With 13 DOC-designated areas Umbria is a riot of different styles, but modern producers are now establishing a regional identity, finding the best wines to suit their terroir. MICHELE SHAH finds out who is leading the changes

The STYLE AND make-up of Umbrian wines has changed significantly over the last 40 years. And while its profile today is increasingly individual, the origins of its transformation lie in a sea of mediocrity.

In the 1970s, the price of wheat and olive oil – which had formed the basis of local subsistence farming – subsided. Farmers turned to viticulture to increase revenue. Few knew much about winemaking, and most chose to play safe with international varieties.

‘Producers were eager to turn a quick profit by following market trends,’ says Maurilio Chioccia, consultant winemaker to a number of Umbrian estates, including the region’s largest cooperative winery, Cardeto in Orvieto. ‘As a result they focused on Cabernet and Merlot made in an international style.’

Giorgio’s legacy

If any single person can be credited with bringing a sense of terroir – and international renown – to Umbrian wines, it is Giorgio Lungarotti. In the early 1960s, after making money in the oil industry, he invested in vineyards in his native Umbria. When he died last year, his legacy was a 200ha (hectare) estate producing some 3 million bottles. Lungarotti’s credo, ‘territorial wines which express the nature of Umbria’s potential’, is reflected in its flagship labels, Torre di Giano, a white made from the indigenous Grechetto grape, and Sangiovese Rubesco Riserva.

Producers in Umbria have up to now suffered from a lack of vision and territorial identity – in part due to the 13 DOC areas of production, created back in that first rush in the early 1970s.

‘The DOC system is much too fragmented for such a small area,’ says Chioccia. ‘When the DOCs were created they reflected the varieties planted by the larger and more important estates, such as Torgiano DOCG created for Lungarotti’s Riserva Rubesco.’

Today, many producers are reverting to the more generic IGT, which allows greater freedom. Times are changing. A new, young generation of winemakers is creating a new identity, replanting not only to international varieties but to indigenous varieties, which include Grechetto, Verdello, Trebbiano and Malvasia in the whites, and Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Sagrantino in the reds.

Exciting Potential

Sagrantino, the backbone of the Montefalco Rosso DOC and the unique monovarietal Sagrantino DOCG, is the most fashionable and most exciting driving force of Umbria. Yet despite its popularity, this niche wine constitutes a mere 5% of Umbria’s total production.

Sagrantino is a tough, small-berried grape characterised by large pips and a thick skin, which gives it its tannic structure. It averages 14% alcohol, meaning in good years it can age up to 25 years and over. The late-ripening grape needs to reach perfect phenolic ripeness, or its harsh untamed tannins can make it undrinkable.

‘Thirty years ago Sagrantino was vinified to make passito wines,’ explains Guido Guardigli, one of Umbria’s old timers, owner of the recently born Perticaia estate and consultant to the established Schiacciadiavoli estate. ‘Nobody knows why, but maybe because the tannins are harsh, producers have found it better suited to a late-harvest sweet wine.’ As a passito, the contrast of the sweetness with the dry tannins makes it quite unique in style. It’s only in recent years that Sagrantino has been vinified in the dry version.

The king of Sagrantino is Arnaldo Caprai, or rather his son Marco, who took over in 1988. Today Caprai is the largest Montefalco estate with 135ha of Montefalco DOC/DOCG and a total production of 700,000 bottles. Caprai’s cult wines are considered the driving force of Sagrantino and Marco is uncompromising, competitive and far-sighted when it comes to quality.

‘Montefalco owes a great deal to Caprai, who started experimenting in the early 1990s with clonal selection of Sagrantino,’ says Luigi Bonifazio, director of Montefalco Consorzio. Caprai’s research in mass selection of Sagrantino led him to patent three selected clones. His latest project is a study on Grechetto clones.

Newcomers

Montefalco’s 31 consorzio members are scattered over five communes, and cover 1,000ha of Montefalco Rosso and 100ha of Sagrantino DOC. Over the last 10 years,

alongside historic estates such as Schiacciadiavoli, Adanti and Antonelli, about 20 new estates have come into their own including some big names and investments from outside which include Cecchi, Livon, Ferrari, Saiagricola and Lungarotti, the only Umbrian from neighbouring Torgiano.

Antonelli, Adanti and Rocca di Fabbri are from the ‘old school’. They have not succumbed totally to the allure of new oak, unlike the more recent Montefalco estates producing Sagrantino aged in new barrique. Instead they favour the larger Slovenian oak barrels, and a classic, food-friendly style.

Filippo Antonelli, president of the Montefalco Consorzio, saw the potential of Sagrantino in the late 1970s when he started bottling his wine. A confident businessman, ready to roll his sleeves up in the winery, he considers Sagrantino to be among Italy’s top red wines. He aims to increase production from 30 to 50ha in the next five years.

One of the future key players in Sagrantino will be Saiagricola’s Azienda Colpetrone in Gualdo Cattaneo. In 1994 Saiagricola had just 4ha, producing an excellent Sagrantino passito. Today it owns 140ha with 46ha of Montefalco DOC in production, with the aim to increase production to 75ha within the next eight years. A t4 million investment includes a massive winery with a 1,000-barrique capacity. ‘Spending this kind of money proves that we truly believe in the Montefalco DOC wines,’ says the winemaker, Alessandro Chinello.

Expert Opinion

Riccardo Cotarella, Italy’s star winemaker who consults for 24 estates in central Italy, believes Umbria has great potential to express its terroir through simple native varieties such as Malvasia and Trebbiano, which constitute the backbone of Orvieto’s whites.

‘That said, terroir expression is not a question of native versus international varieties,’ he adds. ‘We’re talking about making good wine with the grape varieties best suited to a particular terrain.’

Sportoletti, a 20ha estate in the Assisi DOC producing 200,000 bottles, is one of Cotarella’s rising stars. It produces a solid Grechetto as well as a stylish, sapid blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot which goes into its top bottling, Villa Fidelio.

In the Colli del Trasimeno area, Cotarella’s up-and-coming Pieve del Vescovo, owned by Gio Manello, director of the Bank of New York, is expanding its vineyard capacity and investing in a new winery. Its range includes the stylish wines Piovano and Lucciao, based on Sangiovese blended with Merlot and Cabernet.

Other Trasimeno estates to keep an eye on include a number of small estates. Fabrizio Ciufoli, owner and winemaker of Poggio Bertaio and consultant winemaker to two small quality estates, Fanini and Il Toppello, produces a fruit-forward, powerful 100% Sangiovese IGT, ‘with the potential and complexity for ageing’, says Ciufoli.

Orvieto Whites

Moving to Southern Umbria, the picturesque historic town of Orvieto perched on a hill of tufaceous rock, provides varied volcanic, sedimentary, alluvial and limestone terrain to produce elegant wines with good acidity and minerality.

Antinori’s historic Castello della Sala estate, produces fresh, crisp Orvieto Classico Superiore from a blend of Grechetto, Procanico, Drupeggio and Malvasia. Renzo Cotarella, managing director of Antinori and director of Orvieto’s Consorzio, says that Grechetto has a rustic character that needs to be toned down with Chardonnay. The altitude of Sala’s vineyards helps to produce a subtle Pinot Noir, while autumn mists encourage noble rot on Grechetto, Riesling, Semillon and Traminer vines to make an aromatic botrytised muffato, traditional to Orvieto.

‘Until recently Orvieto’s whites were monopolised by the larger Tuscan estates who were buying in grapes and producing mediocre whites,’ explains Renzo Cotarella. ‘Today there are a number of small estates producing quality Orvieto DOC. I may be biased – Orvieto is my native town – but I believe that Orvieto is the most elegant white in central Italy.’

True to terroir

Giovanni Dubini’s philosophy is not to follow market trends, but to respect the terroir and the grape variety’s character. Until recently his Orvieto estate, Palazzone,

produced only white wines. Then in 2002 Dubini created a selection of reds, including a vibrant, well-balanced 100% Sangiovese.

Dubini’s whites are typified by an earthy minerality. His flagship white wine is an Orvieto Classico Superiore, made from selected grapes and aged for 18 months in bottle with an ageing potential of 10 years. To demonstrate the ageing capacity he opened a bottle from the 1995 vintage, which showed vitality, freshness, structure and complexity.

Whether Umbria should express its terroir through indigenous or international varieties is one of the questions that divides the region’s winemakers. As they look towards the future in search of a unified identity, one thing is certain and that is a move to quality. ‘The face of Umbrian winemaking is changing,’ says Chioccia. ‘Its future has only just begun.’ Better late than never.

Michèle Shah is a wine and travel writer, based in Italy.

Written by Michele Shah