Abruzzo’s Tenuta Ulisse: Innovative Technology Encounters Italian Indigenous Varieties

As I made my way around the Abruzzo pavillon at Vinitaly earlier this year, I happened upon a new winery that caught my eye, Tenuta Ulisse. I am not sure if it was the huge smile on one of the owner’s faces or his enthusiasm that drew me in but whatever the case, I was impressed with his demeanor and more importantly, with a couple of their wines.

Tenuta Ulisse

Antonio and Luigi, two brothers took over the winery in 2006 that was started by their grandfather Antonio Ulisse at the beginning of the 1900s. The winery is located in Cercchio in the province of Chieti in Abruzzo, between the Adriatic sea and the mountains. Originally they had two hectares but now have 30 hectares in three locations: Cercchio, Lanciano and Ortona. Thus far the brothers have had a lot of success. They are currently producing 65,000 bottles but next year plan to make 130,000. They expect to eventually produce 200,000-300,000 bottles.

The brothers have been working with Vittorio Festa, a noted enologist to develop a new vinification system and particular viticulture techniques. One example of this is that they have different clones of the same grape variety growing in the same area. The winery has worked to keep yields sufficiently contained, 50 hl/ha, with approximately three bunches on each plant and 4000 vines per hectare.

Harvesting is all done by hand and the grapes are put into baskets with dry ice in order to avoid the start of fermentation. The grape baskets then pass directly into a tunnel called “Enocrio” where they undergo a rapid 25+ degree temperature change, from 20/25 degrees celsius to -3/-5 degrees celsius. This thermal shock breaks the grape skins and releases primary aromas in the fruit much earlier than it would have had the grapes been sorted, selected and then pressed.

The grapes are then pressed in an oxygen free press with a diffuser filled with argon gas. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks covered with argon gas at 12 degrees celsius.

The brothers have also made a specific choice in terms of the closure system that they use. They only uses glass closures.

The winery produces some seven wines under the Unico label: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC, Trebbiano d’Aburuzzo DOC, Cerasuolo di Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC, Chardonnay IGT, Merlot IGT, Pecorino IGTand Cococciola IGT as well as a brand new sparkling wine.

Brut Unico - Pecorino

My favorite was the sparkling wine they make using the pecorino grape. Percorino is traditionally associated with Le Marche but also grows quite well in Abruzzo. Their version had a beautiful perlage of numerous small bubbles. Made using the charmant method where it spends 3-4 months in the tank, this light summer sparkler was very appealing with white fruit and flower aromas and flavors. It was much drier than your average prosecco, a style which I prefer. Sparkling wines made from lesser known Italian grape varieties haven’t yet made much headway in the U.S. but I expect that time will come.

In addition to the Percorino sparkler which I so enjoyed, I tried a wine I have never heard of Cococciola, a Terre di Chieti IGT. Apparently it is a white indigenous grape from Abruzzo which is being resuscitated. It had aromas of apricot, floral notes and other stone fruits. I enjoyed its lovely minerality and lively acidity.

The third wine which I found refreshing was a Cerasuolo di Montepulciano DOC made from the Montepulciano d”Abruzzo grape. This salmon colored wine was a lively mouthful of cherries and strawberries. A nice summer wine, it was made using the Salasso method.

This is a vinification technique used to produce rose’ like wines using red grapes, often called “bleeding the wine.” After the grapes have macerated for a few hours with their skins, the wine maker takes the free run juice from the bottom of the fermenting tank and does a temperature controlled fermentation at a very low temperature with this portion of must. Some of the color from the maceration is maintained but none of the tannins achieving the fruity wines that the winemaker is seeking to produce. This can be done with a variety of grape varieties which tend to produce big wines. I have had wines made using this method from Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Aglianico and a host of others. Originally it was done to create more concentrated red wines but most high quality rose’ wines are made this way.

Additionally, I was amazed that one week after the devastating earthquake in L’Acquila on April 6, Luigi Ulisse wrote me an email to say how much he had enjoyed meeting me. I was touched and happy to see that business is alive and well in Abruzzo and that there is a young, energetic generation out there marketing their wines. As of Vinitaly, the brothers were still looking for a US importer. I hope they have found one.

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