It was a drizzly morning. It had been beautiful when we left the coast of Abruzzo, in Silvi and headed toward the inland region of Teramo, but as we drove further, the clouds increased, and here and there, rain would hit the windows.
We were headed for Cirelli. Cirelli run by Francesco Cirelli and his wife Michela. I have written about their wines before. My favorite wine bar, Garagiste LV, carries their wines. But I had never visited. This press trip to Abruzzo allowed me to meet them in person and see the place I pictured when I closed my eyes as I sipped their wines.
Cirelli in the Hills of southern Teramo near the badlands
The property is near the ancient town of Atri, just 8 kilometers from the Adriatic Sea and 60 kilometers from the Gran Sasso peak. They refer to the property not as a vineyard but as a farm, “Azienda Agricola” Cirelli. Yes, they have vineyards, but also olive groves, orchards, vegetable gardens, geese, pigs, sheep, and more on their 22 hectares.
Francesco grew up going to his grandparent’s farm in the summers. He grew up and got his degree in business administration. Still, his dream to be a farmer was strong, and he purchased this property sitting 250 meters above sea level near the Riserva Naturale Calanchi di Atri. Calanchi means “badlands.” This reserve was established in 1995 and, in 1999, became a WWF Oasis.
The winery at Cirelli and all those Amphorae
Francesco took us into the winery as the rain lightened. Inside the door, squatty stout amphorae stood, held upright on their pointed bottoms by white wooden frames, details on the wine inside neatly written in white chalk on their rusty orange terracotta sides.
Further in, there were stainless steel tanks and taller amphorae with a base allowing it to stand independently. To the side was another space with a wall on one side that stood at chest height. This wall held a garden of amphorae planted in sand and stone to keep their temperature constant. This is a winemaker’s Zen garden, the white rocks filling in between the amphorae tops, these round metal lids on the rims of terracotta.
He and his wife, Michela, were young and wanted to do something different with their wines. They wanted something, as Francesco says, “with a clear and evident soul.”
Before becoming a winemaker, he had been a fan of wine made in amphorae and wanted to try this ancient-style vessel for his wines.
He visited Impruneta, a small town in Tuscany between Florence and Siena, to meet with Artenova.
Impruneta clay has always been highly prized, and these two guys at Artenova decided to expand beyond decorative terracotta into amphorae and did extensive experimentation to get it right.
After seeing their work, Francesco was convinced that this was the way he wanted to move forward with his wines. He purchased 3 to put in his garage in 2011 (this was before the winery was even built.) That first year, there was one amphora of Trebbiano, one of Montepulciano, and one of Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, their iconic rosé.
They now produce a total of 20,000 to 25,000 bottles annually, spread across the varieties of Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Pecorino d’Abruzzo, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, all from their property and all fermented and aged in amphorae. They are trying to refine all the wine for 2 years before release. Every year, they expand the refinement period.
He has 3 styles of amphorae. The large amphorae I mentioned is 1600 hectolitres and comes from Trentino. The 6 amphorae as you enter are 1000 hectolitres each and are from Tuscany, as well as the 16 amphorae buried in sand and rock in the second room, each of which is 800 hectolitres.
I asked him about the shape of the amphorae and how that affected the wine. The 800-hectolitre amphorae are narrower, allowing them less skin contact, which he prefers.
Amphorae are also known for their ability to allow oxygenation. Francesco says this is a great benefit for Montepulciano, which he says “…is full of tannins and very like a crazy horse at the beginning of its life, and the amphorae really help to polymerize the tannins of Montepulciano, and so making it ready in a shorter time.”
He says this doesn’t decrease the aging potential for the wine; it just smooths the tannins to make it drinkable earlier.
The different amphorae have different porosities, the large one from Trentino having the least. They often put one of their more delicate white wines in that vessel to decrease the oxygenation.
With just 4 varieties, you would not think this would give Francesco much room for blending, but he harvests each variety 3 to four times, using the differences in sugar, acidity, and aromas to add balance and complexity to the wines. He also has the ability to ferment different parcels separately with his amphorae.
In the vineyard
Cirelli received their biodynamic certification in 2021. They began the farm organically, with vines, olives, and grains, then added figs and animals. Their yields are small, around 40-45 quintals per hectare. (100kg=Quintal) The appellation guidelines allow 150 quintals per hectare, so their yield is less than a third of the legal limits.
The soil here is clay and limestone, and vines struggle to produce even this small amount.
Climate Change and Cirelli
Francesco told us that each vintage since 2011, each year has been hotter and hotter, and harvest has been coming earlier. Their first harvest of Montepulciano in 2011 was at the end of October. Now, harvest happens in the first half of October, between 7 to 15 days earlier than in 2011.
This year, of course, there was the rain. This was just weeks after the devastating flood north of here in Emilia-Romagne and Marche in mid-May. The rain falling outside was remnants of this. So much rain and humidity in May was not typical, and he was ready to be done with it. This rain causes disease pressure, and they watch closely for mildew. Luckily, as of early June, they were feeling good, but other parts of Southern Abruzzo were not so lucky.
Overall, he has noticed more extreme weather events.
Trellising at Cirelli
They initially planted to pergola trellisin, which is typical in the region, but when they put in the last 6 hectares, they chose to go with Guyot training.
Pergola Abruzzese – grows the vines on a pergola, so the vines spread out flat on the top, and the fruit hangs below. While this allows the grapes to hang freely, Francesco says that the humidity beneath the pergola builds, and they are sheltered from the wind and sun, which would help to dry out any mildew.
The new Guyot training allows the vines more aeration and sun, which is very helpful in these wet times. They originally planted to Guyot to see how it would work and give them yet another bit of style and nuance in the grapes to add complexity. But with the varying weather, it gives him a buffer. In a warm vintage, the pergola works better; in a humid vintage, the Guyot.
We headed back inside to taste his amphorae wines.
Francesco Cirelli Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC 2021 Anfora
The grapes for this wine are destemmed, gently crushed, and spend 24 hours macerating in amphorae. They separate the skins and gently press, and then the indigenous yeast starts the fermentation. The wine stays in amphora for 18 months, going through malolactic fermentation, and then is bottled.
Francesco feels you can feel the limestone soil in this wine, which expresses itself in its sapidity and salty finish.
I noted soft, warm pear and floral notes on the nose. On the palate, a sharp brightness rounds in your mouth, with wide lifting aromatics.
Francesco Cirelli Pecorino d’Abruzzo DOC 2021 Anfora
Carefully harvested from their own vineyards, the grapes are treated in the same way as the Trebbiano: destemmed, gently crushed, 24 hr maceration in amphorae, fermented with indigenous yeast in amphorae going through malolactic fermentation and then bottled after 12 months.
I noted this had a light, airy, lifted nose with soft pear (canned with no sugar). The acidity was higher in this wine than in the Trebbiano, with sharper edges on my palate.
Francesco Cirelli Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo DOC 2022 Anfora
Francesco says Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo is the most authentic wine from the region. This was farmer wine, the wine of the poor people. “… it’s very unique to our roots and heritage.”
Traditionally, this wine was from the last press of the Montepulciano and was given to the farmers as a partial wage.
In recent years, thanks to the iconic wines of Emidio Pepe and Valentini, awareness of this wine has come to the International market.
This wine can pair with all three styles of cuisine from the Abruzzo region. It will pair with fish stew from the coast, white meat dishes of the hillside, and the Apennines’ game dishes.
The DOC requires the Cerasuolo to be at least 85% Montepulciano, but many, including Francesco’s, are 100%.
This wine did just 4 hours of skin; still, the color is vivid and bright, which he says is the power of the Montepulciano grape. This was the only 2022 we tasted. Francesco skipped the 2021 vintage because he was not satisfied with the quality. All that wine went into their entry-level Cerasuolo.
This wine was strawberry bubble gum to my nose. On the palate, it is tart and round with cherry notes. I could drink this all day.
Francesco Cirelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC 2021
Again, the grapes are destemmed and gently crushed. They spend 8 days macerating on the skins. This differs from most Montepulciano d’Abruzzos that macerate for 20-30 days. Francesco believes that this gives him less tannic green notes in his wine.
This wine had a lovely magenta rim, and the nose had sweet mulberry notes, flowers, and wet green leaves (think of a ficus tree after rain). The palate had dark fruit notes, mulberry, blackberry, and great acidity.
Here at Cirelli, they do sit within the Colline Terramane DOCG and could use that on their label. Francesco chooses not to and just go with the . Abruzzo is tough enough for foreign markets to understand without spending an extra 25 minutes to explain the different name for the DOCG, he says.
Other wines from Cirelli
They also have their line of organic wines, La Collina Biologica, where he sources organic grapes in addition to his own vineyards. These wines are made in Stainless Steel.
Finally, he has a line called Wines of Anarchy. This rebellious line includes two sparkling Pet Nats made organic grapes in a white and rosé.
He recently released his Cirelli Vino Rosso in a 3-liter box. Here’s to environmentally sustainable packaging!!!
80% of Francesco’s wines are exported, so look for them in your favorite wine shops. If you don’t find them, ask!
Glamping at Cirelli
Before we left, we took a few minutes to check out their “Glamping Lodges.”
Two tent lodges sit on platforms nestled into the olive orchard with views of the hills. Available from April to the beginning of November. The lodges each have a loft. Lodge 1 will accommodate up to 3 guests, and Lodge 4 is a bit larger and will accommodate up to 4 guests. They have a full bathroom with a shower and a small kitchen corner where you can fix a light meal.
The best part is the deck, which has tremendous views.
Finding Azienda Agricola Cirelli & their wines
Francesco’s wines are distributed in the US. Check your local wine shop! If they are not carrying these wines, ask about them!
Here is a list of their US Distributors
Visit the Cirelli Website https://agricolacirelli.com/en/the-wine-italy-2/ for more information on their farm and wines.
Visit their website or contact them for details on their wine tours or glamping
AZIENDA AGRICOLA CIRELLI
Contrada via Colle San Giovanni 1
64032 – ATRI (Teramo)
Tel.: +39 085 8700106
Fax: +39 085.45.14.758
Traveling with a group, I did not have one-on-one time to speak to Francesco about his biodynamic farming methods. As we get into our new Documentary project, “Can Wine Save the Planet,” I look forward to speaking with him further about his farming methods and deep care for the land.
Read more about Cirelli at Crushed Grape Chronicles
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine and WSET 3 Certified. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.
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