Exploring the wines of Umbria

Looking at the wines of Italy from another country, in my case, the UK, it is easy to get fixated by the big success stories. All wine drinkers know about Pinot Grigio and Prosecco, while wine aficionados collect and drink Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello, Super Tuscans and a few more. But the real joy of Italian wine is its deeply regional nature. For example, there is far more to Piemonte than the famous wines made with Nebbiolo. Similarly, Umbria has distinctive, even unique, wines which it contributes to the remarkable diversity of Italian wine while at the same time its producers seek to serve all the needs of the region. The most important unique wine of the region is of course the full bodied, massively tannic Sagrantino di Montefalco, of which more later. What I want to show here is how Umbria can do good to very good versions of just about every wine style. It has a number of very good fairly neutral but fine food-friendly whites; some oaked whites; some sparkling wines traditional and modern; rosés; light and full bodied reds from local and from international grape varieties; and both botrytis-affected and passito sweet wines. OK, there is no ice wine from this pretty hot region, and no fortified wine, but that is a great range.

In the following I have illustrated the main wine types of Umbria with wines tasted from a number of estates on a visit in September 2015.  As you can see from the pictures, Janet and I also saw some of Umbria’s great cities of pilgrimage and art: Assisi, Montefalco and Trevi.  I would like to thank the following wineries for these visits:

Traditional whites

While the rest of central Italy majors in red wines, Umbria has a special gift for whites. It is rightly proud of the Greccheto variety, even if this is in reality two different varieties, true Greccheto and Pignoletto, both of which make elegant, classic Italian low aromatic whites. Trebbiano Spoletino does have more character than its Tuscan cousin – not difficult I hear you say, rightly. And many producers grow a bit of Chardonnay, Fiano or Sauvignon Blanc to liven up blends.

Grecante, Arnaldo Caprai, Colli Martani DOC, 13% – 100% Greccheto – classic restrained white with attractive hints of citrus and peach on the nose and then a surprising intensity on the palate. This €10 wine is not going to set the Tiber alight (yes it does flow through Umbria on its way to Rome) but it ticks a lot of boxes – subtle, refreshing, enough weight to match a range of foods.

Grechetto dei Colli Martani, Adanti, 2014, 13% – Donatella Adanti is very up front that her Greccheto is Pignoletto, the other member of the Greccheto twins. Ian d’Agata’s description of the two varieties in the glass is virtually identical, so let’s not fuss too much. Tight, citrus and peachy palate, quite full bodied, a touch rounded from 6 months on the fine lees in stainless steel, some real potential to develop in the bottle here.

Trebbiano Spoletino, Fratelli Pardi, 2014, 13% – 100% of the eponymous grape variety, this wine from the wet and difficult 2014 started life with a remarkably high 9.2g/l total acidity. The wine maker tried to put it through malolactic fermentation to soften it but it was having none of it and it remained at 8.9g/l in the bottle. As a result a fairly bland palate but with crisp acidity has great ability to age. We tasted the 2011 as a four-year old which showed stony notes alongside ripe peach and a salt touch on the finale. A local wine of real potential.

Le Pòggere, Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone DOP, Falesco, 2014, 12% – is of course a wine from Lazio, not Umbria, but I don’t (yet) have a Lazio page and it is not far over the border. With its six exclamation marks ‘Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone’ must win the prize for most punctuation in an appellation name. The story of the name, featuring a German wine-guzzling bishop, the year 1111 and an early form of scoring wines – one ‘Est’ for good, two for very good, creation of three for something exceptional – is well told here: www.villapuri.it/en/est-est-est-legend.html At Falesco the wine is made from a blend of 50% Trebbiano, 20% Roscetta and 30% Malvasia, simple, bright, lemon and grass on nose and palate, acidity preserved by avoiding malolactic fermentation. If only all the examples served up in Roman trattorie were as good as this! €3-€4 retail.

Modern whites

Umbria is marked by a relatively high concentration of larger wineries. Arnaldo Caprai, Lungarotti and Barberani, not to mention the large cooperatives, can all draw on significant resources of knowledge, research and international contacts. So it is hardly surprising that wineries are making a success of international varieties, if mainly for a local market. I highlight a couple of wines here but there are many more in this category. In the main we asked to taste local varieties.

Soente, Viognier, Falesco, 2014, 13.5% – the Falesco winery, literally on the Umbria/Lazio border, belongs to the important consultant Ricardo Cottarella and has made a specialism in international varieties. Its Tellus Oro is a pleasant, restrained, lemony wine made from 80% Chardonnay plus Pinot Bianco. The Soente is 100% Viognier has peach and green leaf notes, is medium bodied and has a fine acidity (pH 3.25, 5.7g/l TA).

Torre di Giano, Vigna Il Pino, Bianco di Torgiano DOC, Lungarotti, 2010, 13% – is traditional in that it is a 70% Trebbiano Spoletino, 30% Grecchetto blend but modern in the sense that it is 30% fermented in barrels, and then the whole blend is aged until the spring after harvest in oak. It was one of the first Italian whites to aged in oak from the 1970s. Mid lemon in colour, a complex and layered wine with a touch of vanilla and clove over ripe yellow apples and an intriguing green herbal touch (which I associate with the Trebbiano tribe). Excellent depth of flavour and length, definite potential to age in the bottle for up to a decade. I was impressed enough to buy a bottle to bring home, the ultimate accolade.

Experimental whites – no SO2

The eternal battle between freshness and oxidation is being fought out here in Umbria as elsewhere. There is a demand – or is it a fad? – for no (added) SO2 wines and so we were interested to try them.

Falesco, La Discordia [sic], Bianco Umbria, 11.5%, 2013 was a library sample and for good reasons. Tasted two years after the harvest it illustrated perfectly why tiny additions of sulphur are generally a good thing in white wines as there was little fruit and it was mildly oxidised, but not really in an interesting way. Definitely a ‘drink as young as possible’ wine.

More ambitious is ViNoSo, Barberani, 2012, 11.5%. It has a clever brand name as ‘vinoso’ means ‘vinous’ in Italian while proclaiming its low sulphur credentials. The wine is made from 90% Greccheto and 10% Trebbiano Procanico (the Umbrian name for Trebianno Toscano) and the must undergoes six weeks of skin contact – tannins have anti-oxidative power as well as giving a pleasantly grippiness to the final wine. The wine also spends a year on fine lees before bottling. Three years on the wine was deep lemon in colour, very developed and quite oxidative in style, with yeast and toffee notes along with citrus fruit. If tasted blind I would have thought it was 10-12 years old. For me this didn’t really shine as the various flavour elements did not quite complement each other but it was fascinating to taste.

Traditional red blends

Sangiovese being the dominant grape of central Italy it is not surprising that traditional red blends in Umbria are based on Sangiovese. The difference in the Montefalco area is that in comparison to Tuscany or Le Marche the second variety tends to be the Umbrian speciality, Sagrantino. The minor blenders are otherwise very much in line with Tuscany: Canaiolo, Colorino for traditionalists; Merlot or other internationals for modernists. In general (always dangerous), Sangiovese tends to be warmer and more full bodied here than in the cooler areas such as Chianti Classico or Rùfina, and not as refined as in Montalcino. Hardly surprisingly the wines have the pleasant rusticity which you also find in neighbouring Montepulciano, both being warm areas.

Montefalco Rosso DOC, Arnaldo Caprai, 2013 – a classic blend with a modern twist to start us off: 70% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino, 15% Merlot. The Sangiovese is aged in large neutral casks (‘botti’), while the rest get the used French barriques treatment. Medium ruby in colour, pure cherry nose, then a few meaty notes; evident but ripe tannins. The Merlot’s ripeness and fullness helps here to soften the natural zip of Sangiovese and the short macerated Sagrantino.

Vigna Flamminia-Maremmana, Montefalco Rosso DOC, Arnaldo Caprai, 2013 – being the traditional version of the the previous wine from a single vineyard with Cannaiolo replacing the imposter Merlot. Here the warm velvety touch of Merlot is replaced by the floral elegance of Cannaiolo and it really shows. For a basic Rosso, this has lots of character and some finesse. Both of these have an ageing potential of 6-8 years.

Montefalco Rosso riserva, Adanti, 2009, 15% – here at Adanti, while the third variety is indeed Merlot, the ageing is very old school, all in large casks for at least 30 months. The 2009 is the current release of this wine six years on as the winery believes in only releasing wines when they are ready – great news for drinkers. Great depth on the palate, a touch hot, absolutely at the limit of ripeness and warmth: note that 15% alcohol. Very good.

Vigna Monticchio, Torgiano Riserva DOCG, Lungarotti, 2009, being a blend of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Canaiolo – so here in the Torgiano area, just south of Perugia, the Sagrantino drops out. This is both a riserva and a single vineyard, planted in 1998 at 300m of altitude, and cropped at 6 tons per hectares. This historic wine is the Lungarotti offering which tends to feature in lists of Italy’s top 10 reds and is feted by the guides. In the glass the wine immediately strikes you with its intensity, dark berried fruit, balsamic notes, a beautiful balance supported by a fine tannic structure and life-giving acidity. Could easily age for a couple of decades. My first taste of Umbrian Sangiovese was at a tasting in London of Lungarotti’s wines which have done so much to promote the Torgiano DOCG so I was delighted to taste this wine again in situ. Also passed the ‘this is good enough to merit a space in my already over-burdened suitcase’ test though in this case it was drunk with friends in Montalcino where it made an interestingly robust comparison with a certain famous wine in those parts. It certainly held its own.

Sagrantino – Umbria’s unique red

Wine regions need something distinctive to make their mark on the world of wine. Where would Burgundy be without Pinot Noir or Argentina without Malbec? In Italy Nebbiolo is virtually synonymous with Piemonte. Umbria is fortunate in this respect in that it has the red variety, Sagrantino, which is unique to this region. From it there are two highly distinctive wines, the big, tannic Montefalco Sagrantino and its sweet, dried-grape, version, Sagrantino passito. The only drawback is that Sagrantino makes very demanding, if ultimately, very rewarding wines. The slick thing to say that Sagrantino is only for the patient: it all depends on how many decades you have to mature your wine. Tannins are associated with Italian red wines: think Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Aglianico. And then there is Sagrantino, officially Italy’s most tannic grape variety (Ian d’Agata). So for good or ill, we can say that without Sagrantino, with regard to red wines without Sagrantino Umbria would be lost in Toscana’s shadow. We have already seen the subsidiary role that the variety plays in the Montefalco Rosso DOC. Now for the 100% Sagrantino wines. It is only right start with the wines of Arnaldo Caprai, the winery which has done more than most to research into the potential of this grape and to promote it. The three wines discussed here also illustrate three ways of approaching Sagrantino’s hallmark tannins.

25 Anni, Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG, 2010 – this famous wine comes from older vines, 25-30 year olds, and so sits above the estate wine, Collepiano, Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG. It was created to celebrate the 25th year of the estate but the name has been retained for this flagship product. Dense, dark berried fruit, smoke and tar on a complex, powerful nose. The texture is fascinating due to Caprai’s way of dealing with the mega-tannins of the variety: two years in new French barriques. The result is a wine which in its youth shows a big contrast between the sweet notes of new oak, a smooth layer in the mouth, followed by a substantial ring of firm tannins, a structure that is designed to age for some decades. The wine shows its quality with a long, blackberry finish alongside that big structure. Definitely one to drink from 10 years on. A friend shared a bottle of 1990 with me in 2015 and it was beautifully evolved with the structural elements now knit together in a fine, powerful unity. This is definitely one of Italy’s great wines for ageing.

Il Domenico, Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG, Adanti, 2006 – the Adanti family tackle the challenge of Sagrantino in a different way, with long ageing (three years) in traditional large casks and by late release. The current vintage of their estate Sagrantino in 2008 and this cru, named after Donatella’s father, is two years older than than, so is being sold nine years after harvest. The grapes come from the vineyards with poor, sandy soils. The wine has all the rustic, brambly fruit you expect in this variety but this is taut and dense but with real finesse too. Highly recommended.

Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG, Fratelli Pardi, 2011, 15.5% – the Pardi winery, within Montefalco town itself, was refounded by the latest generation with the winery having been rebuilt in 2003. The vineyards have been replanted with higher trained vines (spurred cordon) to make it easier to work on the vines and harvest fruit. With hot summers there is no fear of fruit failing to ripen here. On the clay-rich soils, they keep a covering of grass between the rows in order to ensure that they can have access to the vines even after rain. A future challenge will be getting seasonal workers as their current harvesters are all in their 60s. For the wine itself, this Sagrantino is made from fruit from the five zones where they have vineyards, 11 hectares in all. The key innovation here is that they macerate the fruit for only seven days to limit the extraction of tannins. The wine is complex on the nose with black fruit, balsam and sweet, warm notes from that 15.5%. On the palate the fruit is supported by refreshing acidity and modest ripe tannins. Very impressive, a Sagrantino that you could drink on release. There is also top selection named Sacrantino and plans for single vineyard wines. We also tasted a microvinification of Sagrantino 2014 with no oak: very impressive herbal and mineral notes. It is a shame there is no tradition of unoaked wine.

Modern Umbrian reds and rosé

We did not taste many of these as my preference is always to taste indigenous varieties and local wines. But of course important reds from international varieties are made expertly for the local and Italian market.

L’U, Umbria Rosso, Lungarotti, 2013 – being 50% each Sangiovese and Merlot. Very accessible, smooth red berried fruit with a few darker notes, fine texture and some firm tannins on the finish. Quite a large production from early picked fruit.

Vitiano, Umbria Rosso, Falesco, 2013, 13% – It is fair to say that Falesco specialises in wines from international varieties, along side their excellent traditional wines. The proportions are indicated by the point that their excellent Montefalco Sagrantino comes from a 3.5ha vineyard while they own 250ha in Umbria and Lazio. The Vitiano line is a big seller. The wine is made from an equal three-way split between Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese and spends three months in used barriques. Excellent, forward, red and black berry fruit, well balanced, quite ripe but offset by acidity and the oak is very well integrated. They are rightly proud of having received 91 Parker points for a a wine that costs $10 in the States.

Montiano, Lazio IGT, Falesco, 2012, 14.5% – 100% Merlot with very attractive plush clove, vanilla and ripe blackberry fruit, the product of 18 days of skin contact and 12 months in French oak, 60% new. Lots of class here in a warm, sumptuous style. And yes, there is rosé too: Amanter, Umbria Rosato, Adanti, 2014, 12.5% – 100% Sangiovese made by the saignée/ salasso method, then fermented in stainless steel, pretty mid salmon pink. Intriguing notes of red berry and tobacco leaf, ripe sour cherry on finish, tiny touch of grippiness on finish makes this a food-friendly versatile rosé. Vitiano Rosato, Falesco, 2014, 12.4% – quite a complex blend of 30% Merlot, 30% Cabernet, 30% Sangiovese and 10% Aleatico. The berries are subject to cold maceration for 48 hours to release aromatics while freshness is preserved by avoiding malolactic fermentation. The Aleatico adds a touch of exotic fragrance. Pale red rather than pink, very good freshness, pH 3.46.

Sweet and sparkling

As in all Italian regions there is a tradition of sweet wines, usually of the ‘semi-dried’ grape (passito) variety. Umbria does that but unusually it also has botrytis-affected wines too. One way of dealing with tannins is to offset them with sweetness. It doesn’t remove them of course but they can be tamed by this treatment. Which brings us neatly to the (from the outside world) unlikely idea of Sagrantino passito. Before Arnaldo Caprai took Sagrantino in hand, the wine was usually sweet, just as Amarone is a modern invention and sweet Recioto the historic wine. After all it is much easier to leave some unfermented sugar in very rich wines than ferment to dry.

Montefalco Sagrantino Passito, Caprai, 2009, 15% – perfect, ripe grapes are picked in September/October and then air dried for several months. In Caprai’s case the wine is aged in French oak barriques. Very intense nose, dried plums and vanilla and chocolate notes, rich and full in the mouth, moderate sweetness and a firm tannic finish. Would be great with aged cheeses. At 15% this was one of the more alcoholic versions we encountered along with Adanti 2007 was 15% plus 110g/l residual sugar. Fratelli Pardi was same level of residual sugar but just 13.5% making it suitable to match with liver/paté dishes as well as cheese or some sweet things.

Barberani have made their name with dry and sweet wines, mostly whites but also a red:

Calcaia, Muffa Nobile, Dolce, Orvieto Dolce Superiore, Barberani, 2012, 11.5% – congratulations to Barberani for a clear and helpful wine name: it tells it is sweet and the sweetness comes from noble rot, muffa nobile. This is made from 100% botrytis-affected Grechetto and Procanico (ie Trebbiano) picked in November or December. The story is of discovering the potential of a ‘forgotten’ part of a vineyard where the grapes were left on the vine long after the normal harvest date only to discover that noble rot had mysteriously transformed them. The fermentation takes six weeks to complete and the wine is aged for 3 years in bottle before release. Orange tinged deep lemon in colour in the glass, enticing cooked fruit, honey and saffron aromas, definitely sweet on the palate at 140g/l residual sugar but well balanced by Grecchetto’s trade mark acidity. The recommendation is to keep for 10 years as then the wine will be at its best as the perception of sweetness drops.

Moscato Passito, Villa Monticelli, Barberani, 2012, 11% – another relatively low alcohol sweetie from Barbarerani, if with more overt sugar at 160g/l. This stopped from being sickly by drying half the fruit on the vine to retain acidity and half on the usual drying mats for sugar. Lightly amber in colour, powerful orange blossom on the nose, then something interestingly herbaceous, very intense, very good.

Aleatico Passito, Barberani, 2008, 13% – the red-berried Aleatico is a member of the Muscat tribe and is normally associated with coastal Italy – Elba, Tuscan coast, Puglia. But Barberani have made a success of it in hot, inland Umbria. They found that it turned out very different from year to year so they have adopted a sort of solera system to ageing it. Although the current bottle is labelled 2007, it is actually a multi-year blend for consistency. Lively rose aromatics, dried fruit, unusual complexity, again probably due to multi-year blend.

And finally the sparkling category … There is apparently a sparkling Sagrantino … the mind boggles but I guess it is made from early picked, delicately pressed fruit to avoid those tannins. Scacciadiavoli, is said to be the name to conjure with, but we did not taste it on this trip. We contented ourselves with:

Brut Rosé, Lungarotti, NV, 12.5% – being a blend of Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio with six months on the lees in the bottle. Pale apricot in colour, fine perlage, intriguing combination of simple floral notes and a touch of something savoury, a perfectly decent sparkler. There is also a more ‘serious’ Chardonnay/ Pinot Noir blend aged for 30 months on lees.

 

 

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