Bucket list visit with Emidio Pepe

Chiara de Lulis Pepe and Emidio Pepe

If someone said you could only visit 10, or five, or even three wine producers anywhere, which estates would make your shortlist? Emidio Pepe in Contrada Chiesi, Abruzzo has long been on that list for me, for so many reasons, all of which are the right ones. Senore Pepe and the next two generations have been making some of Italy’s greatest wines but that is only part of the story. The family’s humanity is their reason for being. Their sustainable and regenerative approach to agriculture, culture and people is what sustains them and attracts so much good. In June of 2022 I finally made my pilgrimage and five months later I am still feeling so right about who I am, having been granted the good fortune to spend time with this special family.

With Emidio Pepe

Related – The natural wines of Emidio Pepe

By way of recall I first met Emidio Pepe’s granddaughter Chiara de Lulis Pepe when I hosted her in Toronto at Barque Smokehouse back in May of 2015. After that meeting and tasting I wrote the following: “Natural, healthy viticulture. No chemicals ever. Ever. Organic, biodynamic, only indigenous yeasts (more on that later), no fining or filtration. Red berries de-stemmed by hand. White grapes trod by foot. Fermentation in concrete. Bottling in early March and laid to rest. Then the bottles are decanted by hand, re-corked and released. The entire premise begins and ends with amazingly clean and pure fruit.” Seven years later più cambia, più è la stessa cosa. Translated from the famous epigram by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, but I’m sure you get the drift. Today Chiara will tell you that soils are persistently in flux, constantly eroding and failure always precedes success. The maintenance of healthy vineyards is a never-ending battle, the decision to treat nature and people with respect a choice that turns problems into solutions.

Contrada Chiesi

I am the lucky one, having been gifted the opportunity to meet a legend in his 90th year. “Emidio Pepe founded his winery in 1964, after working alongside his father and his grandfather which already back in 1889 where making wine at Casa Pepe. Before anyone else, he strongly believed in the great ageing potential of trebbiano and montepulciano d’Abruzzo and he dedicated all his energies to those two indigenous grape varieties, proving their incredible potential and showing it to the entire world.” Emidio and Rosa, followed by Sofia and Daniela, then granddaughters Chiara and Elisa. Sofia the oenological one, in production and for quality; Daniela in administration and finance; Chiara, spokesperson and export markets; Elisa, the next chosen one, to guide Emidio Pepe forward. Their vineyards are located 10 km from the Adriatic and 45 minutes from the Gran Sasso d’Italia mountains. The unique saddle and its clay-limestone soil encourage roots to burrow five to six metres downward, to a subterranean comfort zone, where the temperature is always constant.

Chiara stands in the vineyard and explains “it is the diversity of genetic materials in this plot that seems to have an ability to adapt and adjust, to withstand the changing climate. All plantations make use of their genetics. We don’t only make use of previous genetics but also the ones that have been added on top of them. This is the beauty.” Chiara goes on to say that the specific of skins on these grapes must also be preserved because their specificity keeps elegance and a softness in the tannins of the wines they produce, especially from those raised in the pergola vines, which she says, grandfather has always loved.”

When asked “how many hectares do you have” Chiara will say, “we don’t have surfaces, we have volumes.” Trees bring up water from the deeper soils, aiding in nutrient sharing with vine roots that interact in the space between them. “There must be a symbiotic relationship between the roots of vines and trees. They need to be ensconced, especially in times of climate change, strife and crisis. It’s not just about what is above ground.” Anyway, she does eventually concede that the current 17.5 will soon become 19 hectares. As time passes more vegetative growth is encouraged, no leaf plucking and pruning is done in a “bigger” way. “All the great winemakers around the world are the ones who show the most sensitivity to their vines and their lands.”

Silica spray is used early in the morning to capture light refraction and encourage photosynthesis. “A magical preparation within the biodynamic system at Pepe.” There are 80,000 bottles produced annually, 45 trebbiano, 35 montepulciano, 15 pecorino and five cerasuolo. whites are hand-stomped, skins and stems removed and then straight to basket press. Th juice is put to concerte tanks for two years on the gross lees. As for reds, friction skin versus non-friction skin of montepulciano is key. “If you know the difference then you understand montepulciano. The basket press is responsible for zero friction.” Chiara adds “for me the lees are very important for their reductive power and we make sure to do nothing that encourages cloudy ferments,” And so because Pepe wants to do everything to avoid sediment, wines 20 years and older are decanted, rid of solids and re-corked.

Again, “if there is one single winemaker who defines natural, who lives, breathes and embodies the much maligned phrase “minimal intervention winemaking,” Emidio Pepe is the one. Not because of the techniques, practices and religious adherence to undomesticated viticulture, unadulterated and soulful viniculture. The reason Emidio Pepe is the benchmark and the ragione d’essere for natural wines to matter is because the wines are impossibly fantastic.”

Seven years after first meeting Chiara in Toronto I am humbled for my time spent with the Emidio Pepe family in Abruzzo. Chiara’s relationship with her grandfather and unwavering commitment to their land is everything that matters in making exceptional and memorable wine. It’s not only what you do but also who you are. Thank you and thank you to Vini d’Abruzzo for bringing us together. These nine tasting notes chronicle an afternoon and an evening spent with the famiglia Pepe and I am richer for the experience in ways tangible and intangible. I count the days to the next encounter. Manteniamoci giovani.

Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC 2019

Rainy vintage, ill gifted for montepulciano so not made in this vintage but for trebbiano and pecorino it was a good season. A honeyed vintage, beeswax and lanolin, phenolic but so in control. Super herbal yet again a bottled, instigated and estimable one, in dried florals too. Then the transition to luxe and palate lavishing, nurturing and care taken for the duration. More honey, mellifluous and mixed with tannins just a touch drying while the last note played hums for minutes. A day in Emidio Pepe life. Would like to wait two more years to see this cross over into the world where it occupies a mature sense of itself. Drink 2023-2037.  Tasted June 2022

Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC 2009

The youthfulness of honey after ten years turns to racy citrus and a vapour trail smoulders behind in this petrol-mineral and flinty trebbiano. The tenure is just about 35 deep for Emidio Pepe and this seems to exist in a transitional-next level aging epoch (in and around 2009) for an Abrusseze trebbiano that shows 12-plus year-old wisdom. Not only wisdom but calm and good nature. The finish carries a Manzanilla character that is an EP speciality but only in certain vintages. I suppose this would be one. Drink 2022-2028.  Tasted June 2022

Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC 2004

As with all aged trebbiano (d’Abruzzo) from Emidio Pepe there comes about an almost (if I may) Jura meets Hunter Valley character, here by the hands of Sofia Pepe who was winemaker at the time. A seasonal profile for sure, cool-ish and comparatively more so than the 2009 tasted alongside. Chamomile and scraped orange skin, a true juiciness and most of all a textural element that sets it apart. There is a tart component as well, almost grapefruit, a peppery kick and piques everywhere, especially on the back end. Drink 2022-2025.  Tasted June 2022

Emidio Pepe Pecorino d’Abruzzo DOC 2013

Emidio Pepe have been working with the grape since 2010, after planting in 2006 and 2007. A variety connected to the mountains, north facing, protected from the sun. Aromatic, thick skinned in tight punches like pinot noir. Glistening, viscous, a scintillant of a white wine and leave it to Emidio Pepe to see it age. A one point four hectare vineyard right behind the house. Acidity is easily maintained, especially from a cool vintage which also happened to be wet. A saffron note suggests a smile of botrytis and now like all aged EPs there is honey and here, also green fig. A grape high in pH and yet the opposite seems to be what 2013 delivers. And with age the viscosity builds, the aromatic compounds multiply and mingle with frâiche flavours in Abruzzese cahoots. Drink 2022-2024.  Tasted June 2022

A perfect plate at Emidio Pepe

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC 2007

Hard to imagine a montepulciano of this age could be so fresh and indeed it was a warm vintage but remember two things. Concrete and no wood. Aged in one and without any contact with the other. Also consider it resting in an aging room and then after 15 years, coming away cool, crisp and clean. That it exhibits with grace and esteem is the problem solved, like grandfather and the way he walks, carries himself, passes the torch. A smoky subtlety and even now the initialization of fungi porcini but truth is only secondary notes are at the fore. Drink 2022-2027.  Tasted June 2022

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC 2003

Much further advanced as compared to 2007, not surprising considering the heat of the vintage and yet acidity is so very preserved. Also consider this having rested in an aging room and then, after 10 years, opened to decant from sediment and then re-corked to ensure its ultimate refinement. That is has kept and behold as it still rolls along.  Last tasted June 2022

At the teenage (in wine years) number 12 this is showing less evolution than expected, especially in consideration of the European year that was 2003. Another divaricating Abruzzo, with a dried fruit component that pullulates in a very hydrated way. From a scorching season where anxiety was felt by both the vines and their keepers. Possessive of a bricking that gives of the cracked earth, of dusty, ambivalent rocks and warm, pulpy air. Through the humid tones and with thanks to pergola trellising, balance prevails with close encounters in acidity of the rampant kind. Tannins rage as well, strong and bullish above the earthy notes and peppery berry bites. The old vines and sleight of winemaking hand are ensconced to this vision, void of faults and yet advancing from the frame. Needs just a few more years to find the median point on the chronometer. Drink 2018-2023.  Tasted March 2015

Chiara and Elisa

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC 2002

The subtle and gentle elegance of 2002 is almost mystifying, if at least a surprise that kinda hypnotizes. Memory serves up a case of conflict and adversity, if also vintage envy for the bookends of 2001 and 2003. And yet the cool of the night prevails to elongate a montepulciano for our pleasure and make it sing 20 years later. It was also decanted to reduce the lees sediment and then re-corked for our benefit. Words cannot express what a beautiful place this 2002 EP is found to be. It is a treat to taste and also behold, exactly as of right now. Drink 2022-2026.  Tasted June 2022

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC 2001

Laden with Brett and other exceptional volatility. The lift and high tonality are at the threshold of problematic. Less so on the palate but there are clearly concerning elements in this bottle.  Last tasted June 2022

If the ’03 acts a bit like a hormonal, impulsive, testy, cavilling or petulant teenager, this 2001 is the adolescent. Full of boundless energy, willingly and excitably adventurous and ready to participate in the game. This from a terrific vintage with great aging potential, here Montepulciano manifests with gravity defying weight, like careful Nebbiolo or graceful Burgundy. Where this separates itself from other Grand Cru varietal infinity is in its yeast directive. Singular, remarkable, devoid in spice as if by wood. The structure is innate, indigenously calculated, developing in bottle, verbalizing flavour. Like a bone from the skin of the clay, piaculum by limestone, passed through and brought to light by the leavening catalyst. Drink 2020-2036.  Tasted March 2015

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC 1983

After seven more years this 1983 remains and persists as one of the greats. “It was the first important vintage that we piled up bottles so high in the aging cellar,” explains Chiara. It marked a turning point for her grandfather and while the tannins are of course long gone the acidity still rises, bringing it into balance at nearly 40 years of age. “It was undrinkable to grandfather because it was so dense and powerful in its first years. The key to understanding and making his wine was time.” This is not a wine that has too much of anything and it is so organized. The aromatics, of cinnamon, rose petal and fenugreek are in multifold metaphysical existence and concentration. They are the driver for all else to follow.  Last tasted June 2022

In 1983, the bottling is the Riserva. Give Emidio Pepe’s reds thirty odd years to develop and the impossible happens. To postulate in a moment’s assessment without remembering the pious tradition with which this was made would be a crime against Pepe, Abruzzo, the natural world and the wonders of the universe. With this much passage the spice cupboard that emits is wow times a thousand. Clove, cinnamon, cardamon, orange peel, galangal and like golden raisins that pass through quarries to become rubies. This wine is perfect. It has not broken down an iota. It requires no decanting. It defies logic, perception and time. There is no sediment, only energy. Speaks from the glass as if it were a child of destiny and mythology. The 1983 Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva arrives from along the same road taken but its transmogrification proves that the result, with thanks again to the endemic froth, is different every time. Drink 2015-2029.  Tasted March 2015

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Chiara de Lulis Pepe and Emidio Pepe

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The natural wines of Emidio Pepe

Chiara and wines

Chiara De Lulis Pepe and the wines of Emidio Pepe at Barque Smokehouse, March 10, 2015

Emidio Pepe‘s granddaughter Chiara De Lulis Pepe says that in 5o years of winemaking nothing has changed. Nothing, save for a conglomerate-like expansion from 1.5 to 15 hectares of farming vines in Abruzzo. No seriously, do the math. Emidio Pepe remains and likely always will be a tiny, boutique, garagiste, artisan producer.

To say Emidio Pepe is unique and singular for Abruzzo and outwards into the natural winemaking diaspora is as gross an understatement as can be made. Consider the approach. Natural, healthy viticulture. No chemicals ever. Ever. Organic, biodynamic, only indigenous yeasts (more on that later), no fining or filtration. Red berries de-stemmed by hand. White grapes trod by foot. Fermentation in concrete. Bottling in early March and laid to rest. Then the bottles are decanted by hand, re-corked and released. The entire premise begins and ends with amazingly clean and pure fruit.

Pundits and critics will sit across a table and discuss. Point. “This is the essence of natural wine. No manipulation and zero handling.” Counterpoint. “There is no such thing. All wine is handled. All winemakers influence the outcome of their wines.” Point. “It’s all about the yeasts. They and their grapes are the heart and soul of natural wine.” Counterpoint. “To sell the wines, those yeasts and their grapes, once inside the bottle, must travel on planes, trains and automobiles. What is natural about that?”

The fact is Emidio Pepe‘s wines do not have to travel. They do not produce enough for that necessity but by heading out on tour they spread the gospel and bring a natural crush to the people. They are spokes-wines of history, health and possibility. They defy the naysayer’s argument because they are the godparents of natural wine.

If there is one single winemaker who defines natural, who lives, breathes and embodies the much maligned phrase “minimal intervention winemaking,” Emidio Pepe is the one. Not because of the techniques, practices and religious adherence to undomesticated viticulture, unadulterated and soulful viniculture. The reason Emidio Pepe is the benchmark and the region d’essere for natural wines to matter is because the wines are impossibly fantastic.

Chiara De Lulis Pepe and Emidio Pepe

Chiara De Lulis Pepe and Emidio Pepe © https://www.facebook.com/emidiopepewines?fref=ts

The vineyards are located 10 km from the Adriatic and 45 minutes from the Gran Sasso D’Italia mountains. The unique saddle and its clay-limestone soil encourage roots to burrow five to six metres downward, to a subterranean comfort zone, where the temperature is always constant.  Hand de-stemming is a tradition “but we believe it makes a superior product,” says Chiara. Concrete fermentation is done “to keep the integrity of the wine.”

For Emidio Pepe it begins and ends with the yeasts. Complexity and richness comes from “the family of yeasts that started the fermentation.” Chiara truly believes that yeasts will determine the flavours of the wine. “Selective yeasts make for simple wines,” she insists. “If you use them in different countries, 50-60 percent of the taste of those wines will be the same.” With indigenous yeasts, “the years will put a stamp on the personality of the wine.”

I sat down with Mark Cuff and Zinta Steprans of The Living Vine, John Szabo M.S., Will Predhomme and Peter Boyd to taste with Chiara De Lulis Pepe at Barque Smokehouse in March. Chiara brought some special wines to the table. Here are the notes.

The line-up from Emidio Pepe

The line-up from Emidio Pepe

Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2007, DOC BIO Abruzzo, Italy (Agent, $154.95, WineAlign)

Skip straight past the naming and intimating of aromas and flavours. Here it is not the point. Trebbiano that is a product of having finished fermentation in bottle, with natural CO2, now virtually dissipated but persisting in echoes, to act as a natural preservative. The moniker natural does this little justice. The sweet sapidity and etching of acidity are so very grown-up, classically-styled, mature, precise. Trebbiano in which texture, above all else, stands out and firm. There is a dichotomous relationship, between viscosity and delicatezza. Natural respect, of a grace on a face, in twinkling wrinkles and gossamer flowers tucked impossibly into an aigrette of golden hair. In every facet to acting natural with a stupidly frank elegance to defy age, showing no signs of movement after eight years. The Robin Wright of white wine, expressive of tenderness but certainly not shy. Drink 2015-2025.  Tasted March 2015

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2003, DOC BIO Abruzzo, Italy (Agent, $94.95, WineAlign)

At the teenage (in wine years) number 12 this is showing less evolution than expected, especially in consideration of the European year that was 2003. Another divaricating Abruzzo, with a dried fruit component that pullulates in a very hydrated way. From a scorching season where anxiety was felt by both the vines and their keepers. Possessive of a bricking that gives of the cracked earth, of dusty, ambivalent rocks and warm, pulpy air. Through the humid tones and with thanks to pergola trellising, balance prevails with close encounters in acidity of the rampant kind. Tannins rage as well, strong and bullish above the earthy notes and peppery berry bites. The old vines and sleight of winemaking hand are ensconced to this vision, void of faults and yet advancing from the frame. Needs just a few more years to find the median point on the chonometer. Drink 2018-2023.  Tasted March 2015

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2001, DOC BIO Abruzzo, Italy (Agent, $169.95, WineAlign)

If the ’03 acts a bit like a hormonal, impulsive, testy, cavilling or petulant teenager, this 2001 is the adolescent. Full of boundless energy, willingly and excitably adventurous and ready to participate in the game. This from a terrific vintage with great aging potential, here Montepulciano manifests with gravity defying weight, like careful Nebbiolo or graceful Burgundy. Where this separates itself from other Grand Cru varietal infinity is in its yeast directive. Singular, remarkable, devoid in spice as if by wood. The structure is innate, indigenously calculated, developing in bottle, verbalizing flavour. Like a bone from the skin of the clay, piaculum by limestone, passed through and brought to light by the leavening catalyst. Drink 2020-2036.  Tasted March 2015

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva 1983, DOC BIO Abruzzo, Italy (Agent, $279.95, WineAlign)

Give Emidio Pepe’s reds thirty odd years to develop and the impossible happens. To postulate in a moment’s assessment without remembering the pious tradition with which this was made would be a crime against Pepe, Abruzzo, the natural world and the wonders of the universe. With this much passage the spice cupboard that emits is wow times a thousand. Clove, cinnamon, cardamon, orange peel, galangal and like golden raisins that pass through quarries to become rubies. This wine is perfect. It has not broken down an iota. It requires no decanting. It defies logic, perception and time. There is no sediment, only energy. Speaks from the glass as if it were a child of destiny and mythology. The 1983 Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva arrives from along the same road taken but its transmogrification proves that the result, with thanks again to the endemic froth, is different every time. Drink 2015-2029.  Tasted March 2015

Good to go!

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Dude’s wine night

as seen on canada.com

Wine writers are rarely accused of being overworked. Tasting through 100 wines at a sitting requires effort and focus but it’s still got nothing on Mike Rowe. There is work and then there is play, like accepting an invitation to dinner prepared by a passionate and skilled cook, with a bottle of wine the price of admission. Talk about a no-brainer.

On Friday night I dug deep into the cellar for a ’97 Tuscan and joined five fellow geeks, “The Wine Dudes,” for an adventure ride through 10 wines from 4 countries. A line up to leave oneself in bewilderment and utter presence. Wines of yeast, lees, late harvest and élevage en cuve. Wines made by celebrities, of iconic status, from historic locales, in times of peace and in times of war. What a trip.

Jacquesson Cuvée No. 734 Champagne is a blend of all Premier or Grand Cru fruit; Chardonnay (54%), Pinot Meunier (26%) and Pinot Noir (20%), based upon the 2006 vintage (73%). Essentially vintage authentic, it’s a balanced affair of toast, honey and grapefruit.  90

LOBSTER BISQUE, fresh tarragon

Domaine des Baumard Savennières Clos du Papillon 2005 by way of a note from JM is “really impressive with the bisque. Balanced richness and spiciness echoed the lobster, refreshing orchard fruit and dry honeyed finish, with lots of minerality to match the crushed shells.” Also from BE, “a honey pear start,  nice acid on the finish. Beeswaxy Sav nose.  Surprisingly harmonious match with the bisque. Rich enough to go toe to toe, but sharp enough on back end to cleanse palate.” Seems to me it “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.”

Podere Castorani Jarno Bianco Colline Pescaresi IGT 2006 (111690, $59.95) released back in June 0f 2009 is now a bronzed, verging on patina Madeira cocktail. The oxidation is philosophical, post-secondary and welcome, like finding a ’75 Chablis from the depths of dad’s cellar, opening, tasting and reveling in its ability to survive. One of a kind formula blend of Trebbiano D’Abruzzo 70%, Malvasia 20% and Cococciola 10% from Italian race car driver Jarno Trulli. Piques intrigue and opens a new dossier to white wine investigation.  89

BEEF CHUCK AND HEART HAMBURGERS, american cheese, fresh romano beans, panzanella salad, fennel

Georges Duboeuf Morgon 2010 (946186, $18.95) is Gamay defined, chipper and jocund. The simpleton whose heart is revealed after stripping away its body. A cold pull of pressed plum, gateway and seamless segway to bigger reds.  87

I Giusti & Zanza Belcore Toscana IGT 2009 (652990, $23.95) uses (20%) Merlot as travel partner for (80%) Sangiovese to learn another language abroad. Studies the fruity fresh undergrad Gamay, moves quickly forward to post-graduate, earthy Right Bank, satellite Saint-Emilion and returns home to write a doctorate on sonorous and thermal IGT.  88

Château Fonroque St. Emilion Grand Cru 2000 unseats Talbot as the non pareil Bordeaux coalescence of value and longevity from that vintage. Resolute to immaculate balance, black fruit steadfast against crumbling tannins and yet I can see this pushing on for 10 or more. “You like drinking ghosts,” says JM. Yes I do, yes I do.  93

Bosquets Des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1998 is deep into tertiary life, displaying prune and dried, Amarone-like fruit. Hangs on with nary a sign of further development or decline for hours so good on the Papes for its frisson of retribution.  90

Castello Banfi Brunello Di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura 1997 is bloody in so many ways; good, hell, yeah. “Like killing a stag and eating it” or ” like peeling a scab and eating it” is over heard. The elixir is pure silk, the fruit dark and divine. To be honest, this ’97 (nice coincidence) Brunello has entered a La Vita è bella window. All I can say to the now bite-less and bella Banfi is “Buono giorno Principessa!”  93

Château Musar 2002 (109413, $54.95) from the Bekaa Valley, a place more famous for air strikes than grapevines. The Bordeaux blend is here exceptional, prodigiously candied like Sonoma Pinot a la Merry Edwards, but with an added depth of ash and earth. A sponge of lush red fruit, “gargle material,” notes chef. Spends seven years in their cellars. In a peaceful world it would be called a shmita. Lebanon’s vinous muse.  91

FIRE POACHED FIGS, roasted chestnuts, ice cream

Dr. Pauly Bergweiler Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Spätlese 2007 shows remarkable poise and lack of cloy. A cooperative of residual sweetness and acidity, still freshly ensconced in its primary stage of Riesling maturation. More perennial than petrol, more pear than paraffin.  92

Good to go!