The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Inside Umbria, Toscana’s Overlooked Neighbor

Posted on | March 10, 2016 | Written by IWM Staff | No Comments

Sagrantino grapes ripening at Paolo Bea

Sagrantino grapes ripening at Paolo Bea

Although Umbria and Toscana abut, Umbria is very much its own region—one that has been coming into its own and attracting the notice of both critic and consumer. Umbria has traditionally privileged products other than wine. Its terroir, however, has always served it well: the collaboration between sea and mountain breezes offer great ripening, while the volcanic soils put the vines under “motivational” stress. These conditions have been behind some of the zone’s most successful wines.

In a general sense, Umbria’s most prolific DOC—Orvieto— captures in microcosm the zone’s efforts to establish a distinct identity. While many examples of this wine tend to be fairly light and acidic, it’s actually open to a diverse stylistic range. Thus, some producers blend with a view to achieving a considerable degree of concentration, limiting the contribution of the neutral Trebbiano Toscana, maximizing the presence of aromatic Grechetto, and sometimes using Chardonnay. Some work with proportions can take these wines outside the DOC, providing a rather striking testimony to what Umbria’s grapes can do—particularly through monovarietal Grechettos, often in production in the Colli Martani and Colli del Trasimeno zones.

The issue of what constitutes the “Umbrian style” is even more complicated when we consider the spectrum of reds, as three main categories comprise Umbria’s red portfolio. For quite some time, however, Lungarotti constituted the sole reference point for red; indeed, it was founder Giorgio Lungarotti who gave Umbria a market presence in traditional style wines. There are several producers, however, who champion of the international style. Occupying the middle ground is the Montefalco DOC, the home of Umbria’s most famous and distinctive red, Sagrantino. Not only is this grape exclusive to the region of Umbria, but also it limits its presence there to a mere 400 acres. A rich and demonstrative wine of ancient origin, Sagrantino was accorded its own DOCG designation in 1992, and has achieved notable acclaim through the work of producers such as Paolo Bea and Arnaldo Caprai. Sagrantino also plays a minor role (minimum of 10%) in wines of the Montefalco DOC (led by Sangiovese at 60%).

Despite Orvieto’s struggles to define itself in the white still genre, it has always distinguished itself in the sweet wine category.  In fact, Orvieto’s sweet side has very little to do with its dry sensibility. Derived primarily from grapes that have realized a considerable degree of concentration and been affected by noble rot, the sweet wines of Orvieto are intense and decadent. Antinori’s Muffato della Sala is regarded as the most accomplished in its class. The reds, however, provide some pretty intense competition, as Montefalco’s sweet wines are vinified from dried grapes (via the appassimento process), rendering them considerably dense and voluptuous.

Umbria has considerable interest in the gourmet market, especially in its black and white truffles and its extra-virgin olive oils. Outside this realm, the region is a prolific producer of legumes and grains. Farro, which has been grown in Umbria since the time of the Etruscans is prominent, as it produces a darker, tastier flour than the more common white version used elsewhere. The celebrated farro di Monteleone di Spoleto, grown in the heart of the central Apennine mountains, appears both as a grain accompanying hearty dishes accompanied by legumes—such as lenticchie di Norcia (lentils)—and as flour for the production of dried and/or egg pasta and breads such as lumachelle—baked bread rolls enriched with pieces of cheese and cured meat. Umbria also excels in meat, offering its own regional prosciutto di Norcia and succulent porchetta(pork roast), much like that produced by the neighboring Lazio. Mazzafegati(piquant liver sausages with orange rinds, pine nuts, and raisins) is one of the region’s most unique and prized dishes.

From the wild, natural wines of Paolo Bea to Antinori’s world-class Umbrian white wines made at Castello della Sala to Sassicaia spin-off Tenuta di Solideo, owned by Marchesa Nerina Corsini Incisa della Rocchetta’s and managed by her sons Giovanni and Piero, to the great Sagrantino wines of Arnaldo Caprai,Umbria has much to offer. It’s one region with no need to hide in the shadows anymore.

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