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Unlocking Umbria's Treasure

John Fodera (JohnMFodera)

Sea of sunflowersAsk someone the first thing that comes to mind when they think of Italy and many will invariably respond, Tuscany! And that is understandable for many reasons. This could not be truer than for lovers of Italian wine. However, Tuscany's neighbor Umbria, often regarded as somewhat of an after thought, is full of riches that are not dissimilar from the treasures that Tuscany has to offer. In fact, crossing the border from Tuscany to Umbria may not be something one even notices, if you are distracted from the seas of sunflower fields, the oceans of vineyards, countless olive groves, and the hilltop fortress towns that dominate the landscape.

Central to this theme are two medieval towns that produce the majority of the fine wine coming from Umbria; Orvieto and Montefalco. I will discuss both below, with the main focus being on wines made from indigenous grapes. Like Tuscany, international grapes thrive in Umbria however, in keeping with the concept of this site, discussing the issue from a perspective of "vinous immersion" seems appropriate.

Orvieto

The hill town of Orvieto will be our first stop. Home to the DOCG white wine of the same name, Orvieto is made mostly from the Trebbiano grape. There are other grapes allowed in the blend, but the best examples have high percentages of Trebbiano, which is referred to locally by its dialect name, Procanico. You will surely see wines labeled plainly as "Orvieto" but you will also encounter wines labeled "Orvieto Classico." What is the difference you wonder? Again, as with my previous article on Piemonte, it is a matter of local geography. As we will discover when I pen my article about Tuscan wine, the producers in and around the zone of production in Orvieto have delineated the area where the best grapes are grown. To illustrate:

If New York City were Orvieto, then Central Park would be the Orvieto Classico zone. Simply, it is a sub-zone within the larger Orvieto zone known for producing the best grapes, and therefore in theory, the best wine. Orvieto wines are often light, crisp and refreshing and serve as excellent foils to light pasta, seafood, and chicken dishes. I find that it is a near perfect pairing with pesto or Insalata Caprese and also serves well as an aperitif.

Grapes Around Orvieto

Without question, the best producer of Orvieto is Antinori. Antinori has been making wine for over 600 years and his Orvieto is affordable, delicious, and easily found. What's more, it's from the Classico zone and also bears a proprietary name: "CampoGrande." Retail should be no more than $12. Ruffino also produces a widely available example.

Montefalco

Sagrantino di Montefalco

Further South in Umbria, lies the hilltop town of Montefalco. Surrounded by vineyards, it looks like any wine producing hill town in Tuscany. However, the grape of prominence here is Sagrantino, from which the DOCG wine Sagrantino di Montefalco is produced. With only 250 acres dedicated to the grape, the wine is still not widely known outside of Italy, even though Italy granted it DOCG status in 1991.

So what's going on here you say? You have told me in the past that Old World wines are labeled by their geographic origin, i.e. "Barolo" or "Barbaresco." Yes, that is true. This is another of the Italian labeling methods and features both grape name and geographic region. Sagrantino di Montefalco is the name of the wine. Sagrantino is the grape and Montefalco is the DOCG region. So literally, the label proclaims: "Sagrantino of Montefalco."

The Sagrantino grape is one of the most tannic varieties in the world, and creates wines that are inky blackish purple in color. In fact, the genetic compounds that give grapes their color and tannins are twice as high in Sagrantino than in Cabernet Sauvignon. There is nothing shy, feminine or restrained about Sagrantino. The region produces wines that are masculine, muscular, full bodied, hearty and complex. They are wines that pair well with the foods of fall and winter: Game, hearty stews, Osso Bucco, Fiorentina, and decadent risottos.

DOCG regulations require that Sagrantino di Montefalco be made from 100 percent Sagrantino grapes, with a minimum of 29 months aging before release. Many producers age their Sagrantino for longer than 29 months to allow the wine to soften somewhat before releasing it to market. Sagrantino is capable of long aging and often requires it in order to tame the wines aggressive tactile sensations. In the alternate, I recommend decanting well in advance of your meal; two to three hours would not be excessive.

Sagrantino is a top tier wine in Italy. Quality is greatly improving and Sagrantino is now rightly included in a discussion alongside the great Brunello, Barolo, & Barbaresco. However, as a result of the lack of notoriety, the wines are competitively priced. An excellent Sagrantino may only set you back $25-$40. You can find many examples in the list below for that price. Naturally, you can go up from there – with Arnaldo Caprai's "25 Anni" bottling reaching three figures.

Due to the size of the production zone, there are not many producers of Sagrantino. The best include:

  • Paolo Bea
  • Colpetrone
  • Arnaldo Caprai
  • Antonelli
  • Perticaia
  • Tabarrini.

I have had the Sagrantino from all of the above producers on numerous occasions and they are all excellent wines. In fact, I recently interviewed the energetic Giampaolo Tabarrini, owner and winemaker for Tabarrini, on my website.

Tabarrini Estate in Montefalco

Rosso di Montefalco

In addition to Sagrantino, the region also produces a wine called Rosso di Montefalco. Unlike its mono-varietal "big brother" Sagrantino, Rosso di Montefalco is a blended wine, based primarily on the Sangiovese grape and a representative blend would be something like 70% Sangiovese and 30% Sagrantino although precise blends vary by producer and the vagaries of vintage.

Rosso di Montefalco is the regions workhorse red. It is vinified to be consumed at an earlier age, while the brawny Sagrantino slumbers, cellared. Rosso di Montefalco is very food friendly and despite its standing as a "value" wine, it displays quite a bit of complexity. Most bottlings should be available for $12-$20 and all good producers of Sagrantino mentioned above will also produce a Rosso di Montefalco. Here is a link to my review of the 2006 Colpetrone Rosso di Montefalco; at the time, the current vintage on the market. The 2007 and 2008s should be available now. In the near future, I will be reviewing the 2008 Tabarrini Rosso di Montefalco. Stay tuned.

Torgiano Rosso

Further north, located near Perugia, is a DOC production area that produces a wine called Torgiano Rosso. Torgiano Rosso is made predominantly from Sangiovese and Canaiolo grapes, but there are several other grapes that are permitted in the blend.

Within the DOC zone, which is a small 500 acres, there is an area in the hills that received a special designation to produce a DOCG red wine called Torgiano Rosso Riserva. Grapes designated for this wine are restricted in terms of yield and minimum alcohol content and must be aged at least three years prior to release. The blending components are similar to the Torgiano Rosso except that the other blending grapes, namely Trebbiano, Ciliegiolo and Montepulciano can not account for more than 10% of the final blend. Most good producers of Torgiano Rosso Riserva will eschew the use of these blending grapes and make their wine entirely from Sangiovese and Canaiolo.

Without question, the producer to look for is Lungarotti. Bottle cost should be no more than $15-$22.

Proprietary Reds

Uh oh, what's this? Color me guilty. Even though I said in my opening remarks that I would focus on indigenous grapes only, no discussion of Umbria would be complete without mentioning two wineries making excellent reds from "international varietals."

Ok, fine - you say - but what is a "proprietary red"? Simply put, any wine, regardless of whether it is made in Umbria, Piedmont, Tuscany or anywhere else, that does not conform to the governmental laws for making wine from the region where it hails, will be given a proprietary name. The two wineries worth mentioning are Lamborghini and Falesco.

Lamborghini

Yes, the same Lamborghini that made his fortune in the automobile industry now produces a top flight rosso from Umbria. The Lamborghini estate lies between the south side of Lago di Trasimeno and the medieval village of Panicale. Situated on the border of Tuscany and Umbria, with Cortona close by, Lamborghini purchased the property when he fell in love with the area. Riccardo Cotarella is the consulting winemaker – and the relevance of that will be revealed further below.

Lamborghini's two best and two most widely available wines are Campoleone and Trescone.

The former is a blend of 50% Sangiovese and 50% Merlot and they spare nothing in the production. "Campoleone" is a proprietary name meaning that it does not define either the grape or the place where the wine comes from on the label. This can be frustrating to those that do not follow Italian wine, but it is not all that dissimilar from other wine regions. Consider the following from Napa and Sonoma: Joseph Phelps Insignia, Chateau St. Jean's Cinq Cepages.

Campoleone is a serious wine meant for serious meditative sipping with robust foods. It is a full bodied wine and is capable of aging well. Approximate cost is $40-$50.

"Trescone" is Campoleone's little brother. The blend is similar, but includes a bit of the local grape Ciliegiolo. This wine will give you a feel for the estate style and won't break the budget either. You can find Trescone for $10-$15.

Falesco

Falesco is the child of brothers Riccardo Cotarella and Renzo Cotarella. Riccardo is a world renowned consulting enologist with clients all over Italy and throughout the world. As mentioned above, he is winemaker for Lamborghini. Renzo Cotarella is head winemaker for the giant Tuscan producer Antinori and is responsible for some of the best wines made in Tuscany. Together, they formed Falesco, and have concentrated on making wine from southern Umbria and neighboring Lazio.

From Umbria, Falesco sources grapes for two wines that both provide high quality for the price. The first is a blend of equal parts Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot called "Vitiano." I have had many vintages of Vitiano over the years and although the wine can sometimes be inconsistent, generally it is good value given the $10 price tag. Falesco also produces a Rose and a Bianco under the Vitiano label.

The second wine labeled "Merlot dell'Umbria" is 100% Merlot made from the Lago di Trasimeno area. It represents a slight step up in both quality and price compared to Vitiano, and you can find it for about $15. Both wines have wide distribution.

Finalmente

However you choose to view it, whether as a curse or a benefit, Umbria is often a "second thought" after Tuscany. But over the last 10-15 years, wine producers have learned by watching what has occurred in Tuscany. They are improving their methods, hiring respected consultants, and focusing on increased quality. The results are being shown dramatically. As villas in Umbria are typically less expensive than those in Tuscany, so too, in general are the wines, however, as the quality increases, the wine drinker is no longer settling for a lesser product. The time buy is now, and I hope the above helps guide you along the journey.

Cheers!

Resources

Cantine Aperte: The Umbrian version of the "Open Cellars" wine festival held each May.

Tuscan Vines: dedicated to enhancing the wonderful culture of wine, food, and the Italian lifestyle.

www.winespectator.com: Wine Spectator Magazine

www.chianticlassico.com: Chianti Classico Wine (ask for their free map of the Chianti region)

www.italianwinereview.com: Italian Wine Review

Discuss this article


John M. Fodera is a seasoned wine afficionado with over 20 years of tasting experience. He isn't a "wine critic" by trade, but he plays one on the internet! His travels have taken him to wine regions throughout the world including Napa, Sonoma, Champagne, Alsace, Bordeaux, Tuscany, Umbria, & Lazio. He has met and tasted with countless owners and winemakers, many of which he has interviewed for his website. He is the proprietor and owner of TuscanVines where he focuses on penning articles that are culturally related to his Italian heritage and center around wine, food, recipes, travel and the Italian culture.

You can follow him on Twitter: @JohnMFodera.

© John M. Fodera, 2013

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