Where are all the people? It’s unnerving. I headed somewhere different, remote, empty. It felt abandoned. Stark. In winter the mountainous interior of Abruzzo was deserted. I arrived too early for my appointment at Torre dei Beati, which was good because I was hungry. I drove way down a gravel road, following signs for a restaurant. It was empty. The proprietors sat watching variety shows, stirring minimally at my arrival. As I sat waiting for a very simple pasta lunch to be delivered, two more non-local Italians arrived in a gleaming blue sports car, entered and sat at a table. It was a relief, the tension broken, no more need to stare at preposterous daytime programming or the squeaky clean tile floor.
I arrived at a small café that shared a parking lot with a shop selling local products. The crossroads it bordered was our prescribed meeting point, necessary because directions or google maps are powerless to find Torre dei Beati. The café was mostly empty, two truck stop waitresses joked around behind the dark bar, probably wondering why central casting delivered them to a remote mountainside in Abruzzo instead of a smoky diner surrounded by 12 lanes of autostrada. They’d managed to recreate the ambiance of their indigenous habitat, or the smokiness at least. The chatty duo dispensed espresso at rock bottom prices and lifted my spirits after that interminable silent lunch.
After a quick phone call Fausto Albanesi arrived. He smiled, we breezed through small talk, I followed him even deeper into agricultural back country. My rental car would be returned dirty. There are prohibitions regarding gravel roads and rental cars that I violate with impunity.
The estate is quiet. Nobody around, empty newly restored rooms that echoed with our conversations. Fausto is a friendly and informative host, and we had unfettered space to talk. The building pleases my inner critic. The size is correctly matched to the scale of Torre dei Beati’s farming operations, the traditional aesthetics are ideal for the rural landscape. Much later I learned Fausto is a part-time architect.
Torre dei Beati’s oldest Montepulciano vineyard was planted in 1972 by Fausto’s father-in-law Rocco. He sold grapes and eventually passed along seven hectares, no equipment and a destroyed old house to his daughter Adrianna Galasso, and Fausto. Those were the original materials of Torre dei Beati. Now the property is 17ha, very close to the mountains (Gran Sasso is in full view) and close to the sea. These are good neighbors: cool air flowing down from the mountain to the sea is excellent circulation, ideal for an organic estate committed to avoiding chemical fungicides.
The elevation of Torre dei Beati’s vines creates significant day/night temperature swings, important for freshness in the wines. You may have noticed that freshness and vibrancy are not universal characteristics of wines from Abruzzo. “Cold air is important to get rid of insects and diseases of the vineyard.” Well, at Fausto’s place in summer, daytime high temps near 30 degrees Celsius can dip to 5 degrees Celsius by the wee hours. Hence the wines have an acid spine and avoid any messy, flabby hot-climate flavors. And pests are kept in check.
Next door is Eduardo Valentini’s legendary estate. Those wines are too expensive.
“We have to fight to make the vineyard produce less grapes” Albanesi said. Abruzzo is fertile, even high in the mountains. “Like a person, if they have a certain lifestyle it is hard to change.”
They prune shorter and shorter. They make a strong selection of the grapes. This is hard work mentally. Think about how much you prune your garden’s tomatoes, versus how much you should prune them to create optimally ripe, perfect low-yield tomatoes. If you are similar to me, too much fruit is left on the vine.
Not at Torre dei Beati. “We know every corner of the vineyard. We know which grapes to put in the tank.” Real hands-on daily farming leads to this basic awareness.
Fausto leaves the foliage closest to the grape clusters intact, to prevent sun damage. Sunburn was a major issue for many in Abruzzo during the 2011 and 2012 vintages. “If you manage the vineyard correctly, it is less of a problem.”
And here’s where the really hard work begins. “When we harvest we pick just a couple bunches per vine and leave the rest to ripen. Then we come back, 5-6 times, to optimize the maturation process.” That’s a lot of passes through 17 hectares of vineyard. As the ripe fruit enters the winery it passes over a sorting table where clusters are selected by hand. The trained eyes of Fausto & co. use scissors to cut out imperfect grapes (and leaves and other vine detritus) from the harvest. “I try to do my best from the beginning… but nature is the master.” Fausto doesn’t shy away from additional labor when following nature’s plan for his wines.
Giocheremo con I Fiori Pecorino is labeled with a painting by Fausto’s young daughter. Playful, like the wine. “From a technical point of view this is the most interesting variety of my region.” The grape manages to concentrate sugars while retaining plenty of acidity. It’s a naturally low-yielding grape. To me it tastes more savory/saline/stony than most whites from Abruzzo. Albanesi doesn’t like hyper-reductive winemaking techniques. He uses the stems when making this wine, so he can press the clusters with a lower pressure. The stems provide channels for the juice to run out. After fermentation he keeps the wine on the lees for several months.
Rosa-ae Cerasuolo is a full-bodied, ripe pink wine with a medium-rose color. It is made using ½ saignee method Montepulciano, and ½ Montepulciano that was vinified like a white wine. This is Fausto’s logical solution to the seasonal rose conundrum. He says the white vinification method makes a better summer rose, the saignee method creates a fuller, fruity wine that’s better when it’s cold outside. So 50/50: good all year long!
All the estate’s reds age in 7 to 8 year old large barrels or barriques, because Albanesi is certain they need oxygen exchange from the wood. He points out they become stable after two years in wood, naturally, with no need to clarify. The Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is aged in big barrel and old barriques for two winters. It sets a high bar for “basic” Montepulciano. I can’t find any flaws and really wouldn’t want it to be any other way.
Fausto Albanesi is generous with his time and with the flavors of his home region. His direct and information-rich conversational style is refreshing, as are the wines. They make me think about the human component to terroir, and how working harder is imperative if you are lucky enough to farm exceptional land.