Half way down Italy’s “boot” in the Pescara commune of the Abruzzo region lies a quaint hilltop town named Loreto Aprutino.
The rooftops, normally a russet terracotta colour, are covered in snow that luminesces in the half-light of the dusk of winter. A cooling, hazy night air softens the lights of the streetlamps so that a honeyed speckled glow illuminates the ancient streets.
The place is beautiful, and would provide the perfect backdrop for any novel, ad campaign or photo-shoot looking to evoke a rustic, rose-tinted retrospective of Italian rural life.
The thing is though, I’ve never actually been to Loreto Apurtino. I have, however, been looking at a photo on the website of boutique wine producer Torre dei Beati, whose vineyards and winery are within sight of the town. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, as they say.
I did try their wines recently and had the opportunity to meet and talk to Torre de Beati’s owner and winemaker, Fausto Albanesi, who hosted a very special tasting at Ely on Ely Place. He’s a really fantastic guy: softly spoken, intelligent and brimming with mirth, and the wines were genuinely excellent. The fact it’s a small family-run company with fun, storyful labels really completes the package.
Tower of the Blessed
The name “Torre dei Beati”, translates as “Tower of the Blessed”, and takes its lead from a section of the large 14th century fresco adorning the church of Santa Maria in Piano at the base of the town’s hillside.
The fresco features an interpretation of the Judgement Day, where a tower is the final goal for souls who have reached the after-life. But they must do this via much effort and tribulation such as crossing a bridge no wider than a human’s hair, no less.
And so it came to pass that the team at Torre dei Beati imagined this mythical tower to symbolise all that they aim to achieve in their efforts to create a wine typical of its locale and honestly made: though the journey may be tough and at first seemingly impossible, the end more than justifies the means.
The winery is owned and run by husband-and-wife team Adrianna Galasso and Fausto Albanesi – when they’re not looking after their children or travelling the world selling their wine, that is. Fausto’s father-in-law, Rocco, planted the first Torre dei Beati vineyard in 1972 and handed over control in 1999 to the young couple who quickly converted the estate to organic farming in 2000, a considerable length of time before it became the hip thing to do.
At the time the estate totalled a modest seven hectares, with no serious winemaking equipment and near-derelict buildings, but since then they’ve expanded this to twenty-one hectares and the right gear to ensure good wine made properly, as well as introducing a raft of quality-orientated measures and practices in order to steer the brand closer to the Tower, so to speak.
The location helps too: their vineyards’ proximity to the sea and the snow-capped Gran Sasso mountain means cooling breezes and regulated temperatures, thereby avoiding the overbaked, jammy flavours that affect so much basic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
So already we have a family history, careful site selection and poetically aspirational naming: from the outset the Galasso/Albanesi family were doing things much differently than what was the norm for a region not exactly famed for its quality output.
I think by now we’re all familiar with the name Montepulciano d’Abruzzo: it features as the house wine on almost every Italian restaurant wine list and can be found at the lower end of wine lists in many other Irish restaurants besides.
Literally, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wines are made from the Montepulciano grape in the region of Abruzzo – a rare example of semantic logic in the frequently confusing and complicated area of Italian wine.
However the laws regulating the production of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo are loose at best, meaning that a handful of large co-operatives churning out vast quantities of wine dominate the market, with quantity over quality preferred. The result is cheap and very gluggable wine, yes, but markedly indistinct and boring liquid at that.
Torre dei Beati, though, is a diamond in the rough. I’ve mentioned before that you can rarely go wrong with family-run wineries, where history, deference and a long-term outlook almost always trump quarterly shareholder return. The result is infinitely superior products made with passion and pride, a huge leap above the boring commercial wines produced by big-name multinationals. This is very true of Torre dei Beati, another worthy name to add to the list of wine companies where quality and ideology hold priority over profit margin every time.
Crickets in Your Head
Speaking of big brands, the established names are not shy of spending hundreds of thousands concocting names and labels for products that they hope will resonate with consumers, with the objective of conveying emotions and associations carefully researched via focus groups and market research.
For smaller companies though, and especially family-owned ones, the names and labels that emerge naturally are always far more interesting.
Take, for example, one of Torre dei Beati’s top-tier wines “Cocciapazza”, meaning “crazy head” in the local Abruzzan dialect. When Adrianna and Fausto set out to create an ultra-premium, single-vineyard Montepulciano d’Abruzzo they were told wasn’t possible, or at least not feasible. They were literally “crazy heads” to even try.
Thankfully the critics were proved wrong, and in a witty, humorous move typical of the family they named the wine after the very criticisms aimed at them in the past.
Likewise two whites of theirs (not yet available here) are both called “Bianchi Grilli”, taking their name from the Italian saying “avere grilli per la testa” – literally “to have crickets in one’s head” and meaning to have strange, creative, funny ideas in mind. They’re both superb, of course and the labels feature playful sketches of – you guessed it – crickets. Another finger in the eye of the nay-sayers.
However the most intimate example of their personable approach to naming and labelling is the white wine that thankfully is available here in Ireland – it’s called “Giocheremo Con I Fiori”, for which the literal translation is “We will play with flowers”. It’s named after the picture painted by the owners’ young daughter Caterina which also adorns the label. The wine, the name and the label are all beautiful.
This level of intimacy with producers cannot be planned, or bought. Stories like this should be enough to convince any sceptics out there that wine is something so much more than “just wine” which should merely be alcoholic and as close to five euro as possible.
Carefully chosen, wine can provide intimate connections to people and places, their lifestyle and culture, their history and families … it sounds fluffy, but wine really can literally transcend liquid in the glass.
Thankfully we have wine producers such as Torre dei Beati to remind us of this every now and then. Grab a bottle of one of the below and you too might inch one step closer to the Tower of the Blessed.
THREE TO TRY
Pecorino d’Abruzzo, ‘Giocheremo Con I Fiori’
RSP €19.95 from Mitchell & Son, Redmonds of Ranelagh and The Corkscrew
Apart from also being the name of an Italian sheeps’ cheese, Pecorino is a white wine grape native to the country and more-or-less recently rediscovered in the last few decades.
The Torre dei Beati Pecorino has a deliciously waxy nose of pear and cider apple and a creamy palate with some zippy acidity.
Very refreshing, excellent quality and something new and different – what’s not to love?
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Torre dei Beati
RSP €18.95 from Redmonds of Ranelagh, Donnybrook Fair and The Corkscrew
Forget what you think you know about Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, since what we’re used to here is likely to be the chunky, ham-fisted, bland fruit juice of the past.
Here is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo as it should be: ripe rich red and black fruits, yes, but with an elegance and subtlety that can only come about via care and attention. Excellent length with light grippy tannins and refreshing acidity, it’s leagues ahead of others that share the designation.
‘Cocciapazza’ Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC
RSP €32.50 from The Corkscrew and Redmonds of Ranelagh
If the ‘regular’ Montepulciano d’Abruzzo was excellent, you’ve seen nothing yet. A more intense, savoury, version of the basic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, ‘Cocciapazza’ is Torre dei Beati’s single vineyard expression – a sort of Premier Cru of the region, so to speak.
Blackberries, damsons, leather, chocolate, spice and vanilla – the flavours tumble off the tongue.
A really excellent wine.
Richie Magnier blogs under the pseudonym The Motley Cru at www.themotleycru.com and @richiemagnier on Twitter. The Motley Cru has been working in the wine industry since 2008 and is currently studying the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines & Spirits.