I’ve been drinking Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wines for decades.  Here I must insert the usual disclaimer that we’re talking about the grape from hilly southern region of Abruzzo, and not the Tuscan town of Montepulciano.  In a sense, I cut my vinous teeth on Montepulciano for their affordability and their accessibility.  They are easy wines to like; they are straightforward and pair well with food.  Many good examples average $10-$15 in terms of price. 

This is why when I first heard of the wines from Emidio Pepe, I was intrigued.  He seemed to bring Montepulciano to a completely different level.  His wines routinely sell for $75-$200 and many vintages are capable of aging for decades.  Surely, there must be something going on here?  

Emidio Pepe is as traditional a wine producer as you’ll come across.  Every aspect of his winemaking process is carried out by hand using only traditional methods.  Vineyards are attended to manually. Canopies are thinned by hand. Grapes are harvested, transported and de-stemmed by hand.  They are crushed manually, with feet.  The resulting press wine is then left to age in glass lined cement vats. No oak is used. None at all. No additives of any kind are incorporated and the wines undergo fermentation only with natural, native yeast strains. Once bottling is completed, the wines are sent to Pepe’s cellars where they age, typically up to 10 years, before they are released. To that point, the 2003 is the current release on the market, and the subject of this review.  When the wines are ready to be released, they are uncorked, decanted by hand one by one without fining or filtration into a clean bottle, re-corked, labeled and then sold. 

It is a process that spares no expense or detail and leads one to believe that the resulting wines somehow benefit from this extensive doting.  Clearly these labor intensive steps are what justifies the ultimate cost of the wine.  The issue then becomes one of performance.  Does the wine live up to the hype?  In the case of the 2003 vintage, the answer is a resounding no. 

The 2003 Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is a delicious wine.  I decanted the wine about 60 minutes before dinner and was struck by the purple-black color of the wine in the decanter. In the glass, it was difficult to coax the aromas, but there’s some dark plumminess to the fruit as well as some smoke. On the palate, the wine is juicy, with dark plum fruit that is accentuated by a graphite like smokiness.  The flavors are easy to delineate. The wine has substantial acid and tannic structure and is clearly built to age. All is in balance.  It’s probably the best Montepulciano d’Abruzzo I’ve ever had, and it similarly should be the most expensive Montepulciano on the market.  That being said, it’s not 8-10 times better than the $10 Zaccagnini that is ubiquitous. Again, don’t get me wrong. The wine was very, very enjoyable – but given the fact that it’s more expensive than most Brunello, save a few Riservas, and more expensive than many Barolo & Barbaresco, I simply cannot justify the purchase or the price.  The wine trades on the legend of the hand produced, artisanal, traditional methods. Indeed, that’s what put it on my vinous “bucket list” in the first place. To that I say, mission accomplished.  I just won’t be stocking up on this wine any time soon.   90 points, about $80.

The 2003 Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.  The Label is almost as good as the wine!

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