Vertical Tasting of Valentini's Trebbiano d'Abruzzo

Valentini is an almost sacred name among Italian wine lovers, long considered to be one of the country's top dozen wine estates on a par with Gaja, Giacosa, Quintarelli, Felsina, Fontodi and a handful of others.  Valentini's reputation rests on the strength of only three wines, all of which are at the top of their categories:  an amazingly ageworthy and refined Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, a Trebbiano d'Abruzzo that can showcase a complexity not unlike that of an aged white Burgundy, and a peerless Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo, a rosé wine.  In fact, the estate also makes an outstanding extra-virgin olive oil (from a rare local cultivar called Lauretana Dritta di Loreto, or Dritta for short):  simply put, it's one of the dozen best olive oils made by a wine estate in Italy.  While Valentini has always been most famous for its Montepulciano red, insiders know that the Trebbiano d'Abruzzo is probably the estate's most successful wine today (Valentini has not released a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo since the 2006 vintage).

Remember that Trebbiano d'Abruzzo is the wine, but the grape is called trebbiano abruzzese. Valentini appears to own an older biotype of trebbiano abruzzese, one that is even more prone to disease and less productive than normal and is the product of ongoing massale selections.  This is just one of the many secrets to Valentini's high-quality version:  at least his appears to be the real thing.  Over the last two decades, because of never-ending ampelographic confusion, nurseries routinely supplied wineries looking to plant trebbiano abruzzese with bombino bianco from Puglia and pagadebit from Emilia-Romagna instead (producers, nurseries and scientists mistakenly believed the three varieties to be identical).  And a lot of the unrelated and much lower-quality trebbiano Toscano (the ugni blanc of Cognac fame) was also planted in lieu of trebbiano abruzzese.  

At Valentini wine has been made since the 1600s but in fact the estate has been bottling its own wine only since the 1950s, under Edoardo Valentini, who gave up a possible law career and produced wine from the 1956 vintage until his death in 2006 at age 72.  His talented son Paolo Francesco has taken over, but he is quick to point out that "I do nothing differently today than what my father and I used to do together: I remain a wine artisan."

While Edoardo was an immensely charismatic character and famously secretive about the viticultural and winemaking techniques he employed to make his stellar wines, Paolo Francesco is easier to talk to.  He insists that natural and non-interventionist winemaking is key.  Only a minuscule portion of the grapes are used to make wine (roughly 90% of the fruit is sold off), and old-fashioned basket presses, glass-lined concrete vats and aging in large, old, neutral Slavonian oak casks are staples.  There are casks here that date back to 1790, 1814, and 1850.  Only natural yeasts are used and the wines are bottled unfiltered.  Malolactic fermentation occurs in the bottle (the bottling is done in the spring following the vintage) so carbon dioxide is produced in the bottle, which acts as an antioxidant (this technique is an effort to use less sulfur dioxide). It also means that you'll often hear the sound of escaping gas when you open a bottle.

Despite Paolo Francesco's desire not to do anything differently, he admits that climate change has been a major challenge in recent years.  For example, in the 19th century, the trebbiano was harvested in mid-October, in the 1980s by mid-September, and in the 1990s in early September.  Valentini candidly admits that he finds the last eight or nine vintages of his Trebbiano d'Abruzzo much more fruit-forward than they once were, and he's not quite a fan of this change.  "But I'm not sure it can be avoided, I guess," he admits.  "Achieving  polyphenolic maturity is a problem.  Lack of freshness and excessive ripeness are also concerns.  And increasingly, stuck fermentations pose the problem of higher than usual volatile acidity, but they also bring out greater complexity in the wines."

In the vineyard, dry farming and the pergola abruzzese training system--characterized by a paltry 1,200-1,400 vines per hectare and short pruning, ideal for hot, dry areas such as this part of Abruzzo--are typical.  Though the Trebbiano d'Abruzzo is made each year, it is not always released commercially for sale.  For example, the 1989 (an extremely rainy year) and the 2006 (a great year, but the malolactic started while the wine was still on its lees, generating off odors) were not sold.

The following tasting covers 31 vintages, in what was the largest and most complete Valentini Trebbiano d'Abruzzo vertical ever conducted--and an event that's unlikely ever to be repeated.  The tasting took place earlier this year at the Valentini estate in the presence of Francesco Paolo, his wife and son, and a few of their friends.  The wines tasted were all of exceptional high quality and only two bottles were faulty, with new bottles opened in their place.