“Wine shouldn’t be “ready made.” I don’t filter my wines because it’s up to them, not to me, to decide what they want to get rid of.”
is a grower and winemaker whose work has proved that the wines of Abruzzo are capable of being some of the finest wines not just in Italy, but in the world. Listening to him speak in the lilting Italian Abruzzese dialect is a little like listening to the foreign language Oscars acceptance speeches; we might have no idea what he’s saying until his granddaughter Chiara translates for us; but even without knowing, we feel the emotion of his words reverberate through us as he speaks.
He is a true Italian gentleman, dressed in his tweed suit and cap for dinner. His eyes crinkle with pride when he sees us enjoying his wines. For him, and for his family, it is the simplicity of the translation from nature to bottle - with the addition of time - that creates greatness. In a region that was not well-known for its fine wines in the 60s and 70s, it is thanks to Emidio's tireless work ethic that the world is able to explore the true potential of the indigenous varieties, Montepulciano, Trebbiano d'Abruzzo and Pecorino. This drive has been passed down through two generations, which we see mirrored in his granddaughter's eyes.
Meet the Pepes
Meeting the Pepe family is a little like arriving at a relative’s house on a special occasion: we’re bundled into the warmth of their home, immediately handed a glass of Pecorino, a chair is pulled out for us and our suitcases are left at the door. A plate of cheese appears on the table in front of us, and chatter and laughter bounces off the walls as more guests arrive. Dishes of pasta and fresh tomatoes clank onto the table in abundance in front of us. The food is some of the most delicious Italian food we've come across; but it is delicious in its simplicity. Well-farmed and fresh ingredients speak all on their own. As we eat to our hearts' content, Black, the german shepherd dog, sits at our feet, snuffling for little morsels of cheese. When one of us slips him a piece, his big brown eyes look up gratefully.
We’ve never felt so instantly at home in a place we haven’t been before. This is hospitality in rural Italy in its most true form; apart from the wines, the Pepe family also produces their own olive oil, their own pasta from an ancient wheat variety, Grano Cappelli, and all the other ingredients come from local organic farmers. It reminds us that this is what life in the old days would have been like, before produce was shipped around the world; before so many people lost touch with the source of their food and wine.
Nothing is done quickly here. We take our time to eat - a snack turns into a full meal - with much wine, of course. Emidio says,
"Wine is alive. It continues its fermentation in our stomachs, and it fulfils a purpose as a digestif."
After lunch, we stroll into the vineyards at a leisurely pace. Chiara shrugs simply and says,
“Patience is the key aspect of our philosophy.”
This remains everyday life for the Pepe family; it is a little utopia of locality.
Growing up in rural Italy in the 40s and 50s, little Emidio was the son of a line of farmers. From a young age, he was instilled with a hard-working agricultural spirit, out in the fields, hoeing and tending to the cattle from a young age. By the age of ten, he was working for other local farmers, and by thirteen, he knew how to graft vines. Bringing home liras clinking in his pockets, this was a little entrepreneur already at work. It is the meeting of this tough spirit together with an adamant belief that nature should not be messed with, that has made the Pepe wines what they are.
Until Emidio took the reins, only a small amount of wine from the family’s vineyards had been made; for the family to drink, or perhaps a little sold in barrels to locals. This would change under Emidio’s vision. By 1964, Emidio had come to the realization that wine was to be the focus for the Pepe family, and he fervently believed in the potential of the Montepulciano grape, at a time when others saw it as a lesser variety. So, he began to bottle their own wine, instead of selling it to the local cooperative.
From the beginning, the vineyards have been tended organically; Emidio did not see the point in using chemicals when he had grown up tending the land manually. Chiara smiles, saying,
“He never wanted to get in the way of nature - instead it was simply a question of wishing to accompany nature, without interfering.”
He learnt how to make wine using the equipment they had on the farm, and by trial and error. As he tended the land naturally, he didn’t see the need for interfering with the wines by using machinery or additions either. As such, the wines have never been manipulated, and today they continue to be made in the same way. When asked why, Emidio shrugs and says,
“Wine shouldn’t be “ready made.” I don’t filter my wines because it’s up to them, not to me, to decide what they want to get rid of.”
As Emidio and the love of his life, Rosa Pepe, are now well into their 80s, his family is continuing their legacy. His daughter Sofia is at the winemaking helm and granddaughter Chiara steering the commercial side of the business. That said, they have far from retired, and are still seen wandering in the vineyards and tinkering in the cellar.
Here, in the northern part of Abruzzo, the vineyards are straddled by the Adriatic sea on one side and the Gran Sasso Mountain on the other - one of the Apennine Mountains. This mountain brings down cooling air at nighttime, causing a diurnal shift of 10-12 degrees Celcius between day and nighttime, producing grapes with distinctive freshness even in hot vintages. The constant wind pulled both from the mountains and from the sea acts as a giant natural fan to ensure that disease pressure is kept to a minimum, helping them further in their quest for natural viticulture. Chiara says,
“The clay-limestone soils we have here can easily be compacted, so tractor use must be kept to a minimum. The soil must be kept spongy; oxygen is life. These soils have always been alive and incredibly happy.”
The family began to explore biodynamics in 2005. When reading the lectures of Steiner, they realised that they already practiced a lot of the teachings, such as composting and paying attention to the lunar cycle. These were simply ancestral farming methods that had been passed down through Emidio's family. Today, they are certified, applying the biodynamic preparations and sowing cover crops, such as fava beans, to ensure that the soil can naturally receive the nitrogen it needs. They are also experimenting with milk preparations against mildew, and use pine sap as a "glue" for their sulphur and copper preparations, which enables them to use less.
The original 1.5 hectares that were passed down through the family, surrounding the house, are planted to Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, the indigenous variety of the region. Emidio himself replanted the vineyard in 1974 via massal selection, from cuttings that he got from a cousin. Drought can be problematic in the region, and in the scorching summer of 2003, they decided to build an irrigation system. They have never had to use it, but it’s there as a back-up, just to be safe; it’s clear the Pepes will do anything to protect their old vines.
At a time when others were starting to be influenced by modern vine training methods, Emidio was a firm believer that the pergola training system should be upheld. Chiara says,
“He always thought that the pergola was the key to making elegant Montepulciano. In the summer, the vines look like one big carpet. As the skins of the grapes don’t have to work to protect themselves from the sun, they preserve a better quality of tannin.”
She explains that Montepulciano is naturally very tannic, so it can be hard to find elegance with the variety, but that by shading the grapes, this preserves the natural acidity, which in turn facilitates elegance.
Over the years, the family was able to purchase more vineyards, and they now have 15 hectares of vines. In 1988, Emidio also planted Trebbiano d'Abruzzo (not to be confused with the Trebbiano Toscano aka "Ugni Blanc," which is a separate variety, confusing, we know), again with cuttings from his cousin. This old Trebbiano material is very different to other Trebbiano found in the area, with thicker skins and higher acidity.
The last to join the Pepe stable was Pecorino, which was planted in 2006 (first harvest 2010). The family had decided to see what they could do with the other indigenous variety of the region when tended with care. Chiara says,
“We’ve worked so hard to protect our indigenous Trebbiano for so long, so we wanted to do the same for Pecorino...”
In 2010 they also began carrying out research on their wild yeast population at the university in Trentino, to better understand the yeasts that exist naturally in their vineyards and cellars.
They discovered that around 180 families of yeast play a role, depending on the vintage, and that the yeasts from the vineyards contribute with more frequency than the yeasts that are dormant in the cellar. This is exciting; it means that the yeasts are acting as "terroir transmitters." Chiara says,
"Grandfather always had a great sense of observation: when a wine gives you signals you have to be able to understand it. Now, we're exploring how to know what happens in scientific terms. By working with natural yeasts and by studying what happens under a microscope, we can feel connected to each season and each vineyard."
For the white wines, winemaking is simple; grapes are sorted in the vineyards to reduce any chance of oxidation as berries come in. Pecorino comes in first, often towards the end of August, with Trebbiano following one to two weeks later. The grapes are crushed by foot, for around 45 minutes per 300kg of grapes, in an old traditional long wooden open vessel to release the juice from the berries. The juice is moved straight into glass-lined concrete tanks, where fermentation occurs naturally, slowly and in a reductive environment on the lees (to give them as little access to oxygen as possible) for 18 months. The whites are not racked unless absolutely necessary to avoid oxygen;
“Grandfather always says that reduction helps to preserve the wine and will help it to age. When the wine is older, the wine absorbs its reductive qualities instead of becoming oxidative. It’s like a coat that the wine was once wearing.”
Most years, the wine produced from the 1988 planting of Trebbiano (of which there are around 3000 plants of Trebbiano, interplanted with around 40 plants of Malvasia!) is bottled before malolactic fermentation happens. This means that malo occurs in the bottle itself. These bottles are held back and released many years later, as the CO2 formed in the bottle will help it to age, eventually dissolving into the wine.
This is a little bit of a Pepe-kept secret, but we get the chance to experience it in a bottle of 2010 Trebbiano and the results are astonishing. It seems almost as if the wine were bottled yesterday. This cuvée is marked with the old vine stamp, but there is no way to tell if the wine has definitely undergone this specific type of ageing, as whether it can happen depends on the year (sometimes the wine decides to go through malolactic faster than other years). This just adds to the mystery.
Ageing the wines is key to discover their true characteristics. Chiara winks,
“You can’t call it a Trebbiano if it’s four or five years old… It’s not a Trebbiano… yet.”
We laugh together. She’s kidding… but only just. She continues,
“To understand the real Trebbiano, you have to wait six to seven years. There is always tension and energy, but the wines are introverts when they are young – they are shy. Their flavour compounds appear with time; the minerality becomes more present, and the acid brightens, and entirely different aromas appear.”
The Pecorino is treated in exactly the same way, but it is an entirely different child; it seems much like the younger, naughtier sister, with lots of energy, cartwheeling around on the lawn. It’s more obvious in a sense; more open; whereas the Trebbiano always has an underlying broodiness. Chiara adds,
“Pecorino is very different and we are still learning. We only have ten years of experience with Pecorino, where we have fifty with Trebbiano. Pecorino is talkative straightaway. It’s simply ready when it is ready.”
The wine produced from the young Montepulciano vines is sold locally, and there is also Cerasuolo produced for the local market; Montepulciano produced in the same way as the white wines; producing a light red, delicious and juicy wine. Meanwhile, the old vines, labelled with a Vecchie Vigne stamp, produce wine that always finds a natural balance, as the long root system prevents water stress even in hot years. Emidio always had faith in the older vines' potential to produce ageworthy wine. We are fortunate to drink a selection of old vintages with the Pepe family. Every wine has a different aromatic profile; some whisper, while some shout; but every wine is alive. The iconic vintage of 1985 positively sings. Chiara nods, saying,
"This wine looks like grandfather. It never seems to age. It is the personification of him: fierce, with a strong attitude."
The grapes are hand destemmed into buckets, and from there poured into cement tanks where gravity breaks the skins. Maceration lasts between seven and nine days, and the cap is broken very gently once a day, but only if necessary: this is the "infusion style" of red winemaking. There is just one press, and the wine is aged between 18 months to 24 months in the glass lined concrete tanks. Racking is avoided completely if possible before bottling.
Perhaps the most admirable quality of Emidio’s entrepreneurial streak, alongside his incessant travel across Europe and to the US to spread the word of his wines, is his early adoption of cellaring a significant percentage of every vintage, to ensure a constant supply of older vintages is available. In a world that’s become obsessed with “the latest vintage,” and where many winemakers simply can’t afford to age their wines, Emidio found a way many decades ago to ensure that his customers of the future would be able to access old vintages. Back when he began making wine, Montepulciano was seen as a wine for early consumption, not as a wine for ageing. However, he quietly believed that his wines could stand the test of time. In fact, he was bemused that others didn’t feel the same. Chiara says,
“Grandfather always says that if you believe in your wine, you’ll want to let it age, as you’ll be sure it will only improve with time.”
Depending on the vintage, a specific amount of wine is always held back to age in the family cellar, and re-released at later dates. Incredibly, when the older vintages of Montepulciano (10 years +) are released, they are decanted by hand into a new bottle and recorked. This reduces the sediment (as the wines are always unfined and unfiltered), and opens the wines up a little,
"This is when the wine takes its coat off, and shows itself."
This is an incredibly time consuming act that could only have been devised by somebody who believes wholeheartedly in his wines.
Every part of the work in the vineyards and in the winemaking at Pepe is a true labour of love; from the meticulous foot treading procedure, to the patience of ageing, sometimes for many decades, to the determined efforts to ensure every older vintage of Montepulciano leaves the cellar in the best condition and readiness for drinking that it can. The Pepe wines are some of the finest examples of man and nature working together to create a product: a bottle of wine.