Celebrating 60 Years of Emidio Pepe: An Insight into the Past, Present, and Future by Chiara Pepe

By | 17 May 2024

Website: https://www.emidiopepe.com/en/

Emidio Pepe is 60! This well-known winery from the Abruzzo region in Italy has embarked on a celebratory tour to give more insight into their operations to customers and journalists. Pioneering this tour is the industrious Chiara Pepe, who at just 29 is currently in charge of the family enterprise. Chiara states, ‘we intend to convey our perspective of the current situation and future plans. Our ongoing projects and what we aim to accomplish in the future.’

Despite the fact that the family enterprise has been producing wine since 1899, the modern epoch began when Emidio Pepe, Chiara’s grandfather, assumed control in 1964. Chiara recounts, ‘he initiated with a petite parcel just opposite the house.’ Her grandfather was apt at grafting, thus he used to graft the parcels he enjoyed working on, onsite. This ancient technique of planting vineyards came in handy during a time when nurseries were not available hence, farmers had to do everything themselves.’

Chiara states, ‘I’m the third generation.’ Her granddad, currently 92, was producing wine until the late 1990s. After him, her aunt took over for twenty years before Chiara began her journey in 2020. Since she took over, she feels liberated to do things her way. However, maintaining the customary methods was not an option because of climate change. ‘We’ve observed the changing climate,’ says Chiara. ‘Many people still hold a traditional and historical perspective so, we aim to narrate our present experiments and reflect on our roots.’

‘The approach of maintaining tradition while embracing change is crucial for successful succession,’ she shares. ‘Our grandfather would not have wanted us to simply continue his work without innovation; the wines produced would inevitably differ greatly. Although many practices are evolving with time, some are being preserved exactly as they were. These blend of preservation and evolution form the complexities of generational transfer.’

‘Our grandfather never applied pesticides or chemicals in the vineyards. His affinity for the pergola was impressive, and so was his fondness for using concrete in vinification – these practices continue to this day. He also strongly believed in the long-term ageing of his wines. The harvest process was to remain as manual as possible, not only the gathering but the fruit processing as well. His principles provided a solid foundation for us to build upon. He insisted that the understanding of terroir had to comprise natural usage and that the locale’s essence must be manifested through the yeast.’

‘We’ve been conducting extensive DNA analyses of the yeasts influencing our fermentations and have observed that specific yeasts originate from certain vineyards, with many originating from the cellar environment. As we continue to harvest grapes that have weathered various seasons, the types of yeasts alter. This has sparked intense reflection within us. While the present climate is slightly warmer than before, the light quality has transformed as well. As agriculturists, we take these changes into account when making decisions.’

Here are Chiara’s insights on the current position of Emidio Pepe and plans for the future, accompanied by my review of their wines which I found to be deeply impressive.

‘The year 2021 presented a unique season. Despite the extreme drought conditions, the application of biodynamic preparations played a crucial role in maintaining consistent photosynthesis in the vineyard. In such warm vintages, the use of silica might initially be intimidating, but it aids in precision during fermentation. I have learned from numerous other biodynamic winemakers, who routinely employ silica to enhance the vineyard’s intrinsic minerality. In addition, we frequently sprayed chamomile tea on the leaves to maintain their moisture and ability to capture sunlight. The unusually dry season tends to cause the leaves to alter their shape and close, foreshadowing a halt in photosynthesis. Thus, using these methods, we found it intriguing to maintain photosynthesis throughout the season.’

‘In such a season, we opted not to plough or disturb the soil, a practice we’ve focused on refining over recent years. This departure from historical methods of handling the soil is a forward step towards a no-ploughing, no-tilling strategy. This transition, given our soil structure rich in clay and sometimes silt, requires careful preparation. Since my return to the estate, I have been eager to implement a permanent bent cover crop system, enveloping roughly 20 diverse herb species across three main families. Notable among these are crucifera, like fava beans and peas, excellent nitrogen fixers. Then we have the family that releases acids around their roots, effectively detoxifying the soil. Finally, we incorporate graminacea, such as wheat and spelt, with penetrative roots that aerate the soil once their lifecycle ends. The topsoil’s readiness was an essential prerequisite before choosing to abstain from ploughing. Over the last three seasons, our sole reason for ploughing was to plant seeds. This year, we embarked on our first trial of direct seeding, confident in our soil’s health and responsiveness.’

‘With the changing climate, we foresee seasons characterized by extreme heat and dense rainfall. Such anomalies are not restricted to mere temperature hikes. As an example, in 2023, we recorded 250 mm of rainfall from late May to early June, with a continuous 16-day period of moisture-laden leaves. Consequently, we are preparing our vineyards to endure both sweltering, dry conditions and heavy rainfalls. In 2023, we watched our neighbors’ topsoil being eroded while, courtesy of the cover crops, our soil remained intact. It sparked a thought on how to capitalize on the cover crops to conserve the organic matter in my vineyard.’

‘Conversely, in a dry season, bent cover crops prove beneficial by reflecting sun rays and preserving ground moisture. They also regulate temperatures. For instance, the soil beneath a mulched cover crop is relatively 5 degrees cooler than an exposed land. Our normal practice involves seeding, growth to maturity, bending using a roller crimper, seed drop, and ground seeding. We keep the mulch throughout the season. We usually commence planting in October. The cover crop grows, and as bud break commences, so does bending. This strategy ensures the soil gets an opportunity and energy to rejuvenate during the plant’s minimal energy requirement phases.’

‘I feel very proud to work with pergolas, especially now, with the change in climate. The shade and protection comes with a totally different enological quality of those grapes. Grandfather always said two things. The leaves are the engine of the plant: it is a motor. The powerful energy of photosynthesis is undeniably related to the quality of the grapes. The second is exposure. Grandfather very much appreciated the grapes that were not exposed to sunlight. This is physiologically reasonable. As we are out in the sun our skin gets tanned, and that is a physiological reaction of our body. This works the same in the plant. As you expose a bunch to direct sunlight, the skin gets thicker. Thus the tannins are rougher. For Montepulciano this was an important element. This starts as a powerful grape with a lot of tannins and colour. We want to keep the grapes as potentially noble as they could be rather than accelerating the phenolic ripening. It was important for grandfather that the grapes were getting ripe through sap, through photosynthesis, and sugar accumulation through leaves rather than concentration by evaporation from sunlight. The pergola was important for us for all these reasons.’

‘Grandfather used to like to say that only under the pergola you create the velvet of the Montepulciano.’

‘I started to think how I could be grateful to the pergola and to the decisions that have been made in the past that are allowing me to make wines that are of a different quality when they are coming from pergola.’

‘I’d like to vinify for a few decades to come. Pergolas are very nice right now, but probably in 20 years that shade will not be enough any longer.’

‘These days, there’s a growing synergy among winemakers worldwide. A new generation is striving to conceive and create innovative ways to grow and produce the best possible wines. There’s a robust exchange of ideas and experiences, with plenty of brainstorming and exploration.’

‘We must remember our roots and utilize all the tools we have, all while serving nature. I’m determined to produce wines that can age well long into the future. However, given the challenges brought about by global warming, our options are limited. It’ll take time to come up with effective solutions. Personally, I see shade as a solution, along with exploring soil microbiology and monitoring deeper temperatures. These areas hold great potential for innovation.’

‘Everything started with a simple question we winemakers are often asked, “How many hectares do you cultivate?” I used to find this question rather frustrating, but I soon figured out why. We don’t just cultivate surfaces; we are responsible for volumes. The soil above ground mirrors the complex world beneath it. So, I began contemplating the idea of cultivating on higher levels. This led me to explore deeper into my soil, tapping into additional water resources and various temperature levels. It’s surprising to realize how much we still need to learn about what lies beneath the surface.’

‘I had the chance to plant 2.3 hectares in March 2022. I chose to plant Montepulciano in pergola style and opted for an agroforestry system. As I shaded my pergola, I delved deeper into the soil below using neighboring trees. This approach was executed in two different ways across three plots. The plan is to cultivate on three levels — soil, vines, and trees. In line with the principle of symmetry, the roots of each level can support those of other levels. Just before I left for London, a fellow winemaker visited my new parcel. Despite seeing the tall cover crops surrounding my new vines, his first question was about reducing this “competition”. It made me think. We often plant thousands of plants per hectare to encourage root depth, yet we worry when it comes to competition among the plants themselves. The question then becomes, “What’s our objective, and why should we fear competition?”‘

‘Currently, we are embarked on a journey of exploration, requiring the bold decision-making reminiscent of the great winemakers of the past. Sure, we’ll make mistakes–as anyone forging a new path inevitably will–but the thrill of the unknown and the challenge of the non-standard makes it all worth it. Especially for our family, who are unafraid to diverge from the norm in our region.’

‘One of our vineyards had no surrounding trees, so we planted a 0.6 ha pergola ringed by 70 trees of various kinds. We opted for trees with the same mycorrhizae as vines, hoping for an immediate synergy. The decision of which trees to plant came from a mix of advice from seasoned farmers and regional traditions, including a practice called vigna maritata, where vines are allowed to grow into trees.’

‘I also planted a significant number of fruit trees. It’s an homage to the extensive use of peche de vigne, or vineyard peaches, documented in Burgundy’s history. Choosing where to plant was all about sun exposure: dense-canopy trees were positioned to the west for protection from the afternoon sun, while sparse, cherry trees were planted to the east for morning light penetration. We opted for young trees so they could grow alongside the vines—a topic we spent a lot of time deliberating over.’

‘Promoting biodiversity across the estate has a practical benefit: everything grown can be reused. For instance, we cultivate ancient wheat varieties for use in our own pasta and flour production. Keeping other crops alongside our vineyard is critical for us. Post-harvest, the wheat straw is repurposed for mulching, benefiting both old and new vines.’

‘Being a young winemaker in Abruzzo is exciting because there aren’t many preset rules to follow. We’re often doing things for the first time, which comes with a sense of exhilaration.’

‘Creating wine is a personal endeavor. I don’t want to replicate designs of the past. Even though I never tasted my grandfather’s wines in their youth, I aim to honor the tradition. Naturally, there will be distinctions. It’s fortunate that I observed my grandfather’s work, which was a wonderful blend of practicality and observational skills. Successful people in the wine industry possess both intellect and practicality – these elements are crucial for winemaking.’

‘My grandfather planted white vines on whiter clays, clays with more active limestone, and areas where parental material was closer to the surface, where the roots struggled a bit more. The unique geological structure of Italy, formed by two plates colliding and rising to form the Apennine mountain range, has profoundly impacted our region. Most of our soils are washed down from the mountains. The underlying material is the same quartz found at the top of the Apennines. Over time, we’ve seen the formation of alluvial layers. In our region, Abruzzo, there is often movement. When soils are alluvial, they are typically less compacted. Below the quartz, we have a blue marl layer, followed by various types of clay, influenced by either more sand or silt. The base is clay abundant in calcareous elements. Some areas have a prevalence of sand, others more silt.’

‘Branella and Casa Pepe, our two oldest plots at the winery, consist primarily of sand and silt, respectively. Casa Pepe is situated right in front of our residence and is where my grandfather grafted. We commonly take the massal selection from here. The rootstock was planted in 1970, with grafting taking place from 1972 to 1974. Branella, acquired in 1984, registered in a catalogue in 1966 with 2 hectares, features more sand. It possesses a significant mix of soil types within the parcel and has deeper soil. Casa Pepe, being south-facing, boasts a soil rich in silt and iron. Silt aids in water retention, behaving like a sponge, and enabling the vine to access water throughout summer. This results in a longer ripening cycle for Casa Pepe and a more resolved completion. On the other hand, Branella, with more sand, has cooler soils and scattered precipitated limestone. This creates a unique perception of acidity and freshness.’

For the past four years, the team has been working with Brenna Quigley, an up-and-coming US-based geologist known for her collaborations with leading producers. Her focus has been on conducting Abrizzo’s first geological studies on vineyards.

The white wines are crafted using traditional techniques. Grapes are foot trodden in wooden tubs, with three to four individuals adding their strength. This process, which takes around 45 minutes, allows for the release of creaminess, density and phenolic elements. Post foot treading, the grape mass is put through a vertical press before being fermented in concrete without any settling. Following malolactic fermentation, the wine is racked. Small amounts of sulfites are added at the beginning and, if required, after spring racking. Prior to bottling, the wine matures for two years in lined concrete tanks. The use of concrete, as Chiara mentions, brings several benefits – these tanks are not just easy to clean, they also regulate temperature effectively.

Sulfites usage varies with Chiara using a little more than her aunt, yet always striving to use as little as possible for the safety of the wine. She points out that wild ferments are greatly influenced by sulfite levels. Citing a tough year, 2023, when the fruit bore the brunt of a lot of mildew, she stresses on the importance of sulfures in achieving wild fermentations. While she is cautious in her approach, she does plan to take more risks in the future. 2023 also marked the year when they redesigned their foot tread tanks to include glycol cooling, enabling pressing at lower temperatures.

Emidio Pepe has always been known for making Trebbiano, but Pecorino came into the picture later, with the vineyards planted in 2006/7. These northern-facing vineyards offer protection against sunlight and heat. Pecorino ages well but tends to lose more acidity in malolactic fermentation due to higher malic acid content.

The process of destemming red grapes happens manually. Before, the team used a net over a 1000-litre tank, and they needed to bucket out the contents into fermenters. Since 2022, however, they’ve started to destem into small stainless steel hoppers. These can be lifted and emptied by gravity through a hydraulic valve into the 2200 litre tanks where fermentation occurs with whole berries. The initial fermentation starts with a pied de cuve. As relayed by Chiara, a vigorous fermentation process is crucial – the yeasts shouldn’t lack anything. Particularly for Montepulciano, a high peak temperature during fermentation assists in tannin polymerization. After 6-7 days of maceration, the pressing happens (this timing depends on sugar levels). Chiara and her team employ a basket press, similar to their treatment of whites. They’ve opted for a gentler extraction method. Some of the tanks get two pigeages, others receive three. Chiara’s grandfather used to press at an alcohol level of 9%, completing fermentation off the skins. After malolactic fermentation, they rack the wines, sulfur them, and allow them to rest in concrete vats for two years. Chiara strongly believes in producing Montepulciano wines meant for maturing, not for instant appeal. It’s a bold decision, to age the bottles and promise their excellence in 20 years, but Chiara believes it says a lot about the bold personality of her grandfather.

Although gravity flow would be optimal, the antique cellar necessitates the use of pumps. Chiara admires gravity flow in theory, but she doesn’t believe it would significantly affect their robust varietals. She compares them to Pinot and Chardonnay.

Emidio Pepe, in the past, used to decant and rebottle his 10-year-old red wines before selling them because they deposited loads of tannins. This only happens now with wines older than 2001. The team inspects each bottle, decants them carefully, then reseals them with a new cork. They indicate the date of decanting on a neck label to show that it was performed at the estate. They also flush the bottles with nitrogen before refilling them.

The Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abbruzzo 2021 hails from Abruzzo, Italy. It captivates with its full yellow-gold hue. This wine boasts intensity and power, vibrancy, and spiciness. Lime fruit couples with hints of apple and peach for a delightful richness. Its finish is salty and intense, complemented by tangy cherry notes and good acidity. It lingers, finely spiced. Score: 94/100

Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abbruzzo 2019 Abruzzo, Italy
This was a cold vintage. Very textural with a touch of spice and subtle saltiness. Tangy lemony fruit as well as some pear and apple. Such texture and purity with nice brightness. Fine and pure. 95/100

Emidio Pepe Pecorino 2021 Colli Aprutino IGT, Abruzzo, Italy
From 1.5 hectares, north facing, panted in 2006/7. Gives 6000-7000 bottles a year. Full gold in colour. This is stony, mineral, saline and intense with good acidity and fine spicy notes. Such power and complexity here as well as intensity and finesse. 96/100

Emidio Pepe Pecorino 2020 Colli Aprutino IGT, Abruzzo, Italy
Complex and powerful with lovely acidity under the crystalline citrus fruit, with a touch of pear and appealing spicy notes. Some marmalade and orange peel, too. 95/100

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ‘Branella’ 2021 Abruzzo, Italy
A property bought in 1984, planted in 1966. 2 hectares, pergola. Sandier soils, which are also deeper, and which have some speckled lenses of precipitated limestone. Brooding and bright, fresh and mineral, with floral black cherry and plum fruit as well as a twist of blackcurrant. Firm and taut with nice precision. So fresh and lively with lovely bright acidity and some limestone freshness. Fine and expressive with a bit of grunt but also elegance. 96/100

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ‘Casa Pepe’ 2021 Abruzzo, Italy
Silt dominated soils, in front of the house, rootstock planted in 1970 and then grafted with mass selection from 1972 to 1974. Deeply coloured, this is a rich and inky wine with some lushness to the sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit. There are some smoky, stony, charcoal notes, as well as some richness to the fruit. Has nice tannins and good depth. Warm, bold and concentrated, with real grip on the finish. Such a beautifully expressive wine, and quite a bit richer than Branella. 96/100

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ‘Branella’ 2020 Abruzzo, Italy
Focused, bright and linear with floral cherry and blackberry fruit. Fresh and linear with keen acidity and good tannins. This is juicy and vibrant with lovely freshness and purity, showing nice grip on the finish. Subtle tarry notes with real focus and precision: sensational stuff. 97/100

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ‘Casa Pepe’ 2020 Abruzzo, Italy
Smoky and mineral on the nose with notes of iodine and iron on the nose alongside the brooding black fruits. The palate has depth, richness and generosity with some sleekness to the black cherry and blackberry fruit. Nice flesh here but also structure. There’s some tannin under the fruit, but it’s well hidden. 96/100

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2009 Abruzzo, Italy
Vivid, fresh and fine with lovely black cherry and blackberry fruit, as well as high acidity and some spice and earth notes. Tart, intense and linear, this is really bright and focused. Great acid line and nice tannins. 94/100

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2001 Abruzzo, Italy
Subtle earthy development here with bold sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit, showing nice evolution. Fine and expressive with fine-grained structure, showing good precision. Great balance still, with lots of grip, but beginning to open out. 95/100

UK agent: Dynamic Vines

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