I like on the table,/when we’re speaking,
the light of a bottle/of intelligent wine. — Pablo Neruda
If you’ve been to our house in the last three years, chances are you’ve had a glass of wine or two from the Abruzzese winery called Pietrantonj. Because three years ago is when we discovered we were madly in love with the region, bought an apartment there (in Sulmona) with our friends Lou and Vicky, and dove head-first into all things regional. One of our first discoveries was the wine.
Here in the USA, we have come across whites called “trebbiano” and reds called “montepulciano.” But the trebbianos are often just passable blends of whites from a variety of regions and the montepulciano – if you’re not careful – is not from Abruzzo at all, but from the village of Montepulciano in Tuscany. Our Sulmonese friends taught us about Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and introduced us to some of the finest wineries in the area. My favorite winery, hands-down, is Pietrantonj (pronounce the “J”: like an “I”).
Located in the heart of the Peligna Valley, less than 30 minutes from our apartment, is this most ancient winery in Abruzzo. Their vineyards lie between the villages of Vittorito and Corfinio and this valley has been famous for making wine since Roman times. Pietrantonj has been a family run operation for more than 200 years and is today managed by members of the eighth generation of the family. Our new friends Roberta and Alicia Pietrantonj take very good care of the operation — and us, when we are there. Roberta is usually the “front of the house” person, with the marketing, tour and sales responsibilities. Her sister Alicia is a degreed viticulturist, a wine scientist who knows everything there is to know about soil, temperature, growing conditions, grape varieties, potential pests and disasters — like the one that happened earlier this year when a false spring was followed by a quick freeze.
Take a tour with either of them and you’ll be charmed by the story of their family’s dedicated to maintaining the ancient wine-making methodologies while remaining on the cutting edge of their craft. Here’s how they write about themselves, being so proud of their history:
The grapes are picked when they have reached the perfect peak of ripeness and exhibit an ideal balance between sugars and acids, thus ensuring that they will express to the fullest the varietal characteristics of the grape and of their individual growing area. The following step of vinification takes place immediately, in the estate cellars, in a careful process that [wisely] combines tradition with innovation. The respect for tradition and extreme reverence for the “past” can be easily witnessed by simply visiting the historic production complex, built before 1830.
This facility, which today houses a small winemaking museum as well, is currently used for the maturation of the winery’s finest red wines, which go into large Slavonian oak [barrels]. In years past, the wines were made and stored here. In 1893, after increases in production, Alfonso Pietrantonj, ancestor of the present owner, enlarged the capacity of the cellar by building, 14 metres beneath street level, two magnificent vats, holding a total of 1402 hectolitres.
Biggest. Barrel. Ever.
These tanks, which had no equal in the world, were a true architectural jewel of the period and testify to Alfonso’s courageous and creative spirit. Their most unusual characteristic was in fact the internal sheathing in Murano glass tiles, which has been admirably preserved and can still be admired, thanks to a convenient entrance-way to one of the vats. The cellars preserve as well fascinating equipment from the ancient distillery that produced a superb aquavit, an activity that the winery continued until 1930, thanks to Nicola Pietrantonj, the first Abruzzo winemaker to graduate, in 1889, from the Regia Scuola in Conegliano, in the Veneto. A renowned winemaking expert, he was responsible for growing and strengthening the winery’s production from the second half of the 19th century on.
Come for a tasting!
Of particular interest too are the old equipment and tools for working the vines and making wines, such as the first crusher-destemmer, dating to the early 20th century, and two imposing wooden wine presses from the 18th century. Crossing the family garden, one returns to the current main production facility where the entire production process is carried out, from fermentation and ageing, to bottling and storage of the wines.
Here, in the underground cellars, are the striking and venerable centuries-old [barrels], in sizes ranging from 32 to 365 hectolitres, crafted of oak and walnut in 1870 by local artisans. Thanks to careful renovations, they are still in use today. The modern winemaking facility rises alongside; it employs the most state-of-the-art technology for vinification, storage, and bottling, with every operation focused on preserving and maximizing the individual qualities of each grape variety. Of particular importance is the considerable investment that went into temperature control of the numerous stages of grape handling, wine maturation, and bottled wine storage.
My favorite souvenir!
The Pietrantonj production philosophy dictates that the maturation of red wines is carried out in oak casks of medium and large capacity, in order to ensure that the qualities of the grape varieties are faithfully preserved.
This combination of old and new — not to mention the Murano-glass-lined barrel — is just part of what makes Pietrantonj so unique. And it works, because their line of wines, which includes Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, Pecorino, Malvasia and Passito Rosso, are among the finest you will ever have — without breaking the piggybank.
So here’s another reason to come with us to Abruzzo. And another reason you’ll keep coming back!