The Marche is intent on turning Verdicchio into a contender once more. Michael Palij MW assesses its chances .
Sandwiched between Abruzzo and Emilia Romagna, two of Italy’s best-known bulk wine regions, it is no surprise that the Marche is often overlooked by importers heading for the more accessible vineyards of the deep south. The Marche’s isolation is also reflected in the region’s topography – 70% is officially classed as ‘hilly’ and the remaining 30% is graded ‘mountainous’. In fact, the gently rolling hills that lead from the sandy beaches of Numana and Cupra Marittima to the lofty peaks of the Monte Sibillini are ideally suited to viticulture. Historically, the combination of age-old technology and legislation that sanctioned yields in excess of 120 hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare) led to the usual Italian paradox – huge potential quality squandered through over-cropping and outmoded technology – but times are changing and the Marchigiani are beginning to appreciate the strengthening demand for quality renderings of their vini tipici. With an annual production of DOC wine now approaching 4.5 million cases, the Marche deserves a second look.
The majority of the region’s quality wine production is white (76% in 1998) and this is almost entirely Verdicchio, produced in the provinces of Ancona and Macerata, bordering Emilia Romagna. (A small amount of DOC white is also produced near Ascoli Piceno under the Falerio DOC, but this accounts for less than 13% of total white production.) The Romans are credited with the first cultivation of Verdicchio in the Marche, but today it is seldom seen outside the region. Like Garganega and Malvasia, Verdicchio is a Cinderella grape variety and producers have done their best to disguise the appeal of their most valuable viticultural asset. Ignorance, greed and ill-advised marketing led them to both fatten yields, and subject Verdicchio to the humiliation of the amphora-shaped bottle. For decades the curves of the ‘Lollobrigida’ packaging sat uncomfortably next to a neutral liquid that had been robbed of its natural, seductive charm.
There are two DOCs for Verdicchio. The first is Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi (VCJ), which covers a large area just inland of the industrial port of Ancona. Following the Esino river valley, the Ancona road winds along to the town of Jesi, which is 20km from the coast and marks the eastern boundary of both the DOC and the Classico zone. From Jesi, the vineyards extend in all directions but most are north of the Esino. The best sites are south-facing at altitudes of 200-500m around the towns of Montecarotto, Cupramontana and Móie. The second DOC is Verdicchio di Matelica (VDM). Matelica lies another 40km up the Esino from Jesi on the other side of the mountains that once formed the eastern shore of a saltwater lake. Production of VDM is miniscule (10%) compared with that of VCJ. Quality and quantity are frequently at odds, however, and Verdicchio from Matelica is much prized for its greater aromatic intensity and its firmer acidity. These differences in flavour and structure arise from differences in the terroir. The soil around Jesi is heavy, predominantly clay mixed with sand and limestone. This contrasts with the marine soil in Matelica, which has a wealth of trace minerals and chalk that encourage the formation of aromatic precursors in the grapes. The climate in Matelica experiences significantly less maritime influence and the cooler nights help to preserve acidity.
Of course, there are both good and bad wines made in each DOC and there is as much to be said for the power and intensity of wines from Jesi as there is for the finesse and longevity of wines from Matelica. The talent and ambitions of the winemaker are just as important as the potential of the site and a few family-owned estates, such as Bucci, La Monacesca and Garofoli, have quietly flown the flag for Verdicchio for years. What is creating a stir at the moment, however, is the current wave of cooperatives, whose winemakers are showing a real commitment to restoring Verdicchio’s reputation. It would have been unthinkable even five years ago for a cooperative to have scooped Italy’s top wine award, the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri (literally ‘three glasses’), yet this is just what Moncaro has done with its late-harvest Passito Tordiruta. Last year four Verdicchios were awarded the award, putting it in the same league as Amarone, Barolo and Barbaresco, and showing that Verdicchio is starting to be held in high regard in Italy.
The sudden leap in quality can be attributed to lower yields and modern technology. In practice, this translates to yields of between 50 and 80hl/ha and temperature-controlled, stainless steel fermentation tanks. If none of this sounds like rocket science, that’s because it isn’t. Verdicchio needs nothing more than moderate skill to reward the grower with a grape of real personality. Nor is it a variety which relies on barrel maturation to fill out the palate. Although some estates and cooperatives are now experimenting with oak, they are also experimenting with single vineyard wines and late harvesting. It would, therefore, be misleading to suggest that there is a great oak debate in the Marche.
Some producers prefer to use stainless steel only (including La Monacesca, Colonnara and Sartarelli), while others advocate large old botte. Many use some new oak for single-vineyard or late-harvest wines (Garofoli Serra Fiorese, Coroncino Gaiospino, Umani Ronchi Plenio), but no one is using exclusively new oak, partly due to a deep-seated respect for a tradition and partly due to the recognition that one of Verdicchio’s biggest strengths is its affinity with fish, especially fish from the waters of the nearby Adriatic. Verdicchio has been likened to everything from Muscadet, through Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco, to Chenin and Riesling. Young Verdicchio combines an initial aroma of citrus fruit (lemon sorbet) with a pronounced spicy (cinnamon) and herbal (camomile, thyme, fennel) note on the finish that is often referred to as ‘bitter’.
In general, when Verdicchio is young it is more impressive in the mouth than it is on the nose. With age, however, it develops a secondary complexity more reminiscent of mature Chablis or Pinot Gris. There is a honeyed, creamy richness that mingles beautifully with the primary fruit. Good Verdicchio needs at least a year in bottle to show at its best and will improve for up to a decade. In fact, mid-1980s vintages of top wines such as Garofoli’s Podium and La Monacesca’s Mirum are still drinking beautifully and show no signs of tiring. Even such a humble wine as the Colonnara cooperative’s 1988 Cuprese demonstrates complexity and concentration well beyond its very modest price. It is disheartening for anyone who has tasted top quality Verdicchio to think that generations have grown up associating it with a neutral white wine in a curious bottle. Of course, the popularity of many of Italy’s best wines, including Soave and Frascati as well as Verdicchio, was originally due to their quality, but they then became victims of their own success and, as standards in winemaking slipped, so did the wines’ reputations. Verdicchio producers are now facing a real battle to restore the public’s confidence in their wines, but the majority of them are indisputably working tirelessly towards this end.
Michael Palij MW is managing director of UK merchant, Winetraders, and is an expert on Italian wines.
Written by MICHAEL PALIJ