Quiet Icons | Italy – Emidio Pepe: The cat is out of the bag

You will find below an indulgent reflection on a few of my favourite producers, musings on trends and natural wine. Please do feel free to skip to the end, where you will find Emidio Pepe’s new releases and a nice selection from the estate’s library.

Emidio Pepe wine bottles

I have been buying and drinking the wines of Emidio Pepe for fifteen years and extolling their virtues. I never expected that there would ever be a commercial angle with these wines.

It’s been a very surprising fifteen or so years in wine.

Back then, we used to get together to taste top, mature vintages of Noel Verset’s Cornas and could barely find 15 people to attend. Nowadays, you can’t get a bottle of Cornas for less than £250 and this is a wine to be seen with on Instagram.

In the early noughties, Jacky Truchot and Rene Engel’s wines ranged from £20-ish for village to £100 or so for a bottle for Grand Crus and were regarded by many as a bit imprecise and old fashioned. I was recently offered some Charmes-Chambertin 2005 from Truchot for 2000 euros a bottle. Lafarge Volnays were once hard to sell and hardly anybody had even visited the Jura.

In the intervening years, we have seen styles of wine that seemed destined to hover on the periphery of wine collecting drift into centre stage: Clos Rougeard in Saumur; Selosse in Champagne; Thierry Allemand, Noel Verset and Marcel Juge in Cornas and Pierre Overnoy in the Jura, to name just a few. For context, Cornas and Verset were memorably dismissed by Jancis Robinson in 2000.

There are a number of producers which seem likely to follow this path in the next ten years, among them Jean Foillard in Morgon, Beaujolais; Couly-Dutheuil in Chinon; Bernard Levet in Cote Rotie; Xavier Gerard in Cote Rotie; Chateau Bel-Air Marquis D’Aligre in Margaux. This is without even looking outside the old world.

‘Natural wine’

The “natural wine” movement has captured headlines in recent years but it is part of a much bigger picture. The established order of wine appreciation is being usurped and there is a recognisable trend from hip wine bars in Paris and London to US SOMM (Sommelier) culture. Authenticity is big in wine right now.

A somewhat elusive term, “natural wine” has been applied to a number of these producers I mention above. Several of them are in a sense proto-natural wine producers who have long been employing methods which have been co-opted by the natural wine movement, in particular low sulphur and minimal intervention. Many of these producers are organic and or bio-dynamic but this is not a defining characteristic. These wines are all pre-hipster, the inspiration for rather than the result of this contemporary movement.    

This trend has a part to play in the rediscovery of styles of wine that have either literally or figuratively died out: Jacky Truchot, Rene Engel and Pousse D’Or in Burgundy; Gentaz-Dervieux, Verset, Marcel Juge and Raymond Trollat in the Rhone; more recently Jacques Puffeney in the Jura. The trend has also brought into focus a number of the best classical domaines, especially in Burgundy. Lafarge and Bruno Clair are great examples. The light has been shone on regions that have long been in the shade: St Joseph, Chinon, Saumur, Anjou and Beaujolais in France, Alto Adige and Fruili in Italy, the Dao in Portugal, Bierzo in Spain. Interest has blossomed in small, hands on producers who do things their own way and make distinctive wines: Domaine du Jaugaret in St Julien, Bordeaux; Accomasso in Barolo; Domaine Tempier in Provence.

I am delighted by these developments, even if it has made my own wine-drinking considerably less affordable. One of the most exciting things about wine is the breadth of experiences and traditions that can be found in wine regions and families around the world.

Through the 80s, 90s and early 00s we saw a narrowing of the world of wine.

Lots of emphasis was placed on points, critics and objective quality. This was an understandable reaction to the somewhat dubious quality of many wines in the marketplace. Hats off to Bob Parker. The (presumably) unintended consequences were homogeneity in production methods in different regions and styles of wine which had more to do with the wine consultant advising than the region or vineyard. In attempting to objectively assess quality we sometimes failed to understand wines in their context. Wines were condemned for characteristics which were typical for the region or grape because they didn’t conform to some sort of global standard.

As wine enthusiasts, we now face a different challenge. The world of wine has been blown wide open with fresh styles and flavours. We have orange wine as well as red and white. Unfortunately, this provides considerable cover for poor winemaking. Faults are not interesting in and of themselves. It is tough but very important to draw lines between the unusual and the good. It’s not, however, difficult to draw the line for producers who have been working this way for decades.

For Emidio Pepe, the track record is established. I have drunk plenty of Emidio’s wines from the 70s and 80s, Trebbiano as well as Montepulciano. These are impeccable wines, among the benchmark wines of their appellation. They are distinctive and challenging, wines that we need to try and understand on their own terms. Also, crucially, they are wines that need to be aged.

Emidio Pepe

The Pepe estate was founded in the very late 19th century but it was not until the 1960s that Emidio Pepe initiated a move towards bottling their own wines. Fortunately Emidio had the foresight, even early on, to stash away a healthy percentage of each vintage for future consumption. As a result it is still possible to buy wines from the early 70s direct from the estate.

Emidio has a strong belief in ageing in glass, indeed he uses glass lined cement tanks to ferment and age the wines. He also holds the wines for a long time in bottle and the estate performs the quite extraordinary task of decanting and recorking each wine before shipment. The new release of Montepulciano, due this month, is the 2015. Somewhat confusingly, there is also an Emidio Pepe Montepulciano 2016 on the market. This is the young vines cuvee, which these days is just released in Italy although it makes its way to the UK. It’s a delicious and interesting wine but the old vines cuvee is the one to focus on for long-term ageing.

The cat is already out of the bag here. Chiara, Emidio’s granddaughter has spent the last few years travelling extensively and has really taken these wines to the world. A recent post by NBA star Lebron James on Instagram Stories about Emidio Pepe’s Montepulciano 2010 affirms that these wines are very much on the global radar. Lebron has an astonishing 47 million followers on Instagram.

Prices remain extremely sensible, especially for the current release. Given what has happened with so many cult wines in the last decade, I don’t think that this will last forever. It is also important to note that as a result of Emidio’s program of ageing, he holds back up to 80% of production for release in future years. This means that although he makes a decent amount of wine, it disappears swiftly at release price.

All the wines listed below are the old vines cuvee. I have picked out a few of my favourite vintages. Please do let me know if you would just like to talk through the options and prices.

The Wines:

Trebbiano D’Abruzzo:

Trebbiano D’Abruzzo is not to be confused with trebbiano di Toscana. Trebbiano D’Abruzzo is, in the right hands, capable of exceptional complexity and a level of refinement that is really only comparable to top white Burgundy. There is subtlety and nuance to Emidio’s trebbiano, white flowers and savoury sweet richness underpinned by citrus. Like his Montepulciano, Emidio’s Trebbiano really comes into its own with twenty plus years of age.     

Emidio Pepe Trebbiano D’Abruzzo 2015

Emidio Pepe Trebbiano D’Abruzzo 2010

Montepulciano D’Abruzzo:

Montepulciano D’Abruzzo is structured, high in acidity and tannin. The structure softens with age to reveal secondary characteristics of leather, tobacco and smoke. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is intensely savoury with a real sense of umami and preternatural freshness and verve. It’s pretty hard to make a comparison to another wine region or style as these wines are so singular but I think of Emidio Pepe’s Montepulciano along the lines of traditional Northern Rhone with a little more wildness.

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 2015

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 2010

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 2001

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 1983

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 1980

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 1974

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