Lost Character

The quest to market over-ripened, high-alcohol reds can cause a grape’s regional characteristics to get left behind

The wine list at the Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C., was very brief. Less than two-dozen reds and whites, from which we selected a 2013 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

It seemed reasonably priced, even at $45 a bottle. This was trendy Georgetown, after all, where everything could be expected to be pricey.

The surprise was that what was in the bottle was very different than we had expected. Most Montepulcianos shipped to these shores from Italy are vibrant, middle-weight wines, full of bright flavors, some soft supple round berry notes, firm structure, and good firm acidity. They’re easy in the mouth, and have a rich, velvety texture.

At least, that was what one should expect of Montepulciano.

What we got was a very ripe, one-dimensional wine that — if tasted blind — would have generated comments along the lines of “inexpensive blend of merlot and syrah, probably California or Australia.”

Most likely even a skilled taster would not have pegged it as being from Italy, or maybe even gotten the grape right.

So what happened?

Tasting through the wine, it was clear there were no flaws — nothing amiss in the winemaking or in how it was stored.

The conclusion is that someone purposely made the wine this way. And there’s a pretty good guess why. The making of this particular wine, a ModA’ Talamonti, seems to have been influenced by a marketing department rather than a winemaker — with a target market in mind: younger Americans who favor thick, flabby over-ripened reds with high alcohol over traditionally styled wines that truly reflect what a region produces.

This is not a problem that is unique to wines from the Abruzzo area. We’ve seen it over and over, with Bordeaux, Rioja, Napa, and the Barossa regions, among others.

The sad part is that wines made purposely in an over-ripe style invariably lose much of their true identity — they pass over the same heat and ripeness threshold that causes them to leave behind their basic wine “roots.”

Gone are many regional characteristics — the hints from soil and climate, and the flinty, chalky, salty, nutty, pine-scented minerality — that identify home turf.

They become so heavy and alcohol-laden that they are in an entirely other world beyond their natural state.

Among the elements that are truly Montepulciano were lost in our wine that night — a slightly rough, rustic character that screams Abruzzo. Another was the combination of cedar and tobacco aroma on the nose — a distinct marker in wines of the region. Gone also in was the earthiness that is pure to Abruzzo.

The happy part is that not all is lost. The vines that grew these grapes can, in any other year, be picked before they become too ripe and be allowed once again to show those sturdy benchmarks of both the Montepulciano grape and the territory in which it grows — all those characteristics that we’ve come to love in Abruzzo wines.

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