A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Abbuoto (Cecubo) - Campania, Italy

Believe it or not, at one time in history the Abbuoto grape and the wine made from it (Cecubo in Italian, but Caecubum in Latin) were very famous.  The Roman poet Horace mentions the wine several times throughout his work, usually as a wine used in grand celebrations, such as Octavius Caesar's victory over Antony and Cleopatra, where Horace described it as "the Caecubum reserved for festal entertainments."  The wine was so famous and well thought of that the region where it was produced (today's southern Lazio and northern Campania) was referred to as the Caecuban countryside.

That was a very long time ago, though, and seemingly no wine can resist the force of changing tastes and political turmoil.  The Romans began to favor lighter wines and the dense, rich Cecubo began to fall out of favor.  Our old friend Pliny blames the downfall of Caecubum on Nero.  According to Pliny, the grape was grown in the marshy areas near the Gulf of Amyclae.  He believes that its eradication was caused by the "carelessness of the cultivator," whatever that means, and by the building of a canal from Lake Avernus to Ostia by Emperor Nero.  The only canal that I can find any evidence that Nero had anything to do with was the Corinth Canal, which was in Greece, so one wonders about the veracity of Pliny's account here.  In fact, it seems as though the Roman General Agrippa actually built the canal a few decades before Nero came to power.  Many Roman writers were overtly antagonistic to Nero in their texts, so it's totally possible that Pliny is just piling on him at this point.  What actually happened is probably something much more mundane than a mad Emperor tearing up vines to search for buried treasure.  The fact of the matter is that there are many wines mentioned in Latin texts that have, for one reason or another, disappeared completely for no one reason, and it is likely that time simply took its toll on the famous Caecubum wine and the Abbuoto grape and they slowly faded away.

And they were thought to have been lost forever to history until a few decades ago.  The story (in Italian) goes that, in some of the marshy areas around Lake Fondi about 50 miles south of Rome (where the original Caecuban countryside is purported to be), there were some old, neglected vines of a type that was thought to be the ancient Abbuoto. Cuttings were taken from these vines and nursed back to health.  The healthy vines were definitely different from any other variety currently known, and the claim that they are the same as the ancient Abbuoto has remained unchallenged.  It's certainly possible that it is the same ancient vine, but there's no real way to prove it.  The vines.org encyclopedia indicates that there is between 700 and 800 hectares of land devoted to the Abbuoto grape throughout Italy (most of it centered in Lombardy and Piedmont, oddly enough), which seems like it doesn't match up with the recent "re-discovery" of the grape all that well, especially given that the grape seems to be grown in 12 different regions of Italy.  I'm skeptical of the re-discovery story as it is presented, as it reeks of a marketing ploy to me, but I tend to be overly cynical about these kinds of things and invite you to draw your own conclusions.

Whatever the case may be, it is an undeniable fact that wines containing the Abbuoto grape are not exactly common.  One of my local grocery stores has a full service liquor store on premise that I was wandering through one day when I came across the Villa Matilde "Cecubo" bottling for about $10.  The amazing thing about it was that the only vintage available in the store was from 1999, so it must have sat on those shelves for nearly a decade before I came across it.  Abbuoto is typically a blending grape, and this wine is no exception, containing 45% Abbuoto, 35% Primitivo and 20% Piedirosso.  In the glass, this wine was a fairly deep ruby color and was going garnet at the edges.  The nose was nicely aromatic with prune, fig, baking spice and leather.  It was very earthy and appealing.  On the palate, the wine was on the fuller side of medium with high acid and fine, dusty tannins.  There were spicy black cherry, black plum and prune fruits with a savory leather and dusty earth character to it.  There was also a pronounced cola flavor that was interesting, if a little odd.  Overall, I enjoyed the wine quite a bit.  It's difficult to find a 12 year old red wine for around $10, and luckily this wine had aged gracefully.  I'd be very interested to try this in a more recent vintage, but as noted above, it's not easy to find.  I believe there are some producers making wines with a higher percentage of Abbuoto in them, but good luck finding them.

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