Sisters Chiara Lungarotti and Teresa Severini are on their way to re-establishing Cantine Lungarotti as a star Umbrian producer, writes NICOLAS BELFRAGE

GIORGIO Lungarotti, of Torgiano in Umbria, died in 1999, aged 89. He was a man who not only followed tradition, but also forged new paths – introducing Cabernet and Chardonnay, for example, when precious few in central Italy had them. He was one of the towering figures of Italian wine in the 20th century, and made his azienda one of the stars of quality production in the early years of the 1970s and 1980s.

In the 1990s the winery’s stardom seemed to many, myself included, to have waned somewhat – not because standards had declined, more probably because others had caught up and passed them by. I made a comment of the sort in a Decanter article written about a year ago, and was challenged by Giorgio’s heirs to take a closer look at their current operation, which I had to admit I had not done for some years.

Driving into the village of Torgiano, between Perugia and Assisi, one sunny early-autumn morning, I am greeted by the charming Chiara Lungarotti, Giorgio Lungarotti’s daughter, in charge of viticulture on the estate, and Teresa Severini, Giorgio’s step-daughter, in charge of oenology. (Their mother, Maria Grazia, is titolare of the estate, so it’s an all-female line-up.) We talk as we tour the extensive estate of which 250ha (hectares) are planted to vines; and it is obvious that Chiara is as passionate as her father was about wine.

A lot has changed, she says. Whether by coincidence or not, 1999 was also the year they took on a consultant oenologist for the first time, illustrious Bordelais Denis Dubourdieu. With the help of Italian consultant Lorenzo Landi and resident winemaker Vincenzo Pepe, Dubourdieu was, says Chiara, making positive changes which were already apparent in the wines and would become more so.

Chiara’s expertise is in the vineyard, and she is particularly proud of viticultural improvements made over the past 10 years or so. Like many in central Italy, Lungarotti is embarked on a major replanting exercise, renewing some 20ha per annum with updated clones, and moving towards higher density planting and a reduced production per vine. Five weather stations introduced throughout the vineyards allow Chiara to intervene in time if conditions indicate a potential problem. They have also adopted certain New World procedures – early-morning harvesting for white grapes such as Chardonnay (which ripens at the height of the summer towards the end of August), starting at 5am and finishing at 11am; and the cooling of grapes as they arrive in the cantina.

Among new developments in the winery, apart from a recent extension to the building itself, is the use of small vinification vessels (100–120 hl) to enable them to follow particular vineyards right through. Ageing in small French oak barrels is nothing new in Italy, but Lungarotti has taken it a step further with the introduction of French oak from the high forests of the Massif Central, for large (55hl capacity) barrels as well.

Ugly but effective

And yet there are key elements of the Lungarotti operation which have not changed, or have changed minimally. Unusually Lungarotti has retained its vitrified cement tanks for white wines – though ugly, these are highly effective storage vessels for whites, especially compared with stainless steel which can give rise to aromas of sulphur. Ageing in cement, on the other hand, has given way to ageing in bottle for the two top reds, Torgiano Rubesco Riserva Vigna Monticchio and San Giorgio, a Sangiovese-Cabernet blend which was quite a revolutionary concept in its early days.

These two wines, Lungarotti’s finest, represent the two strands of its production – what you might call old tradition and new tradition. San Giorgio is probably the first Super Umbrian, 50% Caberent Sauvignon (from vineyards planted by Giorgio in the 1960s) with 10% Canaiolo and 40% Sangiovese (old vines). Modern as it is in terms of the blend, however, San Giorgio is aged in a traditional way (10–12 months in oak, then several years in bottle). It is a wine – I tasted the most recent release, 1995 – of full colour with distinctive berrylike, Cabernet notes on the nose, intensely blackberry on the
finish and with an acidity firm enough to carry it through many more years.

In San Giorgio’s ‘team’ would be included the Cabernet Sauvignon di Torgiano DOC which had notes of wild berries and small black fruit, a pleasing richness with a firm acid-tannin backbone, the vibrant fruit predominating. A recent addition to the range is Giubilante, a blend of five grapes made in – to my taste – an excessively modernistic style (lowish acidity and super-smooth tannins) creating an impression almost of jamminess.

Lungarotti makes 17 table wines, including whites from both Umbrian and French grapes, plus blends – and in no small number (750,000 bottles annually of Rubesco di Torgiano, and 80,000 of Rubesco Riserva, for instance). It is difficult to create excellence over such a range, and my view is that certain bottles will convince you of Lungarotti’s stardom more than others.

One thing one must congratulate them on is their courage in continuing to mature so many bottles for so long (the 1995 Vigna Monticchio was released in 2002). ‘It’s a big investment,’ says Chiara, ‘but we do it to differentiate ourselves from others. It is essential that our wines speak our language.’

Nicolas Belfrage is the author of Brunello to Zibibbo, the wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy, (published by Mitchell Beazley, £20)

RUBESCO TORGIANO RISERVA, VIGNA MONTICCHIO

70% Sangiovese, 30% Canaiolo. Aged for one year in botte and barrique, and then released 7–10 years after harvest.

1995 ****
Deep colour, youthful ripe berry nose, spice and cinnamon, firm structure, needs to breathe. Good. 5 years to peak.

1992 ***
Brooding nose, with characteristic spice and cherry fruit. Has finesse and character, but shows a slight hollowness. Good for 1992, which was a difficult vintage, and this still has some life in it. Drink or keep.

1990 ****
Deepest colour. Upfront Morello cherry nose, cinnamon and clove, rich fruit on palate and quite low acidity, firm tannins. Drink or keep.

1988 ***
A little dumb on nose, lively cherry/berry fruit in mouth, more thrusting than the 1985, but also less subtle. Not sure it’s going anywhere – drink now.

1985 *****
Great year, excellent wine. Youthful, vibrant, spice, cinnamon and blackberry fruit, full, ripe palate, beautiful balance. Long and elegant with mouthwatering acidity. At its peak.

1982 ****
Morello cherry nose, very ripe. Full, perfumed fruit, juicy; elegant and long; still very fine.

1979 ***
Spicy, berry/cherry fruit, lively mid-palate but fades towards the end. Drink.

1977 ***
Heatlthier aroma, more berry fruit, good palate, slightly aggressive acidity. A few more years.

1973 **
Mulled wine, cinnamon, leather, Christmas pud. Slightly OTT volatility, however. Drink up.

Written by Nicolas Belfrage