Pliny the Elder raved about it, but have you ever imagined what those wines of antiquity really tasted like? Well, it has taken a wine loving history buff to reimagine and recreate, as close as possible, these heroic wines immortalised in ancient scripts.
2000 years ago, there was a wine produced in the commune of Atri in the Abruzzo region of Italy that was famed throughout the Roman Empire. It was called Vinum Hadrianum and made from vineyards sitting 400 metres high in the hills overlooking the Adriatic sea. Today, that winery is back and it is thanks to the passion and determination of a man called Piero Pavone. He wanted to create a wine that was not only a tribute to the extraordinary vinous legacy of the Abruzzo region, but that came close to the style of the wine lauded in those ancient texts. The wines are made as naturally as possible in homage to that Roman heritage.
Pavone has gathered together a team of five farmers ranging in age from 25 – 75 years who have worked this land for generations. Between them they combine tremendous knowledge of the terroir and the climate as well as the energy and vision for a new and challenging project such as this. They are joined by an expert oenologist to help make this dream a reality. All are natives of Atri.
The vines are 50 years old and the grapes are grown and harvested without the use of modern chemicals or machines. There is no irrigation as the proximity to the Adriatic ocean provides enough humidity. The white Trebbiano and red Montepulciano grapes are grown in the ancient pergola training system, one that is rarely seen these days outside Abruzzo.
The ultimate aim is for the wines to be fermented and aged in clay amphorae ranging from 250-1000 litres, burying them underground to keep them cool. Pavone has gone so far as to produce his own amphorae, replicating those used in ancient Roman times, in the neighbouring town of Castelli, a town famous for their ceramics production. This technique has taken some perfecting and 2020 is the first vintage that the wines will have been fermented and matured in amphorae. For the 2018 and 2019 vintages, the wines were late harvested (in October) to ensure excellent physiological ripeness, and then given extended maceration on the skins, 60 days for the white ‘Aelio’ and 90 days for the red ‘Maximo’, again a reflection of the traditional winemaking techniques.
This philosophy of low intervention, ‘natural’ wine making is one that has become increasingly popular over the last decade and our understanding of how to do this without allowing the wines to spoil has increased dramatically. It is now a rarity for natural wines to be synonymous with faults caused by oxidation, spoilage yeast or microbial contamination, but rather they range from funky and textural through to pure and perfumed and that is thanks to the ability to combine traditional techniques with scientific knowledge. This latest wine trend is of course, anything but new as this is how our ancestors would have been making wines before the development of agrichemicals, inoculated yeasts and the plethora of winemaking tools currently available. This approach to viticulture and winemaking has seen a resurgence thanks to its respect for nature, sustainable approach and its artisanal nature.
As restrictions once again tightened on travel in our Covid era, I was invited to ‘virtually’ explore this bold new project and received samples of their inaugural release, the Maximo 2018, a red wine made from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Aelio 2019, a skin contact white made from Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. Their production is just 7000 bottles and the presentation is immaculate with an eye catching bottle shape, beautifully embossed glass work with a Roman coin and the winery name, and the wine details on a label are in the shape of an amphorae.
Vinum Hadrianum Aelio 2019 Trebbiano D’Abruzzo DOC
A pale golden colour and a relatively neutral nose does not prepare you for the incredible intensity of flavour on the palate! It bursts into your mouth with dried apricots, sultana’s, sweet almonds, gorgeous savoury notes of hay and dried wild herbs and the most incredibly moreish saltiness. Despite the extended maceration the palate is not grippy or astringent, but beautifully structured with an elegant creaminess. The finish is long with a beautiful, almost effervescent minerality that adds to the freshness. A fascinating wine on its own, but it is also brilliant and versatile with food.
Vinum Hadrianum Maximo 2018 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Colline Teramane DOCG
The nose shows bright red and purple fruits and wild cherry blossom. The palate led with a textural minerality and spicy black pepper underscored with subtle, taut black fruit but as it opens up it reveals crunchy black cherry, damson and blackcurrant with a hint of wood smoke and lots of spice. Pure, nimble, spicy and silky, the wine is lithe and elegant rather than plush and rich with great freshness and balance while still in its very primary aromatic stages. The finish, like the white, has a fantastic mineral driven length.
So is this an accurate reflection of how the wines tasted 2000 years ago? My guess is that it is an improvement, an evolution of the wine that has its feet firmly planted in history but refined with modern scientific understanding. The style will undoubtedly evolve further with the move to amphorae which will increase the savoury and textural elements of the wine and align it yet further with the ancient wines they seek to represent.
The wines are not yet available in the UK, but can be bought directly from the winery at https://www.vinumhadrianum.com/