This is the story of an eccentric man who elevated some lesser-known grapes from Abruzzo, in the boondocks of central Italy, into some of the country’s most distinguished and age-worthy wines. Emidio Pepe escaped his family’s generational trajectory of becoming poor wheatfield workers by creating an international market for Montepulciano and Trebbiano. How? By speculatively flying to New York City with four bottles in a suitcase in 1967, and touring Italian restaurants around Europe to sell them wine from the boot of his Alfa Romeo every year. Now 87, his unorthodox winemaking techniques, love of Alfa Romeos and his refusal to drink wine from other estate’s remains unchanged more than 50 years later.
A two-and-a-half-hour drive north-east of Rome on the autostrada lies Abruzzo, a hilly agricultural region famous for its humble tomatoes, wheat and pasta. Pre-Pepe, (and pre Madonna and Dean Martin) there was only two natives being spoken about around town – Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and Montepulciano grapes, which back then were only considered capable of producing rustic table wines, simple lubricants used to wash down Nonna’s pasta.
In steps Pepe, with a dream and a suitcase (literally). An impeccable dresser with a composed, laid-back presence, Pepe has always considered himself a farmer rather than a winemaker, and more often than not can be found managing the vineyards rather than in the winery – unsurprising, considering the Abruzzese tradition of mezzadria(sharecropping), which involved raising animals as well as growing fruit, olives, grains and grapes with your neighbours and splitting the profits. Starting with just 1 hectare of vines, today the fifth-generation estate is a healthy 15 hectares, which the Pepe family have kept staunchly native and organic, even when the fashion was for Italian wineries to replant with ‘international’ grapes and use labour- saving fertilisers and pesticides. But not the Pepe clan.
Flying to New York City with four bottles in a suitcase in 1967, and touring Italian restaurants around Europe to sell them from the boot of his Alfa Romeo every year.
Having learnt from his grandfather, Pepe is the vinous equivalent of the classic nonnawho rubbishes every other nonna’s sugo recipe as inauthentic blasphemy, convinced that their own method is the one and only. For a start, he doesn’t use machines in the winery, so grapes are destalked by being pushed through a basket, crushed by foot in a wooden trough, then fermented with indigenous yeast in glass-lined concrete tanks (he says old barrels accelerate the ageing too much). The wine then stays in tank for up to two-and-a-half years before it’s bottled (without filtration) and stacked in a large concrete bunker (now cellar) that could pass as a regal Champagne house’s vault. (Incredibly, they hold one of the only wine cellars in the world that can offer a vertical from 1964.) Then – and this is a very unusual process for most estates – bottles are taken to a small side room to be uncorked and decanted into a new bottle by Pepe’s wife Rosa, who then hand-labels every single bottle in production. Yes you read that correctly. Moët et Chandon’s high-tech production line, this most definitely is not.
The Pepe winery is sandwiched between the Adriatic Sea and Apennine mountain range, which makes for ideal and very interesting climatic conditions for growing Montepulciano and Trebbiano grapes. The typically cool evenings (being surrounded by mountains) and crisp ocean air during the hot summers helps extend the ripening period, adding further complexity to the quality of their wines. The soils in that area are full of minerals and some lime which produces wines that have lively acidity and minerality. Acidity is crucial for the longevity of a wine and many of Pepe’s wines can age for years despite the fact that the wines are made ultra-organically.
Their resulting white wines are slightly golden hued, well balanced and complex, with hints of nuts, hay, and yellow fruits. But the Montepulciano seems hardly related to its neighbouring Monty varieties; they are bigger, bolder, and filled with the intense flavours of dried black cherries, liquorice and wild herbs.
In this modern age of industrialisation, it’s so rare to find a winery like Emidio Pepe that remains truly loyal to the raw expression of wine and without Pepe’s forward-thinking idea of holding back old vintages to demonstrate Montepulciano and Trebbiano’s age-worthiness, and the boot of his Alfa Romeo, this timeless Italian region might still be overshadowed by it’s more famous neighbours Piedmont and Tuscany.