There is so much mystery in wine, so many times a fixed idea slips the mooring, so many opportunities to renovate categories whose shiny façades are belied by ramshackle interiors. Just when I think I understand even one tiny corner of wine, a trap door opens beneath my certainties.

You can try to aim for mastery, by studying harder, reading more and, of course, drinking as much as possible. But the one thing I can say for sure is that this phenomenon, the out-of-reachness of wine comprehension, is not to be gotten the better of.

The best I can hope for is having the wherewithal to watch and appreciate the mystery as it unfurls.

Hence a new organizing principle for this column: Whichever topic I happen to take on (a region, a grape, a vintner, etc.), I’ll illustrate it using only two wines. Rather than make any attempt to provide (or fake) an overview of the topic at hand, my intention will be simply to show how much variability persists.

I can’t think of a better place to start than with Montepulciano D’Abruzzo. It’s a well-known category for supporters (and opponents) who think of it as a more or less dependable (or bland) weekday go-to. It turns out to be both, and neither, and other things in between. Clarification is helpful every step of the way.

Montepulciano is the name of the grape used in this wine from Abruzzo, a region in central Italy that borders the Adriatic Sea. It is often confused with a wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, made from a sangiovese grosso clone known as prugnolo gentile, in the Tuscan comune (town and its surrounding areas) of Montepulciano. So, the delightfully mellifluous word “montepulciano” refers to both a place and grape, with little overlap between them.

Little, but not none. In Abruzzo, the DOC requirements allow a montepulciano wine to contain up to 15 percent sangiovese grapes. And more than two-thirds of the montepulciano grown in Abruzzo is sold in bulk to producers in other parts of Italy, including Tuscany, as filler for forgettable wines. (Lest we get too tethered to place of origin, I’ve read several reliable accounts of exciting montepulciano wines from New Zealand, Australia and California, though I’ve never found the chance to try one.)

This may all seem tangential, but it’s not. Italy has a beautifully, infuriatingly long and fluid history, whether the category is agriculture, commerce or geopolitics – or wine. And so tangents are, oxymoronically, central. If we’re really going to absorb the mystery of wine, and surrender to the power of its confusion, Italy might be our most maddeningly helpful guide.

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo taught me this. I’d never cared much for the wines, finding them countrified and clumsy, with tarry black fruit flavors or ephemeral red fruit flavors, low acidity, and the punishing banality of oak overwhelming anything else of possible interest.

That last issue is responsible for a generally inverse relationship between price and quality, many producers apparently believing that painting oak lipstick on haphazardly farmed pigs will present attractive animals. But if you stay at the lower end of the price spectrum, there’s a different problem: insipid juice evoking nothing.

One of the greatest challenges to cultivating interesting montepulciano is its tendency to ripen asynchronously. A given bunch on a vine can have fully mature, deeply colored grapes growing alongside pale pink pretenders. The solutions – dropping fruit, making multiple hand-harvested passes in the vineyard, spending an agonizingly long time at the sorting table – cost money that few growers seem willing to spend. It’s easier to sell the grapes in bulk where they’ll be blended anonymously. Clay soils help ameliorate the problem of uneven ripening, too, though unfortunately plenty of montepulciano vines are grown on other sorts.

In the cellar, the situation doesn’t get easier. The pressed juice (must) of montepulciano can easily attract off odors, so a diligent vintner will have to aggressively aerate the fermenting wine and keep it in contact with the lees, through délestage or pumping-over. Less conscientious winemakers (or just those whose taste I don’t like) can aggressively apply oak to mask the sour, green, imbalanced character. Either way, money is involved.

The two Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wines mentioned below evade the standard disappointing molds, but in divergent directions. They’re remarkably different from each other in almost every respect, but for the way in which they express something authentic inherent in their material and provenance.

They’re wines I love to drink, both because they’re delicious and because they stretch out my notions of what this category can encompass.

The Cantina Frentana Rubesto Riserva 2011 ($18) is the bigger, bolder wine, closer to the standard, familiar style of montepulciano. The grapes are 100 percent montepulciano (remember, regional regulations permit less), grown on well-drained clay soils. All the appropriate winemaking techniques are applied, before aging for more than a year in large oak barrels. (Larger is better for montepulciano, since such vessels put less wine in direct contact with the wood, and slow the pace of oxygenation.)

Note the vintage, too, a reflection of the vintner’s willingness to age the wine in bottle for some time before releasing it to the market.

The Rubesto manages to hit those classic central Italian notes – rustic, intensely savory and bold, balsamic – without the untutored bombast of some similarly natured wines. The rich, black fruit is settled, almost caramelized like Turkish coffee, buoyed by fine tannins. There’s some kind of herbal, naturopathic quality to it, too, toothsome bitterness integrating with the red licorice notes.

A drinker drawn to moderately big cabernets from Napa Valley would find much in this wine to enjoy, in the way it merges dusty earth with gutsy fruit.

The opposite end of the montepulciano spectrum is Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, essentially a rosé made from the grape. Since for most people rosé is an altogether different category, I won’t explore it today.

The red Malandrino 2012 ($20) from the esteemed Cataldi Madonna, however, is a fitting substitute, expressing both the summery suppleness of Cerasuolo and the deftness of a lightly treated red.

My jaw dropped the first time I drank this wine. It’s cool, singsong and silky, and I’d defy all but the most practiced specialists to identify it blindly as montepulciano. Keep tasting, though, and the evidence emerges. The classic cherries (a fruit analogue that gives Cerasuolo its name) are steadied by hints of bitter orange, maybe candied peel, and the fresh-herb snap of cabernet franc.

Where the Rubesto is mostly black, the Malandrino (“rascal”) is mostly red, its cherry fruit persisting like a Volnay or other lighter, delicate Burgundy. Again clay soils are the wine’s home, and again the juice receives regular aeration as it ferments. In this case, though, no oak is used at any point. Secondary fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks, and both stainless and concrete vessels complete the maturation.

The Rubesto clocks in at 13.5 percent alcohol, though in the mouth suggests 14 percent or more. Its currency is intrigue. The Malandrino is listed at a remarkable 12.5 percent, but I would have guessed 12. It defers on the intrigue, getting by magnificently on pure charm.

Drink the Rubesto with sausages and aged cheeses, a grilled steak, maybe a pork chop. Drink the Malandrino with tomatoes and mozzarella, garlicky greens, fennel-flecked salami, vitello tonnato, a pizza margherita or pasta pomodoro. Each time, marvel at the way a “lesser” grape grown in a single location on the globe can tell us so much about the world at large.

Joe Appel is the Wine Buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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