Corkscrew - Italy's Montepulciano

Seeing double

I have adorable twin nieces. As they’ve gotten older, I can tell them apart by personality (and each helpfully favors either purple or pink), but when they were tiny tots, it wasn’t as easy. One birthmark differentiated them and served as my twin detector for many years. If only Italian wines were as easy. They have this fascinatingly confusing twin situation — two wines labeled Montepulciano MON teh pool CHAH no. From two different regions. Made from two different grapes. It’s about as mystifying as how identical DNA can produce different personalities. But, like the time when I finally called the twins by the right names, it’s satisfying when you learn to appreciate the differences.

The more esteemed (read: expensive) of the Italian twins is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. But it hasn’t always been that way. The red-headed step child to its siblings in Tuscany — Chianti, Brunello — Vino Nobile was glorious in former years, dating back to the Renaissance. For most of last century, its producers rested on their laurels, resisted modern winemaking and vineyard technology, and ignored the world’s merry-go-round marketplace for centuries. Basically, the world matured and they didn’t. This changed in the 1990’s, when vineyard managers began to reduce the grape yield in the fields and oak usage became popular.

Like the other wines from Tuscany, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano consists mostly of the sangiovese grape — Italian law requires at least 70 percent. In this case, Montepulciano refers to the region where the grapes are grown. The wines tend to have a characteristic tartness and dusty cherry that can be divine when matched with food. The less expensive version of Vino Nobile is Rosso di Montepulciano, equally as delicious but difficult to find.

Vino Nobile’s friendlier, less uptight twin is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, from a region north of Rome. This time, the name reflects not the region but the grape itself, which is also called Montepulciano. Fruity, light and gulpable, Italian wine snobs rarely admit to liking this easily accessible libation, but I bet a few bottles lurk in their stashes. It’s relatively low in tannins, has solid acidity and loads of color, and tastes so soft and grapey you could drink a pitcher of it before you know it. With all this going for it, it should be more popular than it is.

And here’s why: It’s cheap. The montepulciano grape grows prolifically everywhere in Abruzzo and yields high amounts of juice, keeping the cost of the resulting wine affordable, normally under $12. Up to 15 percent sangiovese is permitted to be blended into the wine, which in higher concentrations will provide more acidity and brighter flavors. Since it’s a lighter wine, chill it slightly and quaff with pizza, anything with tomato sauce, salty meats like salami and dry, savory cheeses.

But Montepulciano d’Abruzzo really doesn’t need any help. Virtually all of them are simple, juicy and just dandy all by themselves. Think of them as that poor but lovable Italian uncle.

Recommended Wines

Avignonesi 2005 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Italy) Full-bodied and meaty with dusty cherry, earthy prunes, sweet vanilla oak tannins and refreshing acidity. Sensual on the palate and a great food wine. Sw=1. $25. 4.5 stars

Citra 2007 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (Italy) Belying its grapey, leathery aroma, this is actually a soft wine chock full of bright red cherry fruit, red plum and cinnamon. Think of it as sangria with balls. It sports solid acidity and a hint of tannins without the astringency. Sw=1. $9. 4 stars

Sweetness (Sw) rating: 1-10. Star rating: 1-5. Reach Taylor at taylor.eason at cln.com, on Twitter @tayloreason, and on Facebook.   

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