Don’t be fooled by the youthful good looks of Fabio di Donato because he already has 16 years of winemaking experience behind him, having lived among vines near his small home town of Cugnoli for all of his 36 years. Barely out of his teens he was already helping his father make wine for family and friends from their 10 acre vineyard and soon afterwards he also became an accomplished producer of olive oil from the magnificent 500 year old trees in front of his house.
We really wanted to buy some of his olive oil but, unsurprisingly given the time of year, it was already sold out. However there are now only a few weeks until the next harvest so we’ll have another opportunity soon.
When you approach Cugnoli from the Abruzzo coastline it may not be very far in miles but it is different terrain and elevation and has a very different climate. The biggest mountain in the entire Italian Apennines sits just to the north-west, appropriately named the Gran Sasso, rising to 9,500 feet. And to the south of Cugnoli in the opposite direction lies the imposing Maiella massif containing many additional peaks of around 9,000 feet.
This is ancient winemaking land that gets a full blast of all four seasons and requires a winemaker who has grown up here and understands the fickle nature of mountain weather. The art of viticulture by the sea in Abruzzo is much easier by comparison, but nature has a way of compensating for the difficulties of this location by providing certain demonstrable benefits, at least for vines that are indigenous to this area. This is not a place for experimenting with non-native varieties.
Fabio is exactly the sort of winemaker that wine lovers like to meet because you don’t get any closer to the land than him and there is nobody more hands-on than he is. Respect for nature in everything he touches and respect for the traditions of winemaking in this part of Abruzzo are his two guiding principles. Calling him a winemaker however is to emphasize the wrong part of his job and to mischaracterize where he spends the majority of his working hours. He is always in the vineyard and hardly ever in the cellar with his philosophy being to cultivate perfect grapes and then intervene as little as possible in the natural process of how grape juice becomes wine.
We got a taste of Fabio's priorities before we even had a taste of his wine because no sooner had we got out of the car and introduced ourselves than we were whisked straight into the vineyard to see the vines up close and understand the soil, then immediately afterwards we were taken nearby to another vineyard to see for ourselves the significant differences between the two locations. Something that for us was both interesting and informative, but that rarely happens on our visits to wineries.
We were in Cugnoli at the end of August but the date on the calendar didn’t stop a cool late afternoon breeze sweeping down from the mountains and it didn’t require much imagination to appreciate that spending days in the vineyards here in the middle of February, knee deep in snow with secateurs in hand for pruning is not something that many of the winemakers we meet would be thrilled about doing, but for Fabio it’s all part of a job that he loves.
He does absolutely everything himself and almost everything by hand but at least he has the advantage of youth for the tougher jobs. He knows every single vine in every field and and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Fabio’s family have owned their property since it was purchased by his great-grandfather almost 100 years ago so he has an emotional affinity for the land which transcends the usual winemaker’s bond with his vineyard. And his deep familial ties to this area prompted him to come up with the name Cingilia for his winery because it refers to the capital city of the ancient Vestini people who resisted the Romans on these hills 2,300 years ago before being the last part of Abruzzo to be conquered.
At some point about 10 years ago Fabio became serious about viticulture and winemaking as a career and completed an oenology degree at Pescara University. He then launched Cingilia in 2013 using the family’s 10 acres for his first wines and over the years he has added land by renting existing vineyards from other local family owners who would rather not have to make wine themselves. One such vineyard of less than an acre has rare 47 year old Trebbiano d’Abruzzo vines growing on it from which he produces the Colle Berdo wine. He has one other vineyard of just over an acre that has Montepulciano d’Abruzzo vines also dating back over 40 years and the rest of his vines are about 8 years old and similarly divided into quite small parcels.
This is a very rural, hilly area and the sites are all quite different with their own soil composition and sun exposure so you have to know these sites well to get the best out of them. There are some heavy clay soils and others with much more sand and stones mixed in with the clay and through the hot dry summers with little rainfall a proper understanding of the exact soil composition is critical.
Fabio’s evolution as a winemaker underscores the importance of experience and the only way to get experience is by going through a lot of harvests and seeing how the wines you make evolve over time. There are no shortcuts in this business and the changes he has made over the years have been a result of a self-critical analysis of his wines as they develop in the bottle. For example he began his business using a vertical basket (or ratchet) press for extracting the juice from his grapes, a mechanism in fact that has not changed much since Roman times, before buying the type of motorized membrane press used by many professional winemakers.
Recently he has now reverted back to the old press because it’s more gentle and controllable and there is less risk of damage to the grape seeds which can impart bitterness to the wine. The old fashioned vertical basket press has a lower capacity and is therefore more time consuming and will result in a lower yield of juice from the grapes, but the juice will be purer and that is his goal. This is a good example of the lengths to which Fabio will go to make the best possible wine notwithstanding the profit sacrifice embedded in the decision.
This is one of the reasons why he has no current desire to further expand his operations because he can do everything exactly as he wants and manage the entire process himself at his current production level of 22,000 bottles per annum. And even this amount is only possible because the harvest calendar for the indigenous grape varieties that he grows allows him enough time to go around every vineyard himself.
The Pecorino matures first in early September, followed by the Trebbiano d'Abruzzo and then at the very end of the month the early picking of the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo to make the Cerasuolo rosato. As late September turns to October the Passerina grapes can be harvested, followed by the Cococciola and finally the fully ripened Montepulciano grapes in the second half of October for his red wine. So don’t pay a visit to Cingilia in September or October unless you’re prepared to pick some grapes alongside Fabio.
It's unlikely that many people will be familiar with the Cococciola grape because it was our first experience of it during this visit but this is another native Abruzzese grape deservedly making something of a comeback after being ignored for decades. We say deservedly because it's capable of producing delicate lemony wines with zippy acidity and minerality and adapts well to a frizzante style also.
Having employed natural farming practices in the vineyards right from the start, Fabio was looking to extend his non-interventionist philosophy to the actual winemaking process so in 2018 he decided to employ spontaneous fermentation and eliminate filtration for all of his wines.
In doing so he employs a technique known as Pied de Cuve, which is a clever idea to prevent the risk of any spoilage while his pressed grape juice slowly starts its fermentation from the wild yeast present on the grape skins, a process which can take 1-3 days, during which there can often be some risk of unpleasant aromas and esters developing. (The bloom on the grapes can be clearly seen in the photo at the top of this article and stuck to the bloom will be lots of wild yeasts).
Pied de Cuve consists of picking a small amount of grapes a week before the harvest, mashing them by hand to allow the yeast to start working on the juice and letting this starter culture ferment naturally so by the time the harvest starts and the grapes are pressed the fermentation will be able to get going immediately without any delay. A simple and completely natural process which eliminates the need for the more expensive and invasive cryomaceration often employed elsewhere.
Fabio also mentioned something which we had never heard before during any of our other discussions with Italian winemakers. He is beginning to have doubts that stainless steel is in fact 100% inert as everyone seems to think and here he is referring to the existence of electrochemical cells on the surface of metal which can perhaps change the organoleptic properties of wine, in other words the elution of metal ions into the wine.
Perhaps this is one of the unspoken reasons why we see more concrete containers being introduced these days but this is the first time we have found ourselves discussing a challenging physical chemistry subject while tasting wine. Clearly Fabio is not your average winemaker.
Currently he is toying with the idea of changing his fermentation vessel to the concrete or ceramic egg. The egg shape is something that goes back thousands of years to the qvevri and amphora of the Greeks and Romans and provides certain internal thermodynamics that keep the spent yeast lees moving around the wine which enhances the flavor as well as reducing the frequency of batonnage (hand stirring). The progressive and renowned French winemaker Michel Chapoutier, who was one of the early pioneers of biodynamic viticulture, produced the first modern egg-shaped wine fermentation vessel in 2001 and there is in fact nothing more traditional in wine than this concept.
All of the equipment Fabio needs to make his wines fits on the back porch of his house, where his garage would be and if the original French term garagiste had not evolved in recent years to mean something a little snobbish and overpriced then this would describe him well. Someone who makes a relatively small amount of high quality wine with personal attention to every step in the process. It’s interesting that the term was originally a scoff or rebuke at small French winemakers who had the temerity to make high quality wine in their own style on limited resources, something that Fabio clearly does.
Fabio is a member of the Italian Federation of Independent Winegrowers (FIVI), an organization whose goals we described in the article of Le Fraghe and whose long serving President is Matilde Poggi.
All of the wines below are made 100% from the single grape varieties implicit in their names and all of them undergo malolactic conversion because this is a natural process that will happen automatically unless you chill the wine to prevent it. True non-interventionist winemaking as practiced by Fabio obliges one to not interfere with the natural process.
Passerina 2020 - Colline Pescaresi IGT (12% alcohol)
Straw yellow with green reflections. Surprisingly full nose of white flowers, ripe pear and citrus, also herbaceous notes. On the palate this is fresh and vibrant with pleasing acidity and hints of lime and minerals. This is an easy wine to drink with or without food and something that will start a conversation. At around 10 euros it's great value. (about 3,000 bottles produced)
Pecorino 2020 - Colline Pescaresi IGT (13% alcohol)
Green, gold color in the glass, this has a deep nose of ripe fruit and honeysuckle with hints of marzipan and sweet almonds. Lots of mineral flavor on the palate with pears and some tangerine. It's quite full and rich but there's enough acidity to keep everything in balance. This is a very good wine indeed with notable complexity. Clean, precise and the grape does all the talking. Fabulous value at 10 euros. (about 3,500 bottles produced)
Cococciola 2020 - Colline Pescaresi IGT (12% alcohol)
Pale yellow in the glass it has a very lemony nose which follows through on the palate. Clean and refreshing with notes of orchard fruits and there's some depth to this wine. Attractive slightly bitter finish. Another 10 euro wine that delivers plenty of enjoyment. (about 3,500 bottles produced)
Bianco Frizzante 'Col Fondo' (80% Cococciola, 20% Passerina 11.5% alcohol)
This has a metal beer cap instead of a cage because it only has 2.5 bars of pressure. It is a white wine that is vinified normally but part of the must is frozen to be added back to the wine in the Spring so it can complete the secondary fermentation in bottle. Unlike a Champagne method sparkling wine there is no subsequent disgorgement so the secondary fermentation lees will accumulate at the bottom of the bottle and make the wine cloudy if tipped, but also enhancing the flavor. This is the meaning of Col Fondo.
Very attractive yeasty biscuity nose (hardly surprising!) but also some minerality. Very fresh and crisp with noticeably less fizz. A very enjoyable summer wine but quite hard to find so I'm guessing it's about 9 euros. While searching for the market price online I stumbled on the fact that it retails for the equivalent of 35 euros in Australia. Ouch! Makes me feel sorry for the hordes of Abruzzese that emigrated there in the 1950s and 60s and would like to drink their native wines. (about 2,000 bottles produced)
Colle Berdo Vigne Vecchie Bianco 2020 (100% Trebbiano Abruzzese, 12% alcohol)
This is Fabio's most limited production with only 800 bottles in an average year due to the the small size of this 47 year old old vineyard.
Golden yellow in the glass, the nose starts off quite subdued, austere even, with tart gooseberries to the fore. Then as it warms up in the glass and aerates there's more than a hint of butterscotch and very ripe white orchard fruits, showing a completely different complexion.
On the palate it remains dry throughout and quite rich with good flavor, notably citrus and it's amazingly full for a wine that registers just 12% alcohol. The finish is long and moreish. A lovely wine that shows what old vines are capable of in the Abruzzo hills. Great value at 13 euros for a wine of this complexity.
Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo 2020 - DOC (100% Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, 12.5% alcohol)
More amber than pink in the glass. Orange peel, spice and some slightly candied cherries on the nose. The sweetness on the nose gives way on the palate to a very refreshing wine, only lightly acidic and full of tangy ripe cherry flavors. Completely dry and very much our kind of rosato. Great value at about 11 euros. (about 4,500 bottles produced)
Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2020 - DOC (14% alcohol)
Intense, deep red, almost black. Gorgeous nose of dried flowers with spices and a touch of licorice and then some cinnamon in the background. Needs about 10 minutes to open up in the glass and then it's a pure pleasure kind of wine. Very subdued tannins and acidity this has mature fruit and balsamic flavors. Also notes of juniper and bay leaf and there's great length on the finish. A fabulous 11 euro wine. (about 5,500 bottles produced)
Pecorino 2016 ? (no label, no details)
This bottle has no label and is not for sale as it was part of Fabio's cellar stock by which he monitors how his wines develop over time. He generously gave us this bottle for our opinion and enjoyment.
Very bright gold, it leaves unctuous legs down the inside of the glass as you swirl it around. The nose is sensational. Rich, deep and super-concentrated with musky notes of apricot. We've had a couple of other excellent Pecorino wines from Abruzzo recently but this is in a class of its own. On the palate it's thick and very full with the same richness as a Sauternes and you're actually half expecting it to be a sweet wine until you realize it's completely dry. Tasted blind I might have guessed that it was a high quality white Burgundy such is the depth of the wine and the length of the finish. In fact this is one of the best Italian white wines we've ever had and I need to press Fabio for more details about it as his gift was a last minute thing as we were leaving the winery.
Finding Cugnoli in the heart of Abruzzo can be something of a challenge so the map below will give you a better idea of where it is located, circled in pink: