Le Marche marches on
Le Marche, or the Marches if you prefer the English name, is the central Italian region, on the Adriatic coast, which is probably more famous for its beach resorts than its wine. It is blessed with very similar landscape and climate to Tuscany, boasts the historic jewels of the towns of Urbino and Ascoli Piceno but somehow the wine has gone under the radar. And I will have to admit that I have not been here for far too many years – certainly before I had this website. So when the Institute of Masters of Wine organised a student trip in December 2017 I had to get on it. Here’s a quick overview. While this was wine for 12 hours a day I will include a few pictures of the old town of Ancona, Matellica and the amazing caves of Frassasi.
More red than white
The white wine Verdicchio is probably the Marche’s most famous wine but in fact, the region produces more red wine than white. The most common reds are Montepulciano/Sangiovese blends which we will consider below and these two varieties take up 40% of the vines planted. Verdicchio at about 15% is a rather poor third. And just under half of all plantings can be lumped together as ‘other varieties’. Some of these are interesting local specialities, some are international varieties or some are local ones which never leave the region.
Verdicchio needs to reposition itself
Verdicchio Bianco, to give it its full name, is frustrating as it can be made both as a high-quality wine which can age for 20 years or more, or as a rather dull if refreshing everyday wine. It was the Pinot Grigio of its day, produced in vast quantities with little respect for its quality potential. Now the entry-level wine is suffering from the tidal wave of Pinot Grigio emanating from the Veneto, Sicily and almost anywhere. In the decade 2000–2010, the planting area of Verdicchio dropped by 30% while world plantings of Pinot Grigio grew by 130% (Kym Anderson’s figures). Thus, Verdicchio used to be a restaurant and supermarket staple it no longer has that position and there is no point to try to reclaim that position. Now it should aim to be seen as one of Italy’s top quality white wines. The frustrating thing is that the high-quality wines are there – they just don’t grab the attention of a world wine market which seems happier with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. But if you like restrained lemon fruit and almond notes, crisp acidity and a certain steeliness in your bottle of wine, you should really try Collestefano or Villa Bucci’s Verdicchio. The latter is available as half bottles for £6.50 from the Wine Society and I defy you to find a better fridge door wine in this style.
And there is absolutely no doubt that the top wines age well. On this trip we were treated to Monacesca’s Mirum 1998 and Pallio di San Floriano’s 1995, both standing up well after two decades. Because the variety is not aromatic, you get the full benefit of the complex orange rind, leather and mushroom tertiary notes these wines develop in the bottle, all sustained by that racy acidity.
And while nearly all the wine is dry and still, there are two special styles to try too. The current buzz is for bottle-fermented sparkling wines and a sweet passito style that has always been made. Because of its restrained fruit and high acidity, Verdicchio is ideal for second fermentation in the bottle. If you are in the Marche, look out for Colonnara or Garofoli’s versions.
In the world of red wine, you could think of the Marche as a blending laboratory for the varieties of its neighbours – Sangiovese (Romagna to the north and Tuscany to the west) and Montepulciano (Abruzzo to the south). The main denominations are
- the small but high-quality Rosso Cònero DOCG in the hills just south of Ancona
- the vast and variable Rosso Piceno which covers most of the vine-planted land of the region. Here the blend is typically 70% Montepulciano and 30% Sangiovese
- Hopefully, in time we will also take note of Offida Montepulciano DOCG which is a small, high-quality zone in the south of the Marche which has to be 85-100% Montepulciano
The soils in the Marche are of course varied but probably a safe generalisation is that there is more clay here than limestone and so Montepulciano is better suited than the limestone-loving Sangiovese. Where Montepulciano is the dominant part of the blend the wines are deeply coloured, full of savoury and plummy fruit. The Sangiovese element adds acidity and a sour cherry aromatic lift. For Rosso Piceno DOC you can, of course, blend the Rosso Piceno version with Merlot or Cabernet – if you must.
The only reliable guide to these wines is the producer’s name on the label. Rosso Piceno DOC can be anything from a youthful, red-fruited, simple unoaked wine to a substantial red to black-fruited, oaked wine intended for ageing. There is also Rosso Piceno Superiore DOC which must come from one of 13 communes in the Ascoli Piceno province, again with a range of style but more likely to be dominated by Montepulciano. As already noted, the most reliable indicator comes from the Offida DOCG where Montepulciano rules.
The red wines I particularly enjoyed on this trip were from Marchetti (who I visited all those years ago) whose Villa Bonomi 2014 was an exceptional achievement in a difficult year (precise blackberry and red plum fruit covers the silky tannins). Moroder’s Rosso Cònero DOCG 2015 is highly commendable for its complex fruit and juicy refreshment. The red wine highlight of the trip was undoubtedly Moroder, Dorico 2000 (the Riserva DOCG category only arrived in 2004). It showed superb leather and balsamic development, fine now softened, lacy tannins and lingering finish). Umani Ronchi and Garofoli should also get a mention. My only word of caution is that some of the riserva category wines were just trying too hard – too much extraction, too much new oak.
Vinous interest in the Marche is not limited to its most well-known white and reds. There are local specialities too – the floral and exotic red Lacrima di Morro d’Alba variety, the trendy white pair of Pecorino and Passerina, not to mention the exotic red sparkling wine, partly made with semi-dried grapes, Vernaccia di Serrapetrona DOCG – a combination which has to be very unusual even in Italy’s treasure trove of lovable eccentric wines.
There is no doubt that there is huge potential in the wines of the Marche. Let’s hope that we see more of these wines on the international market.
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