cheap. The Emidio Pepe Montepulciano isn’t any of these things, nor would anyone within its massive following of loyal collectors ever want it to be. The Pepe Montepulcianos are essentially time capsules of the grape, made with the techniques that the Pepe family have used since Emidio Pepe began production in 1964.
A vineyard of younger vines used for the Italian release of the estate's Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.
The Pepe family has worked the vineyards around the village of Torano Nuovo, in the northern hills of Teramo, since the late 19th century. However, it was Emidio Pepe who envisioned that Montepulciano could be elevated through aging, in that it would be better able to express the qualities of the variety, but also the terroir and unique attributes of each season. At the time, the local farmers thought he was crazy, yet Emidio Pepe endured. His wines are now history in a bottle.
Old-vine Montepulciano in the Branella vineyard, planted in 1966.
Decoding the Emidio Pepe Process
It’s funny how simple it can all sound. Any article on the internet will talk about a hands-off approach, biodynamic farming and winemaking, spontaneous fermentation, refinement only in cement and long aging in bottles. Could the approach possibly be so simple? And if so, why can’t anyone else reproduce it? Vision, passion, attention to the smallest details, endurance, tradition, and most of all in this case, family, are the principles that guide the process from vine to bottle. What Emidio Pepe started, he handed down to his daughters Sofia and Daniela. Today, Chiara De Iulis Pepe, Daniela’s daughter, has taken the lead in the vineyards and winery. Throughout it all, the younger generations have worked tirelessly to continue Emidio Pepe’s lineage.
As far back as the early 1970s, Emidio Pepe began replanting the site the family currently refers to as the “Mother Vineyard”, Casa Pepe, where they now source their vines through massal selection. Emidio Pepe was known as a master field grafter. He carefully chose each vine's location and its hereditary source. The Casa Pepe vineyard, which covers just 0.8 hectares and is located outside the modern-day winery, was planted using the traditional pergola training system. However, it is not the sole source of the flagship wine of Emidio Pepe, the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Vecchie Vigne. The second source, the Branella vineyard (2 hectares), also planted with the Pergola training system, is located a short distance from the winery and was purchased by Emidio Pepe in 1966.
The library cellar at Emidio Pepe holds more than 350,000 bottles.
It’s incredible to think about how ahead of his time Emidio Pepe was, and how the current generation, by mainly continuing to follow his teachings, is working in ways that today are considered revolutionary while still remaining traditional. From the very beginning, natural farming practices, which we now call “biodynamic”, were strictly adhered to. Certification followed in 2006. Emidio Pepe also believed in interplanting fruit trees throughout his vineyards to create biodiversity and a healthy mix of natural yeasts that would form on the grapes. Chiara De Iulis Pepe recalled her youth with her grandfather, sharing that he didn’t “really work the vines in the proper sense of the term but… cared for them, walking through, training them carefully, more of a task than a job.” It goes without saying that everything was done by hand, from the vineyards into the cellar and through to the bottling process.
To this very day, the Montepulciano fruit arrives at the winery and is destemmed by hand using a wire mesh that helps trap the green stems. It’s important to mention that the two parcels are vinified separately - but more on that later. Grapes are then allowed to macerate for seven to eight days as whole berries, going through spontaneous fermentation without the addition of sulfur. From there, they are pressed using a basket press and placed into glass-lined cement tanks, many of which are the same 25-30-hectoliter tanks Emidio Pepe used when he started, back in 1964. There it remains for 18 to 24 months in a highly reductive state, topped off after malolactic fermentation is completed. This is also the only time that sulfur might be added before the wine is bottled unfined and unfiltered and laid down for a long sleep amongst some 350,000 bottles in the estate’s library. On average, bottles are laid down for five to six years prior to international release. However, there have been vintages where most of the production was held back, as the family strives to release their Montepulciano when the wines are just entering their drinking window.
As for the library releases, it’s at about twenty years that the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Vecchie Vigne goes through reconditioning process, where each bottle is decanted by hand off of the sediment into a new bottle, topped off with juice from the same vintage, then sealed with a new cork that has the vintage of the decantation printed. Sofia Pepe carries this out herself. While this is one of the most controversial operations done by the Pepe family, they insist upon it to ensure that the wines coming into the market are sound when they leave the winery.
The decantation room at Emidio Pepe.
The Plot Thickens: Understanding Selezione Vecchie Vigne
Most consumers who have followed Emidio Pepe’s wines are probably familiar with discussions about Italian-release bottles versus International (not just American)-release bottles. Only recently has there been more clarity on differences between these two wines, which are vast. To make things even more complicated, until 2018, there was nothing on the label that would clearly indicate which of the wines a consumer might find at a restaurant or retail store (recent vintages now bear “Selezione Vecchie Vigne’’ on the label). Granted, if the wines entered the market through the proper channels, consumers could feel safe that they held a Selezione Vecchie Vigne in their hands. However, we all know this is not a perfect world, and there is a massive gray market of wines traded across shores. In this case, the only way to tell is from the cork, which should have the decantation date printed on the top (but this means opening the capsule). As for the main difference between the Italian release, which enters the market only two years after bottling, and the Selezione Vecchie Vigne, which is released after five to six years, it’s all about the source. The Italian-release bottles are made from the young vineyards planted in 2004 and 2006 by Emidio Pepe’s daughters using the double-guyot training system. While farming and winemaking practices are the same, it’s easy to see why the wine would be vastly different. Emidio Pepe chose to only release these wines in Italy, as he felt that they didn’t have the staying power to make it into foreign markets safely. Keep in mind that very little sulfur, if any, is used in winemaking.
The hilly landscape of Torano Nuovo and Pepe's old-vine Trebbiano Azruzzese in the distance.
However, there’s more. My recent visit to the estate taught me something new that places yet another spin on the process of decoding a bottle of Emidio Pepe. The two old vine plots, Branella and Casa Pepe, are not only vinified separately but also bottled separately, which means that throughout the years there have been two distinctly different wines in the market at different times. Granted, there will always be wines where several barrels are produced from a single vineyard, and some show differently than others. But in this case, we are presented with two different vineyards, Casa Pepe (a cooler, south-facing site with clay-heavy, water-retaining soils over limestone gravel that’s degrading into calcium carbonate) and Branella (a southwest-facing parcel with sandier, alkaline soils and deeper deposits of clay and calcium carbonate). As readers can imagine, these two vineyards yield very different results.
Proof of this is that Emidio Pepe would specifically hold one wine back over the other since it had more aging potential. The 2020 I tasted for the most recent report was the Branella, as the Casa Pepe had yet to be bottled. The good news is that the Pepe family will begin labeling the Selezione Vecchie Vigne with its vineyard designation as of the 2020 vintage: Vecchie Vigne Branella and Vecchie Vigne Casa Pepe. Unfortunately, for past bottlings, it is difficult even for the winery to tell which of the two vineyards was released at what time and in what quantities, only that the Casa Pepe vineyard would have been more likely held back for later release in most years due to its deeper concentration and structure. The added confusion surrounding past vintages is sure to be a topic of debate for many years, but as we begin to taste these two new single-vineyard designations, it will also be interesting to compare them to the wines of the past.
The family's private collection of older vintages, all with original labels.
Coming Full Circle
My recent visit to the property provided an opportunity to taste a 13-vintage vertical of the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Selezione Vecchie Vigne with Chiara De Iulis Pepe. Touring the vineyards and getting to understand her history was an enlightening experience and one that confirms for me that the future of the Pepe winery is in good hands. De Iulis Pepe grew up alongside her grandfather, not just in the vineyards but also on the road traveling to foreign markets. This led her to a successful stint as the marketing and communications arm of the family, yet her interests in the vineyards and wines continued to grow. With time, she found herself in Burgundy working for a biodynamic estate in Savigny-les-Beaune while living and attending enology classes in Beaune. By the 2020 harvest, she was back at the Pepe estate, and it wasn’t long before the family realized that she had come full circle and was the obvious choice to begin focusing on the vineyards and winemaking. What impresses me most is her combination of respecting traditions and having an excellent handle on the future. This is backed up by the new vineyard labeling, the ongoing soil studies conducted by geologist Brenna Quigley of Sonoma, California, decantation dates that will soon be added to the neck tags of bottles and the wholly biodynamic approach in the vineyards that helps when dealing with global warming.
Eleven wines from the thirteen-vintage vertical of Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Selezione Vecchie Vigne.
Most wines were opened two hours before my tasting but not decanted. I have a few broad insights before digging deeper into the notes. For one thing, I’d like to be clear on just how evenly Montepulciano, a grape many people don’t bother to age, matures over time, In their youth, Montepulcianos are full of deep, plumb fruit and juicy acidity, so much so that the tannins are often left unperceived by the taster. This is how Montepulciano tricks you and why so much of it is consumed so young. Watching as I moved from youngest to oldest, each vintage of the Selezione Vecchie Vigne was in some way enjoyable for exactly where it was in its life. In this case, the perception of youth, or if a wine is not yet ready, comes more from its depth, detail and development of secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors than from a sense of structure. Any of the wines in this report could be drunk today, but in many cases, you’d be missing out on the magic of Emidio Pepe. Of course, everyone will have their own opinions, and if you don’t appreciate fully mature wines, then it makes no sense to chase them. That said, there is something for every collector here.
Secondly, this tasting is a testament to what Montepulciano can accomplish without using oak-barrel refinement. To taste a 45-year-old wine raised entirely in concrete, and then consider many of the oak monsters released yearly from Abruzzo, puzzles me. In the end, oak hides the fruit, adds unnecessary wood tannins and, ultimately, can dry out the wine. That’s not to say that there aren’t producers who do a fantastic job with oak in Abruzzo, but wood needs to be the exception.
I tasted all the wines in this article during a visit to the property in July 2022.
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