The Montonico Grap: the champagne of Abruzzo

15 December 2020

Le petit champagne. That’s how the French soldiers stationed in Abruzzo, some centuries ago, called the sparkling wine made with the Montonico grape.

The Montonico is a native grape variety of Abruzzo, in particlar in the region around Bisenti and Cermignano in Teramo Province. It was once a well-renowned and widespread grape, but in recent decades it has risked disappearing altogether. That was, until, that three producers decided to come to its rescue.

In 2017 it was recognized as a Slow Food Presidium. Two of the producers, Matteo Ciccone of Ciccone Vini and Francesca Valente of Valente, tell us more about this rare grape and the wines made from it.

Success in France and Germany, and then…

As Matteo Ciccone remembers, “In Bisenti, in 1940, there were a million kilograms of Montonico grapes produced. The entire local economy was based on it, and it was exported to France and Germany on trains. It was consumed mostly as a table grape, rather than as wine.”

What made it so special? “It keeps for a long time, so it was well-suited to traveling long-distance; it was a tradition to hang it up inside houses and offer it to guests for weeks,” adds Francesca Valente. But it wasn’t only for export: Montonico grapes were used to make wine, vinegar, cooked must, marmalade. The grape was perfect for making uccelletti di sant’Antonio, a typical Abruzzese dessert. “The older generation remember when the hills here where completely covered in Montonico vines. Now they’re hardly to be seen at all.”

A tough terrain, but not hostile

These hills are marked by hard terrain, pebbly, calcareous. And yet these same conditions, which are in theory unfavorable, together with the cold winter weather, that have allowed the Montonico grape to express itself so well here. As Valente puts it: “When you grow this variety outside of the area, it tends to lose the characteristics that define it: a light white mineral mountain wine.” The variety has been recognized as a PDO, allowing for its planting across Abruzzo. But the Montonico grown here will always be wildly different from that grown, for example, along the coast.

There are very few people growing it, in any case: in the post-war period, with the arrival of new international grape varieties, the depopulation of the region and the phylloxera pandemic, the Montonico grape was largely left by the wayside. That was until just over a decade ago, when Ciccone planted a small plot: “It started almost as a game, but then as the business grew, I started to take it seriously. I began making traditional method sparkling wine, in the champagne style, with double fermentation, left to rest in yeasts. The first bottles will be on the market in a few days.” Bottles which will be available to buy on the Terra Madre Salone del Gusto marketplace.

The reputation of a grape

uva montonico

As Valente explains, “It’s not easy to rebuild a reputation for a grape that, over the years, has been largely forgotten. We’re trying to do that by taking great care of the land, adopting an integrated production system and harvesting the grapes entirely by hand.” But neither Matteo nor Francesca want to be seen as “saviors” of the variety: “I’m just trying to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather. I used to follow him around the vines as a child, rather than going to nursery! Then while I was at univerity studying agricultural economy, I realized that my grandfather had understood what was needed to reawaken this local area already, all those years ago: a good local product and the desire of the young people to uphold the tradition of making it. So I started working on making wines, a still white and a Charmat-method sparkling.”

This corner of Teramano is tough but not hostile, as the two producers are keen to emphasize. “Investing in a difficult land is challenging, but we hope others will come after us to help rebuild the fabric of this land.”

by Marco Gritti,