Vinnie and I were travelling through the Apennine mountains that form the backbone of Italy, heading from Rome to Pescara in the Italian region of Abruzzo. We were making our very first visit to Abruzzo; snow was still glistening on the tops of the mountains when, in the midst of this wild terrain, we came across a rather strange sight. We saw a vast flat plain, dotted with greenhouses, which was clearly a hugely productive agricultural area but how did it come to be here in the midst of these rugged mountains?
The answer is that this was once the site of the third largest lake in Italy, Lake Fucino. The lake had no natural outflow and was prone to flooding the arable area surrounding it. In order to try and control the maximum level of the waters the Emperor Claudius had a drainage tunnel dug through one of the surrounding mountains. Construction took 11 years and 30,000 men worked on the three-and-a-half-mile project – it was an extraordinary engineering feat for that time. And it did have its moments of failure too. One of the tunnels collapsed – the supervisor in charge of the construction was thought to have diverted a substantial amount of the funds allocated to the construction to his own ends and so he collapsed the tunnel in order to hide evidence of his corruption. Ultimately, after the collapse of the empire the lake returned to its uncontrolled state. It was only in 1862 that a new project was undertaken by Prince Torlonia and this time the lake was completely drained leaving the Prince with a very substantial area of some of the most fertile land in Italy.
As interesting as this was, we had business elsewhere in the fertile Abruzzese countryside; we headed to the north of Abruzzo and the hills surrounding Torano Nuovo. Here, for over 30 years, Guido Strappelli has managed his vineyards with care and an admirable dedication. At around 240 metres above sea level and equidistant from sea and mountains the land is caressed by gentle breezes that make for excellent grape growing conditions. From 10 hectares of vineyards he produces around 65,000 bottles of wine per year. His wines are all certified organic and vegan-friendly but this really does not begin to tell the full story. In common with so many of the artisan winemakers we meet, Guido doesn’t see what he does as a business – to him, making wine is a way of life and one that he would not exchange for anything else.
The farmhouse that has been so carefully restored has a wonderfully tiled floor where once the animals were housed and this marriage of tradition and innovation is something that runs deep in Guido’s philosophy. When we visited he explained that he was conducting an experiment with Trace Technologies and he introduced us to Marco and Carlo. They were installing monitoring equipment in the soil and amongst the leaves of the vines allowing real-time monitoring of parameters like humidity. This, allied to a careful analysis of years of weather records, allows them to accurately predict outbreaks of disease and so Guido can take preventative action before problems occur. It also allows Guido to see which plants might require more intervention.
The nearby small town of Controguerra gives its name to a DOC white wine. Guido makes two iterations of this wine, one with Passerina grapes and the other with Pecorino, both varieties native to this region. The Passerina is fermented in steel and has a deep straw colour. The bouquet is rich with apples and pears, aromatic herbs, and minerality, and on the palate it is full and well-balanced with a delightful salinity. This is wine to enjoy with one of the local Abruzzese fish dishes – and perfect on a warm summer’s day.
The vines for Pecorino were planted in 1998 and produce a wine with a delicate bouquet of red apples, almonds, and honey whilst on the palate there is a pleasing acidity, minerality, peaches, and nectarines. This wine would pair well with lean fish or light pasta dishes.
By way of contrast we also sampled another very local wine called Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo. This is made from the Montepulciano grape, another local variety, that Guido leaves in contact with the skins for 36 hours after pressing. The result is a wine with a deep pink colour and a gentle perfume of raspberries. In the mouth it is rich with the favour of cherries. This wine would pair well with fish and white meats.
People like Guido always leave us feeling slightly envious in that they have made their place in this world and they are content in their corner of Italy, producing some very nice wines and fragrant olive oil. They love their history and tradition but are not afraid to try out new technology. They may not move the earth but they do try and make it a better place.