Emidio Pepe: The Ballerina with Boxing Gloves

Posted by CrushWine

The handmade wines of Emidio Pepe are absolutely unique, combining the raw power of California reds, the elegant perfume of Barolo, the earthy complexity of Bordeaux and the finessed grace of Grand Cru Burgundy. Those who understand them soon become obsessed (like me), but be warned: these wines are not for everyone. For some, these wines are just too untamed, too expressive, too raw. One thing, however, is undeniable - these bottles truly redefine what Trebbiano and Montepulciano d'Abruzzo can be.

Like the man, the wines of Emidio Pepe are uncompromising individualists, celebrated by the initiated few, yet unknown to the larger public - at least for now. These wines gain in reputation every year, and they are slowly earning a loyal following. This means it's getting harder and harder to find the few bottles that this small family-run estate can produce. If you would like to try these wines, now is the time. We are proud to be able to offer you a number of outstanding bottles, all of impeccable provenance, coming directly from Emidio Pepe's cellars to you!

The Process

Let us not mince words: these wines are handcrafted to a degree that is simply unheard of anywhere else in the world, period. We know you've heard this before; frankly, it's hard these days to come across a wine that doesn't tout its "handcrafted" origin. Nothing, however, comes close to these wines. The grapes are handpicked, hand-destemmed and, in a nod to the wisdom of tradition, the grapes are actually crushed by foot! (See sidebar.) No artificial yeasts are added, fermentation in glass lined tanks is not temperature-controlled. The wine is hand-bottled, unfiltered and unsulfered, and aged in bottle for as long as necessary (10, 20, 30 years or more!) before being hand-decanted into a fresh bottle and, finally, labeled.

The Wines

The Pepe family produces only two wines, a creamy white wine made from trebbiano, and a powerful red made from montepulciano (they also makes a rosé from this grape, though it's rarely imported). The trebbiano is luscious and all-encompassing - easily on a level with (or, dare we say above) the more famous trebbiano from Pepe's neighbor and friend, the late Eduardo Valentini. The montepulcianos are more complex than quantum physics - elegant and animal. When young, they are dense with warm, dark earthy fruit, showing off a rich texture and aggressive structure. As they age, they become all the wiser and richer, revealing shades of game, leather, stewed fruits and spices. These wines are even better than they sound and I believe they deserve to be experienced, at least once.

Directly from the cellar of Emidio Pepe come any number of exceptional vintages. While some stores may offer bottles at prices below ours, be very careful. Remember, these wines are more fragile than most because there is absolutely no sulfur added as a preservative. Emidio himself is as fanatic about proper storage as he is about careful and considered winemaking. Rest assured that all the bottles we are offering are direct from Pepe, imported in temperature-controlled shippers and properly stored in our temperature-controlled cube. We are thrilled to have the following wines (if only a few bottles of each!) available. See below for my notes from an Emidio Pepe vertical tasting I was lucky enough to attend this spring.

1985 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 750 mL
1985 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 4L
Is this wine perfect? Maybe. Delicate notes of herbed fruits, tobacco, dark spice and earth; soft and delicate this wine will win you over with its elegance. Enough acidity and freshness to age for quite a bit.

2001 Trebbiano d'Abruzzo
1995 Trebbiano d'Abruzzo
The trebbianos reveal a kaleidoscope of flavors, from high-toned floral notes, rose petals and jasmine to luscious honeyed fruits - and they age beautifully. The 1995 reveals the beauty and wisdom of an aged trebbiano; find layers of earth, hay, roasted nuts and a soft luscious acidity.

2001 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
This wine is exotic and angry, a ballerina with boxing gloves. It shows dark warm earthy fruits, shockingly concentrated with a solid base of minerality. I love this wine now, though it will only get better with 10, 20, 30 years of age.

1998 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
A bit more coy than the 2001 - the philosopher in the family. Lots of dried fruits and wonderful leather, all fantastically integrated into the wine's graceful structure. This wine is just beginning to show its cards!

1985 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
Is this wine perfect? Maybe. Delicate notes of herbed fruits, tobacco, dark spice and earth; soft and delicate this wine will win you over with its elegance. Enough acidity and freshness to age for quite a bit.

1983 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
If the 1985 is the A+ student, the 83 is the prankster genius, showing a wild streak of perfume and game, leather and soft, stewed fruits. This wine is lean and mean - and dazzling.

1982 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
The 82 is a perfect, slightly more elegant, less rustic, middle-aged Pepe. A woodsy, earthy, leathery wine with big furry tannis and outrageous complexity and concentration. With 30-40% primary fruit, the rest of the flavor is in secondary and tertiary land.

1977 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
Though the 77 wasn't included in the vertical I tasted, our wine director has had the 77 and says it's time to use "the word". That's right, this wine is profound! Ethereal complexity - pungent, tar, earth, sour cherries, wilting floral perfumes, plum fruit, herbs and sasafrass; all ensconced with a luscious, youthful acidity.

No, it's not just a memorable episode from I Love Lucy - people really do crush grapes by foot! Or at least they used to. The problem is, it's not a very efficient way to crush grapes; this means it's expensive. And a whole host of new machines and contraptions have been designed to do the job faster...

But not better. The human foot, it turns out, is a very sensitive thing, and is surprisingly good at pressing grapes, squeezing the skins and extracting all their juice and color, while not breaking the seeds and stalks which would add a gritty bitterness to the wine. In fact, quality-minded producers in Portugal's Douro Valley (home of the fortified wine Port) have become so convinced that the human foot is the best way to press grapes, that they�ve actually developed machines with silicon-covered pistons that seek to mimic the natural movements of foot crushing! Yes, sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.

But... is it clean?

We know you were asking yourself that question! And frankly, it's a good one. The fact is, however, that the wine's fermentation and the resulting levels of alcohol actually kill off any and all bacteria, etc. The further aging of the wine, its initial bottling and subsequent re-bottling also act as "natural filters" - sediment is left behind in all cases. But just to put your mind at further ease, the crushers wear clean rubber boots while crushing! So yes, it's clean.

Where in the World?

Abruzzo is on the eastern side of Italy (head directly east from Rome, and you'll eventually enter Abruzzo), enjoying a diverse array of landscapes - from the rocky peaks of the Apennines to the coastal sands of the Adriatic.

Though the region is known for its large cooperative wineries that pump out millions of gallons of nondescript juice, there are a handful of tiny producers doing some magical things. Emidio Pepe and Eduardo Valentini are perhaps the two most famous.

As with the other great wines of the world, location is everything. Pepe's vineyards lie in the north of Abruzzo, in the province of Teramo - positioned perfectly between the warming influences of the Adriatic and the cold mountain air of the dramatic mountains known as the Gran Sasso.