Emidio Pepe at 60: Chiara Pepe presents the past, present and future of this Abruzzo star

Website: https://www.emidiopepe.com/en/

Emidio Pepe is 60! This celebrated winery from the Abruzzo region in Italy has been on a celebratory tour to tell customers and journalists more about what makes them tick. And leading this tour is the dynamic Chiara Pepe (above), who is just 29 years old but is now running the family business. ‘We want to share our vision for the present and the future,’ says Chiara: ‘what we are working on today and what we are planning for the future.’

Although the family company began making wine in 1899, the current era began in 1964 when Emidio Pepe, Chiara’s grandfather, took over in 1964. ‘He started with a small parcel in front of the house,’ she says. ‘Grandfather was very good at grafting so on the parcels that he had the pleasure of taking on, he was grafting them on site. This is a very old technique of planting vineyards: nurseries weren’t there so farmers had to do the work on their own. This allowed us to have an incredible mixture of genetics of Montepulciano, which has been interesting to dig deeper into. Every time we under this old pergola close to harvest time we were seeing that all the leaves were just a little different, and the bunches were a bit different. Then we’d send material for DNA testing and it would come back as Montepulciano. Grandfather, back in the day, had been following different parcels of Montepulciano, he took samples from them and then grafted them onto his vineyards.’

‘I’m third generation,’ says Chiara. ‘Grandfather is now 92, and was vinifying until the late 1990s. After him, my aunt was vinifying for two decades. Then I started vinifying in 2020.’ On taking over, she has felt a freedom to do things her way. But keeping doing things the same way was never an option, because of climate change. ‘We have been seeing a climate that is changing,’ says Chiara. ‘Lots of people have in their mind something that is very traditional, very historical. So we want to tell the story of what we are experimenting on today, and how we are reflecting on the roots that we have.’

‘It wouldn’t be a good succession if everything is now being done exactly the same way it was done in the past,’ she says. ‘Grandfather wouldn’t be happy for us to repeat what was done in the past, because the wines would be totally different. There are a lot of things that are changing, and a lot of things are staying exactly the same. These are the good challenges of generational passage.’

‘He never used pesticides or chemical products in the vineyards. He was always in love with the pergola. And he loved the use of concrete in vinification. This has stayed. The other very strong point for him was long term ageing for his wines. The harvest had to be as manual as possible, not just the picking, but the processing of the fruit too. It was interesting to start with these strong values. The notion of terroir had to include natural use. The sense of place was also coming through the yeast.’

‘We have been doing a lot of DNA analysis of the yeasts that were contributing to our fermentations, and we are seeing that certain yeasts are specifically coming from certain vineyards, and many yeasts were ambient yeasts in the cellar. As we bring back grapes that have been seeing different seasons, the yeasts are also different. There is a lot of reflection around this. The climate is a bit warmer than it used to be, but the quality of the light is also changing. As farmers, this is something we are considering in terms of our choices.’

So here’s what Chiara had to say about where Emidio Pepe are today, and where they are headed in the future, followed by my notes on the wines, which were quite profound.

The benefits of biodynamics

‘2021 was an interesting season. It was incredibly dry. It is interesting to see how the biodynamic preparations helped keen the vineyard photosynthetic all the way through. I like to see silica also being used in warm vintages: sometimes it can be scary to use 501 in a warm year but for me I see it as a help to perform very precisely during the fermentation. I have also been influenced by a lot of other biodynamic winemakers and it has always been used to let minerality form in a very crystalline way. Also we have been spraying a lot of chamomile, just as a tea on the leaves to keen the leaves moist and ready to accept the light. When the season is very dry the leaves change their shape and start closing up, which is an anticipation of photosynthetic block. It was interesting to us to keep the plants photosynthetic all the way through.’

The move to no till, and mulching cover crops

‘In a season like that we didn’t plough or touch the soil. This is one of the elements that we have been working a lot with over the past few years. This is the only thing that has been changing compared with the way things were done in the past. Without being dogmatic, we are slowly going towards no ploughing and no tilling. I say without being dogmatic, because soils really need to be prepared to go to this way of working. Ours are soils with a lot of clay, and sometimes with silt as well. So these are soils that really need to be ready to take on a path like this. Since I have been back at the estate I have been trying to start running this process of constant bent cover crop. The idea is to have a lot of different species of herbs growing: around 20 different species across the three big families. We have crucifera (like fava beans and peas, which are very good nitrogen fixators). Then we have members of the family that are issuing acids around the roots, helping to clean the soil. And then we are using the graminacea, the wheat and spelt wit roots that are highly penetrating, and when their cycle is finished they leave a lot of space in the ground to allow oxygen in. For me it was very important to get the topsoil ready before deciding not to plough any more. For the last three seasons we have only been ploughing in order to plant the seed, and this year was the first experiment of direct seeding. I made the decision only when I saw that the vineyard had soil that was very healthy and responding nicely.’

‘My idea for the future for facing hot and rainy seasons. We aren’t just seeing an increase in temperature we are seeing extremes. 2021 was very dry, and in 2023 we saw 250 mm of rain at the end of May and beginning of June with 16 days of constantly wet leaves. We are going to have to prepare all the vineyards to face both conditions: hot and dry, and very rainy. In 2023 we saw all our neighbours’ top soil being washed away. Because we had all the cover crop, the roots helped to keep all the soil in place. It made me reflect how I can use the cover crops to protect my organic matter.’

‘In the opposite way, the bent cover crops, in a very dry season, are helping me to reflect sunlight and help keep moisture in the ground. They also help with temperatures: if you put your hand under the mulched cover crop it is 5 degrees lower than a piece of land with no cover crop. The way we do it normally is that we are planting the seeds, we let everything grow up tall and then we let it go to seed. I bend them down with a roller crimper and the seeds then fall down and seed the ground. I keep the mulch all season long. Normally we plant in October, the cover crop grows, and as soon as we have bud break I start bending. The idea is that the soil takes energy and opportunity to be revitalized when the plant doesn’t need a lot of energy.’

The pergola

‘I feel very proud to work with pergolas, especially now, with the change in climate. The shade and protection comes with a totally different enological quality of those grapes. Grandfather always said two things. The leaves are the engine of the plant: it is a motor. The powerful energy of photosynthesis is undeniably related to the quality of the grapes. The second is exposure. Grandfather very much appreciated the grapes that were not exposed to sunlight. This is physiologically reasonable. As we are out in the sun our skin gets tanned, and that is a physiological reaction of our body. This works the same in the plant. As you expose a bunch to direct sunlight, the skin gets thicker. Thus the tannins are rougher. For Montepulciano this was an important element. This starts as a powerful grape with a lot of tannins and colour. We want to keep the grapes as potentially noble as they could be rather than accelerating the phenolic ripening. It was important for grandfather that the grapes were getting ripe through sap, through photosynthesis, and sugar accumulation through leaves rather than concentration by evaporation from sunlight. The pergola was important for us for all these reasons.’

‘Grandfather used to like to say that only under the pergola you create the velvet of the Montepulciano.’

‘I started to think how I could be grateful to the pergola and to the decisions that have been made in the past that are allowing me to make wines that are of a different quality when they are coming from pergola.’

Adding in agroforestry

‘I’d like to vinify for a few decades to come. Pergolas are very nice right now, but probably in 20 years that shade will not be enough any longer.’

‘Now more than ever there is a synergy in between winemakers around the world, a young generation that is trying to invent and rethink new pathways to cultivate and try to make the finest possible wines. There are a lot of thinking brains communicating and sharing, and tasting together. We travel and we think, and we try, and we talk again. There is a lot of brainstorming happening.’

‘The use of the roots where you come from: you use all your tools where you come from, putting all your intelligence in service of nature. I still want to make wines that age well in the future. This means that the solutions we have today are few because global warming has been coming with time. It will take time for us to put in place solutions. For me one of the solutions is shade. There is an element of shade that I have always been attracted to and there is an element of soil microbiology and exploration, and temperature at a deeper level that to me is interesting. I see some possibility of movement in those two areas.’

‘Everything started with a question of the sort that as winemakers we often receive when people come to visit. One of the first questions you are asked is what is your surface [area]? How many hectares do you cultivate? This question always disturbed me somehow. It didn’t feel alright. It was only later that I understood why. The reason is that we do not cultivate surfaces: we cultivate and are responsible for volumes. Everything that is above is reflecting with a very precise symmetry everything that is below ground. So I started thinking what if I can cultivate higher levels? It meant that I am symmetrically exploring a deeper level into my soil, and reaching different water resources and different temperatures. We know one-tenth of what we know that is above ground when we think of what is happening underneath.’

‘I had the opportunity of planting 2.3 hectares in March 2022. I planted Montepulciano in pergola, and I planted in a system of agroforestry, in the sense that as I was creating shade to my pergola I was also reaching deeper levels of roots and soil with the trees neighbouring my pergolas. That happened in two modalities. There are divided in three different plots. The idea is to cultivate on three levels: to have your soil cultivated, then the vines cultivated, and then have trees on top. This means that in symmetry you have roots of cover crop, roots of vines, and roots of trees. This synergy would be a way where the roots of trees can support the roots of vines that need help and also the roots of the vines can support the roots of cover crops. Just before we were leaving to come to London I had a winemaker come to visit me and I took him proudly to the new parcel. On this parcel, 0.6 ha, there 500 vines – pergola is low density of 900 plants per hectare. The cover crops were very tall. The first question he asked was, what do you think of cutting that cover crop, because of competition? We are totally fine in planting 10 000 plants per hectare because we think that this causes roots to grow deeper, but then we are scared when vines and other crops are in competition. It is interesting. Sometimes we see competition, but what are we doing this for? And why are we now scared of it?’

‘Right now we are in a phase of exploration, and we are in a phase when bold decisions have to be taken. But people who made great wines in the past took bold decisions back in the day, so for me it is challenging and stimulating to be exploring different thoughts. They might not always be right, there will be mistakes along the way, but is fun that even doing something for the first time there are always going to be challenges doing something that is not standardized and codified, but it is stimulating, as it has been stimulating for our family to do something a bit different in the region.’

The idea behind the three layers: cover crops, vines in pergola, and trees – extending up, and down (picture courtesy Emidio Pepe)

‘One vineyard didn’t have any trees around, so as we planted the 0.6 ha pergola we surrounded it with 70 trees, of different kinds. We decided to use trees with the same mycorrhizae as vines, so this could start a good synergy right away. For the trees I did a big mix because I had a lot of suggestions from other farmers whe’d been doing this before, and what was historical in the region. There was this thing called vigna maritata, letting the vine grow into the trees.’

‘I have planted a lot of fruit trees: historically in Burgundy there was a lot of peche de vigne, peaches that were very good with the vines. The real reason for the tree placement was related to the tree canopy. The plot is a square with sunrise in the east and sunset in the west. All the denser canopy trees I placed on the sunset side, so we could protect from the late afternoon sun. Everything that was east facing was a bit more sparse, such as cherry trees, to let the morning light in. We decided to plant baby trees rather than bigger trees so the vines and trees could grow together. This was another question we’d been discussing.’

‘One of the good reasons to have a lot of biodiversity in the estate is that you can re-use everything that is grown. We grow ancient varieties of wheat from which we make pasta and flour. For us it is very important to have other kinds of cultures surrounding our vineyard. After we harvest the wheat, the straw is used to do the paillage [mulching] of old and new vines.’

‘To be young and making wine in Abruzzo is pretty cool because there is not a lot of preconditioned rules that you need to respect. We are doing many things for the first time. There is an element of excitement that comes with that.’

‘It’s an act of individualism, making wine. I don’t want to be a replica. Also, I never tasted grandfathers’ wines when they were young. I want to respect the tradition, but it is inevitable there will be differences. I feel very lucky that I have seen grandfather at work. He has a sense of practicality and observation that is pretty spectacular. The greatest people in the wine world have intellect and practicality put together: to make wine you need both.’


‘Grandfather had been planting white vines on whiter clays; on clays with more active limestone, and where parental material was closer to the surface. The roots were struggling a bit more. The way the whole region has been formed, is Italy has this big mountain range that goes from the alps down to Puglia. This has been formed by the two plates colliding and then rising, forming the Apennine mountain range, and the sea moving apart. Most of the soils are washed down from the mountains. The parental material we have is the same rock, quartz, as is found at the top of the Apennines. There are also all the alluvional layers that have formed over time. Abruzzo is a region that has been moving a lot. When the soils are alluvional they are usually less compacted. After the quartz, which is at the bottom, we have blue marl on top, and then everything above this is different kinds of clays, with more influence of either sand or silt. The base is clay with a lot of calcareous elements. In some areas there is a prevalence of sand; in others there is a prevalence of silt.’

‘Branella and Casa Pepe have a prevalence of sand and silt, respectively. These are the two oldest plots at the house. Casa Pepe is the plot in front of where we live; it is the parcel that grandfather grafted on site. This is normally where we take the massal selection. Grandfather had been planting the rootstock in 1970 and then grafting from 1972 to 1974. Branella is a vineyard that was bought in 1984, and this was inscribed in a catalogue in 1966 with 2 hectares. This is the one that has more sand. It is the one with more soil types within the parcel, and it has deeper soil. Casa Pepe is south-facing, and there is a lot of silt and iron in the soil. Silt really helps with water retention: it is like a sponge, and lets the vine access water all the way through summer. This means Casa Pepe has a long ripening cycle and it completes in a resolved way. Branella has more sand so the soils are cooler, and it has speckled lenses of precipitated limestone. It is very interesting because this gives a different perception of acidity and freshness.’

In the last four years they have worked with Brenna Quigley, the US-based young geologist who is gaining fame for her work with top producers. She’s been undertaking Abrizzo’s first geological studies on vineyards.


The whites are made in a traditional way. They are foot trodden in wooden tubs, 350 kg at a time, with three to four people stomping with their boots. This allows the release of some density, some creaminess, and some phenolic elements. This takes about 45 minutes and then the grape mass is pressed using a vertical press, and fermented in concrete with no settling. After malolactic fermentation the wine is racked. There are small sulfite additions at the beginning and after racking in spring, if needed. The wine matures for two years in glass-lined concrete tanks before bottling without filtration. ‘Grandfather started with unlined concrete,’ says Chiara, ‘but by 1985 everything was lined. He always worked and played with the idea of reduction, and liked neutral containers.’  She says that it is very easy to clean these lined tanks, and they also hold temperature well. ‘Running fermentation in concrete is very different to handling a fermentation in stainless steel,’ she says. ‘In stainless steel the ambient temperature decides what temperature the wine should be; with concrete the wine decides. In concrete the wines decant better than in stainless steel, too.’

Chiara’s aunt used very little sulfites, but Chiara uses more. She aims to use the minimum possible to let the wine be safe. ‘Wild ferments are very much affected by sulfite levels,’ she says. ‘Sometimes if you want your yeast to work you have to sulfur; it cleanses everything else out. In 2023 I had fruit that had seen a lot of mildew: the fruit wasn’t clean. If I hadn’t sulfured higher than normal I wouldn’t have achieved the wild fermentations.’ She recalls a saying from an older winemaker: clean fruit is the luxury of modern days. ‘In the future I will take more risks. Right now, I’m not in the position to do that.’ In 2023 they redesigned the tanks they foot tread in, so that the bottoms can be cooled with glycol. This means they can press at lower temperatures.

Since the beginning Emidio Pepe have made Trebbiano, but Pecorino is the newcomer. They started making it in 2010 from vineyards planted in 2006/7. These face north, which gives some protection from sunlight and heat. Pecorino ages quite well. It has more malic acid, though, so loses more acidity in malolactic fermentation.

For the reds, the grapes are destemmed by hand. Previously this was done with a net over a 1000 litre tank, which they then had to bucket out to the fermenters. From 2022, they have destemmed into small stainless steel hoppers which can be lifted and then emptied by gravity through a hydraulic valve. The fermentation takes place in 2200 litre tanks with whole berries. They begin fermentation with a pied de cuve. ‘For me it is important fermentation runs through energetically,’ says Chiara. ‘You don’t want yeasts to lack anything.’ For Montepulciano, a high peak temperature of fermentation helps the polymerization of tannins, so they let this happen. After 6-7 days maceration, it’s time to press (this is decided by sugar levels), and a basket press is used (as with the whites). ‘We have gone back to a delicate way of extraction,’ she says. Some tanks get two pigeages, others three. Her grandfather pressed at 9% alcohol and completed fermentation off the skins. They rack after malolactic, sulfur the wine, and leave it in concrete for two years. ‘I would never dream to make a sexy, perfumed young Montepulciano,’ says Chiara. ‘It could be appealing, but it is not what our history has been teaching us.’ These wines are for ageing. ‘It takes a lot of courage to pile up bottles and say they are going to be great in 20 years,’ she says. ‘But this says a lot about grandfathers’ personality.’

Gravity flow would be ideal but the old cellar means that pumping is needed. ‘Theoretically and ideologically I love it [gravity flow], but I don’t think it would make a huge impact on the wine. I work with varieties that are more robust than Pinot and Chardonnay.’

In the past Emidio Pepe used to decant and rebottle the red wines at 10 years of age before selling them because they deposited lots of tannins. Now they only do this with wines older than 2001. They check each bottle, decant them carefully and then put a new cork in with the date of decanting on a neck label, showing that this was done at the estate. The bottles are flushed with nitrogen before filling.


Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abbruzzo 2021 Abruzzo, Italy
Full yellow gold in colour. This is intense and powerful, vivid and spicy, with lovely lime fruit as well as some apple and peach. Nice richness here, and the wine finishes salty and intense with some sour cherry notes and good acidity. Long and finely spiced. 94/100

Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abbruzzo 2019 Abruzzo, Italy
This was a cold vintage. Very textural with a touch of spice and subtle saltiness. Tangy lemony fruit as well as some pear and apple. Such texture and purity with nice brightness. Fine and pure. 95/100

Emidio Pepe Pecorino 2021 Colli Aprutino IGT, Abruzzo, Italy
From 1.5 hectares, north facing, panted in 2006/7. Gives 6000-7000 bottles a year. Full gold in colour. This is stony, mineral, saline and intense with good acidity and fine spicy notes. Such power and complexity here as well as intensity and finesse. 96/100

Emidio Pepe Pecorino 2020 Colli Aprutino IGT, Abruzzo, Italy
Complex and powerful with lovely acidity under the crystalline citrus fruit, with a touch of pear and appealing spicy notes. Some marmalade and orange peel, too. 95/100

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ‘Branella’ 2021 Abruzzo, Italy
A property bought in 1984, planted in 1966. 2 hectares, pergola. Sandier soils, which are also deeper, and which have some speckled lenses of precipitated limestone. Brooding and bright, fresh and mineral, with floral black cherry and plum fruit as well as a twist of blackcurrant. Firm and taut with nice precision. So fresh and lively with lovely bright acidity and some limestone freshness. Fine and expressive with a bit of grunt but also elegance. 96/100

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ‘Casa Pepe’ 2021 Abruzzo, Italy
Silt dominated soils, in front of the house, rootstock planted in 1970 and then grafted with mass selection from 1972 to 1974. Deeply coloured, this is a rich and inky wine with some lushness to the sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit. There are some smoky, stony, charcoal notes, as well as some richness to the fruit. Has nice tannins and good depth. Warm, bold and concentrated, with real grip on the finish. Such a beautifully expressive wine, and quite a bit richer than Branella. 96/100

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ‘Branella’ 2020 Abruzzo, Italy
Focused, bright and linear with floral cherry and blackberry fruit. Fresh and linear with keen acidity and good tannins. This is juicy and vibrant with lovely freshness and purity, showing nice grip on the finish. Subtle tarry notes with real focus and precision: sensational stuff. 97/100

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ‘Casa Pepe’ 2020 Abruzzo, Italy
Smoky and mineral on the nose with notes of iodine and iron on the nose alongside the brooding black fruits. The palate has depth, richness and generosity with some sleekness to the black cherry and blackberry fruit. Nice flesh here but also structure. There’s some tannin under the fruit, but it’s well hidden. 96/100

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2009 Abruzzo, Italy
Vivid, fresh and fine with lovely black cherry and blackberry fruit, as well as high acidity and some spice and earth notes. Tart, intense and linear, this is really bright and focused. Great acid line and nice tannins. 94/100

Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2001 Abruzzo, Italy
Subtle earthy development here with bold sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit, showing nice evolution. Fine and expressive with fine-grained structure, showing good precision. Great balance still, with lots of grip, but beginning to open out. 95/100

UK agent: Dynamic Vines