"La vita è fatta di incontri, che a volte sono fortunati"
Sitting on a plane to China in 2014 Pietro Topi overheard an animated conversation between two fellow passengers that was to change the direction of the Terraviva winery and propel it to a higher level of sustained excellence across its entire portfolio of wines.
Pietro possesses that essential quality common to all successful people of knowing where his strengths and weaknesses lie and not hesitating to recruit the right people with complementary skills to move the business forward. You only get one harvest every year so choosing to learn by your mistakes instead of adding much needed expertise is a longer and more difficult process with wine than most other products, and mistakes and missteps have the potential to cause opinions to form that can take years to change.
The conversation on the plane that fateful day was between two wine industry professionals discussing their consultant oenologist and by the very nature of the conversation Pietro became aware immediately that the person being discussed was held in very high esteem indeed. The conversation prompted him to introduce himself and learn more about the oenologist, a certain Francesco Bordini, who we wrote about in our recent article on Poggio della Dogana. On his return to Abruzzo, Pietro made contact with Francesco and for the last 7 years he has been the oenologist for Terraviva.
In fact, two months ago as we were going through our various methodologies in order to find an Abruzzo winery producing a range of fairly priced, high quality wines from organically farmed indigenous grape varieties, the Bordini name was perhaps the key factor for us in visiting Terraviva, given that we had not had the opportunity to try any of their wines before. And from now on we will add the identity of the oenologist to our existing list of criteria when selecting a winery to profile and from which we will want to buy wines for our own consumption.
Lest anyone think that it’s easy finding wineries in Italy that combine excellence with great prices you should be aware that in Abruzzo alone there are about 250 wineries and 35 cooperatives producing 450 million bottles of wine every year and furthermore Abruzzo is just one of the 20 regions that comprise Italy and all of them produce wine. Our goal is not to waste limited time and resources driving hundreds of miles to visit wineries that turn out to be disappointing and then pay for our error on our return to Lucca by having to plough through 8 or more wines which we are less than enthusiastic about. It happens of course but not often, though you’ll never have to read about it because nothing is really served by writing about those wineries.
On the other hand, sometimes our research leads us to stumble on an absolute jewel where the wines exceed our expectations and the quality extends across the entire portfolio at all price points. And Terraviva turned out to be exactly one of these jewels, a veritable needle in a haystack. It would be remiss of us at this point not to mention one other thing about our visit because we went out of our way to stress how hospitable Aldo Maretta and his wife Angela were during our visit to Poggio della Dogana and the same thing should be stated just as effusively here. Pietro and his wife Pina Marano gave us hours of their time on a day when the harvest had just started for the Pecorino grapes and being very hands-on owners there were a million more pressing things for them to do. Pietro walked us through every wine in the portfolio and made sure we understood the philosophy and approach behind them.
The story of Terraviva is by now a somewhat familiar one to those who have read our prior articles. The property was purchased in 1970 by Pina’s father and for the first 38 years the grapes were sold in bulk for others to make wine. The vineyards were certified organic in 1998 and in 2008 a friend suggested that they should make wine themselves under their own label. Against the backdrop of a global financial crisis and recession it was a difficult year to launch any business but with regard to Italian wine it was actually an opportune moment because the decades long period of favoring international grape varieties over indigenous Italian grapes was coming to an end and with it the trend for over-blended, over-oaked and overly homogenized wine.
Pietro and Pina launched the Terraviva label with a clear philosophy, extreme to some people perhaps but to wine lovers like us both prescient and fascinating. They wanted every wine to be both pure and unique and so every vineyard within their 54 acres is dedicated to a single grape variety, even down to an individual clone or biotype of that grape, and is made into a single type of wine identified by a unique label. Nothing is blended across vineyards and all their wines represent the purest expression possible of indigenous grape varieties.
"Una vigna equivale ad una bottiglia"
I’m not sure that there’s a proper term in Italian for cru so the French word will suffice for this type of vineyard specific delineation. In fact, it’s a similar approach as has come about through accidents of history for most of the grand cru in Burgundy where, to use just one example, the 22 acre Grands-Echézeaux has as many as 20 different owners making their individual wines from tiny plots. In purezza is an Italian expression that applies in spades to the Terraviva wines and they are all quintessentially Abruzzese.
In our travels we have often observed a difference between wineries where the owners are not by upbringing winemakers and those where the owner is also a winemaker and oenologist by training. Both types of winery are obviously always looking to improve their wines but the winemakers are by instinct tinkerers in the sense that many of them seem to be looking for a more exciting blend of grapes or to ‘push’ the winemaking process, searching for something different perhaps to their competitors. Owners like Pietro and Pina however, are looking only to make better and purer wines that reflect the terroir as fully as possible and are not at all interested in the ‘alchemy’ aspect of winemaking. This approach is one that we heartily endorse as regular consumers of Italian wines who prefer the individuality and personality of wine that emanates solely from the vineyard.
Pietro found someone of like mind when he hired Francesco Bordini as his oenologist. Organic practices in the vineyard are now common but there is also an increasing focus on biodiversity and Pietro was encouraged to retain the 10 acres of natural woodland and lake adjacent to the vines which make an important but often under-appreciated contribution to the ecosystem and promote healthy vines. It would be far more profitable of course to simply rip out the trees and plant more vines but these are the sort of decisions that provide real evidence that a winery is committed to the pursuit of purer and more natural wines.
The latest evolution in the vineyard after committing to biodiversity and being certified organic is the adoption of biodynamic farming principles which are more of a multi-disciplinary holistic approach that takes into account things like phases of the moon to determine optimal times for certain aspects of vineyard management like pruning and harvesting. Biodynamic farming in fact predates the organic movement but only in recent years has it become more widespread in the wine industry and some very high profile French wine producers like Michel Chapoutier were early adopters. Terraviva is well along in the process to being certified also as a biodynamic winery.
The soil at Terraviva is mostly clay which is the favorite soil type for the Pecorino and Montepulciano grapes in particular and the proximity to the sea coupled with the steep slopes up to the charming hilltop town of Tortoreto ensure a constant breeze which makes another important contribution to the wellbeing of the grapes.
This pursuit of more natural and purer wines at Terraviva extends from the vineyard to the cellar where cultivated yeasts are eschewed in favor of spontaneous fermentation for all the wines. Spontaneous fermentation means waiting for the natural yeasts on the bloom of each grape to become active when coming into contact with the sugar rich grape juice after the harvest. This can take 1-3 days and avoiding anything unpleasant developing during this period requires the healthiest possible grapes, preferably with low pH and high natural acidity.
Many other wineries we’ve profiled use some form of cryomaceration or thermal shock at this stage involving extreme cooling, in part to avoid unpredictable aromas and esters sometimes caused by the use of wild yeast, but also to heighten the extraction of polyphenolic compounds. This is a form of intervention that Terraviva has never seen any need for and the reason is that after more than a half century of growing vines here, the accumulation of the native strain of wild yeast will be considerable and it will be everywhere in the vineyards and all over the winery buildings, both inside and out.
It is this super concentration of natural yeast and the dominance of one strain that also obviates the need even for a pied de cuve starter culture. This is where years of maintaining organic practices and biodiversity on the entire estate pays off with a trouble free process of spontaneous fermentation.
Furthermore, while most of the white wines we have discussed in recent articles on Veneto and Liguria were made by deliberately preventing malolactic conversion, with the effect of enhancing their acidity profile, the philosophy here is that malolactic conversion is a natural process that will happen normally for white wines (as it always does for red wines) unless you take specific steps to prevent it, ie cooling the must. Terraviva allows nature to simply take its course so yet more evidence that natural wine is truly a non-interventionist product. The Terraviva wines typically spend time on their lees before bottling and are bottled unfiltered. Total production today is 80,000 bottles per annum with about 60% of that being red wine.
Terraviva may be a new discovery for us but in the Italian wine world it is well known and not short of admirers with numerous awards, prizes and praise for its wines covering in fact an entire wall (below) as you enter the new tasting room facility. Perhaps the best indication of its achievements and status is its recent Slow Wine 2021 Special Award for Sustainable Viticulture, an award that was given to only 3 wineries in the whole of Italy. High praise indeed.
To the average consumer of course, which includes us, everything written above might be very interesting, if somewhat esoteric, but none of it matters if the final result in the glass is not something of real enhanced quality that adequately reflects all of the work that goes into the entire process and where there is a real differentiation in the product versus the wines of less dedicated or more commercially focused wineries. The proof of the pudding is always in the eating and as can be seen from our tasting notes below we think the wines speak for themselves.
All of the Terraviva grapes are manually harvested and collected in small crates to preserve the integrity of the bunches. Logistically, transporting the grapes is easier here than most places because all 54 acres under vine are located in a natural amphitheater setting with the winery buildings at the center so there is no distance to travel and not even a road to cross to get them to the press at harvest time.
All the wines are spontaneously fermented in stainless steel at 16 degrees celsius and the aging vessels (for all the wines tasted below) are a combination of stainless steel and concrete. No wood containers were used for the wines in this tasting except for the Luì 2017 red wine which was partly aged in a large neutral botte.
The names Giusi, Mario and Luì for three of the wines are all names of various grandparents of Pina and Pietro.
Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2020 - DOC (100% Trebbiano Toscano, 12.5% alcohol)
From a 15 year old vineyard. Golden yellow in the glass this has a powerful rich nose of ripe orchard fruits, even a little candied it's so concentrated. A touch of apricot too. On the palate it's fresh, very full flavored and completely dry with just enough acidity to keep everything balanced. Notes of honey and golden delicious apples.
Pietro assured us that this is in fact 100% Trebbiano Toscano which is one of the three permitted grape varieties allowed when labelled as Trebbiano d'Abruzzo. (I know that sounds completely crazy from a logic and common sense standpoint but that's just the way it is). Anyhow, it's certainly the best Trebbiano Toscano we've ever had given how insipid this grape can often taste when vinified in Tuscany. One tell-tale sign of the grape variety is the slight sourness on the finish which here is actually very welcome given the overall richness of this wine. Great value at 10 euros.
12.1 2020 - Colli Aprutini Passerina IGT (100% Passerina, 12.5% alcohol)
Pear, apple and melon on the nose. Lots of flavor here with the the fruit and acidity well balanced. This is an easy drinking wine but at the same time it's a wine that also grabs your attention because it's very well made and one of the best Passerina wines we've ever had. Good value at 14 euros, with its only competition at this price being it's sibling below, the fabulous Èkwo.
Èkwo 2020 - Abruzzo Pecorino DOC (100% Pecorino, 13% alcohol)
This is one of those 'wow' wines that you come across infrequently. Immediately on pouring, the quality is apparent because there's a full, very powerful nose of luscious ripe fruit. Peach in particular with more tropical fruit in the background and a really interesting note of white pepper, almost gunpowder even. On the palate the citrus notes, especially lemon, take center stage and there's a rich seam of acidity which for me is essential in such a rich, slightly viscous wine. Also some sourness here on the finish which keeps everything refreshing. Just a fabulous Pecorino and we really can't remember having ever had a better one. At 14 euros it's a real bargain.
Mario’s 45 2017 - Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Superiore DOC (100% Trebbiano Abruzzese, 12.5% alcohol)
(bottled after 12 months in a combination of concrete and stainless steel). The number 45 here represents the age in years of this particular Trebbiano vineyard at the time of the vintage. So the next vintage in 2018 will be called Mario's 46 and so on.
Apple and honeysuckle on the nose and a little spice. This is a full, deep and rich wine that reminds me of a really good white Burgundy. Plenty of acidity here too despite going through malolactic so it completely justifies the Terraviva approach on this issue. If anyone doesn't think that the age of the vines is an important factor in crafting delicious, complex and multi-layered white wines then this wine will convert them in a second. Truly a very special wine from 45 year old vines that makes the price tag of 16.50 euros a steal. I can't think of any other white wine below 20 euros from Italy or elsewhere that delivers this much quality.
Giusi 2020 - Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo DOC (100% Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, 13% alcohol)
Brilliant scarlet in the glass there's plenty going on here. Strawberry and orange peel come through on the nose followed by a juicy and very mouth watering sensation on the palate. You can simply sip this as an aperitivo or drink it with food. Very versatile and lots of ripe flavors so don't think of this as your average rosato. Under 12 euros it's one of those very affordable wines to always have at hand.
Colline Teramane 2018 - Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOCG (13.5% alcohol)
Intense red in the glass, we would both describe this as textbook Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.
Peppery dark fruits on the nose and super smooth on the palate. There is a balance and equilibrium in this wine that is exemplary for such a young wine. Perfect proportions of fruit and acidity with tannins already melted away.
I was just a tad disappointed straight after opening because everything was very subdued and I remember how good it was at the winery but 30 minutes after opening it really stepped up another gear. I think I'm going to go back to decanting and aerating young wines because while the texture remained velvety the flavors really expanded after allowing some exposure to the air. Impressive and superb value for 11 euros.
Luì 2017 - Colline Teramane Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOCG (13.5% alcohol)
10-14 days maceration with remontage, aged for 1 year in stainless steel.
Another impressive wine. Still a deep reddish purple in the glass despite its four years of age there's a rich, sumptuous nose here of ripe blackcurrants with pepper and cloves in the background. It's a joy to just sit and smell this wine as you swirl it around in the glass. On the palate there's lots of flavor but also a good dollop of acidity which makes this very much a food wine. Absolutely delicious and one of the best Montepulciano red wines we've had so 16 euros is not expensive for this level of quality.
Tortoreto is a lovely small town that we have grown fond of after a couple of visits, located in the spectacular border country neighboring le Marche but as most people will be unfamiliar with its exact location the map below will make it clearer, circled in pink:
Finally, for those people who like historical coincidences, the link between Abruzzo and Romagna in this article is not confined to just the Romagnolo oenologist shared by Terraviva and Poggio della Dogana but goes all the way back to 1944. The famous Maiella Brigade of Abruzzese partigiani continued north after liberating their home region of Abruzzo (the only partigiani in Italy in fact to continue the fight outside their home territory) and liberated the town of Brisighella in Romagna in the first week of December 1944 (where Poggio della Dogana has one of its vineyards) where it was finally decommissioned as a fighting force on July 15, 1945. Sounds to me like Aldo and his brother at Poggio della Dogana perhaps owe Pietro and Pina a case of Romagnolo Sangiovese wine in belated gratitude for those brave Abruzzese 77 years ago.