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Italy's Trebbiano: Ugly Duckling to Graceful Swan
By Roger Morris
Jan 12, 2023
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“To make a fine Trebbiano was always a dream of mine,” says Luca Sanjust, the enthusiastic owner of Petrolo winery in Tuscany’s Val d’Arno di Sopra region.  “I’ve always been interested in history, especially history of the Renaissance, and we have documents [about Trebbiano’s origins] dating back to the beginnings of the 14th Century.  We know that the Pope, who was then in Avignon, bought it.”  He sighs.  “It’s possible that we had forgotten its tradition”

If Sanjust’s long-held passion for the grape and wine sounds a little misplaced, well, it is and it isn’t.  For decades, Trebbiano has been considered an ugly duckling of northern Italian white grapes, though not as common, perhaps, as Moscato and certainly not considered as lowly by wine snobs as Pinot Grigio.  But certainly no one until recently considered it the stuff of fine wine.

British author Hugh Johnson, for example, describes Trebbiano as the “principal white grape of Tuscany, found all over Italy in many different guises” and known in France as Ugni Blanc, where it is the principal grape in Cognac as a base wine.  “Mostly thin, bland wine,” Johnson concludes.  His sometimes writing partner and wine expert, Jancis Robinson, concurs: “It is, like most copiously produced wines, low in extract and character, relatively low in alcohol, but usefully high in acidity.”  The international wine market has been mostly in agreement with these assessments – today, it is easy to find Italian Trebbianos on the U.S.  market for $10 or less.  

Of course, Trebbiano is not the first “common” grape to become a source of fascination for fine winemakers, who ask, “Are wines being made from this grape reflective of the quality of the grape—or just the indifference of producers who may lack the financial incentive, and perhaps the winegrowing ability, to do better?”  Nor is Sanjust the first to seek an answer for Trebbiano.  For one, the Valentini family – first Eduardo and then his son, Francesco – have for decades makes stellar Trebbianos in the mountains of Abruzzo, inspiring others to follow suit.

I recently talked with three producers in different parts of Italy who invest the time and effort necessary to make excellent Trebianno varietals – Sanjust at Petrolo in Tuscany, Chiara Ciavolich at Ciavolich in Abruzzo and Liù Pambufretti at Sciacciadiavoli in Umbria.  All use different clones of Trebbiano, all use different winemaking regimens and all sell their Trebbiano on the American market for premium prices.  

As examples, Sanjust’s current iteration of his dream wine, the 2019 Petrolo “Boggina B” Toscano IGT Trebbiano, sells for about $55 – expensive, but only about half of what Valentini charges for its wine.  The 2021 Ciavolich “Fosse Cancelli” Trebbiano d’Abruzzo fetches $40, and the 2021 Scacciadiavoli Spoleto Trebbiano Spolentino is a bargain at $20.  Taken together, these producers and others such as Masciarelli are making from the lowly Trebbiano some of the best white wines in Italy – although that has often been a low bar.

“Trebbiano is now under the spotlight in Italy,” declares Chiara Ciavolich.  “My point of view is that there is no middle class with Trebbiano – it’s either standard or it’s great.  But it’s a fairly difficult grape to make into a great wine,” she says, noting that another Abruzzo white varietal she produces, Pecorino, “is easy by comparison.”

Ciavolich is somewhat different in employing a pergola system to grow Trebbiano, not standard to the region.  “Fifteen years ago, people tried to convince me that Guyot was everything, but now with global warming, more people are switching to pergola.  And it keeps grapes farther from the soil.”  As is often done with finicky grapes, Ciavolich goes through the vineyards making multiple pickings to achieve the best quality.  “First, we harvest for acidity, then we wait a few days to get the sugar,” she says.  “The acid can go down really fast, and if you wait a day or two you can lose the freshness.  It becomes a disaster.”

Once the grapes are harvested, she soft presses them and awaits spontaneous fermentation, but does no skin maceration.  Using both 15 hl. untoasted barrels and amphorae as containers, she performs battonage and allows the wine to pass through a secondary fermentation.

At Scacciadiadiavoli, located in Montefalco in the Umbrian hill country, the Pambufetti family planted the Trebbiano Spolentino variety and makes its Trebbiano under the Spoleto DOC.  “It’s a different DNA than Toscano Trebbiano,” says Liù Pambuffeti.  “The shape of the grape is different, and it is more aromatic with some of the aromas of Sauvignon but also of dried fruit.  And it has high natural acidity.  Because it’s resistant to mildew, it’s the last grape we pick.”  Unlike Ciavolich, Pambufetti still uses Guyot training.

The first vintage of Scacciadiavoli was not until 2019, which may be the reason for its relatively low introductory price.  The winemaking methodology is somewhat complex.  “We use two processes,” Pambufetti says.  “Some of the grapes spend a couple of weeks in boxes in cold storage to make the aromas more complex.  The rest goes directly to the presses and is fermented in 16 hectoliter wood tanks.”  There is about one month of maceration – “not enough to change the color” – with some dried grapes added, and it ages on its lees in amphorae and untoasted wooden barrels for about nine months, then spends another nine months in bottle.

Sanjust’s dream of making a fine Trebbiano, now realized was “driven in part by a friend and mentor, Mounir Souma, the owner of the Burgundy négociant maison, Lucien Le Moine,” he says.  “Ten years ago, he convinced me to work with Trebbiano.  ‘You don’t realize what you have in Tuscany,’ he told me.”

Sanjust says his winemaking style is influenced by that of Burgundy, starting production of his “Boggina B” Trebbiano in barrique after soft pressing the Tuscan-clone grapes and vinifying it with native yeasts.  Aging takes place sur lies for over 15 months.  “We use no stirring or racking,” he says, “and the new wood provides natural mico-oxygenation, which is very important in making the wine more polished.”

Sanjust says he is “surprised how easily Trebbiano sells,” and notes he is also marketing the wine internationally via French negociants on La Place de Bordeaux.  He also believes – as do Pambufetti and Ciavolich – that they are catching what looks to be a quality wave of northern Italian Trebbiano in the early stages.

“It’s too old to be a new fashion,” Sanjust says, “but there is no doubt that its success adds something new to the marketplace for Italian white wines.”     

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