Less well known than its northern neighbour Tuscany, Umbria is now making a name for itself with top-class Orvieto and Sagrantino, writes NICOLAS BELFRAGE .
There are two ways of viewing Umbria, wine-wise. One can see it as an insignificant appendage of the increasingly mighty Tuscany. Or one might regard it as the quintessence of Italian wine, the hub, the heart, the dynamic centre of the 21st century. While there is evidence to support both propositions, the former owes more to the past, and the latter is representative of the present and future.To some extent Umbria continues to live in the past. The sole land-locked region south of the Po, rural Umbria is dotted with hilltop villages and towns, most boasting an artistic or architectural Renaissance or pre-Renaissance treasure or two, where farmers scrape a subsistence living from their mixed crops. Tourists rarely trouble to stop here – Assisi and Orvieto excepted. Those outsiders who have ‘discovered’ Umbria, its hilly to semi-mountainous countryside and relatively inexpensive houses, not to mention its delicious cucina casalinga, say this connection to tradition is what attracts them, and they jealously guard the secret against would-be invaders. The negative side of this picture is that the local vino has in too many cases remained a product of the past – thin, perhaps oxidised, even dipping towards acetification, and lacking the rich fruit and freshness that Tuscans have shown can be achieved with Sangiovese. Tuscany has long overshadowed its smaller cousin to the south, absorbing the best of its production and putting it out under its own labels, paying the Umbrian growers peanuts.
But the Umbrians, now, are fighting back. Actually, the fightback started a few decades ago, led by Lungarotti of Torgiano and followed by Antinori in its Umbrian embodiment. Lungarotti was the first to put quality Umbrian wine on the map with ‘Rubesco Riserva’, a Sangiovese of extended bottle age, which was regarded in the 1970s as one of Italy’s finest wines and remains for some one of the most notable expressions of its variety. For others, notably the younger generation, its style is archaic. Nor has Lungarotti as a whole retained the pre-eminence among Umbrian producers that it once enjoyed, its lesser wines being too often of mediocre quality and character.
In the mid-1980s the house of Antinori decided to create a white wine to partner its Tuscan red, Tignanello. The site it chose was Castello della Sala near Orvieto, a property purchased by Piero Antinori’s father in the 1940s. It wanted the wine to have international appeal, so based it on Chardonnay, but also to include an Umbrian element, so it chose the local Grechetto, grown almost exclusively in Umbrian vineyards.
Cervaro della Sala, the resultant wine, stands today as one of central and southern Italy’s few world-class white wines, available at a lofty but deserved price on the menus of the world’s finest restaurants. It is superior to any white wine produced in Tuscany or Latium, which in itself is a source of satisfaction to Umbrians who have suffered humiliation by their neighbours for so long. The satisfaction is extenuated somewhat by the fact that the native Umbrian element, Grechetto, has been cut from 20% to 10%, presumably in an attempt to make the wine ‘international’. This should not, however, be taken as a slight to Grechetto, which is one of the more interesting white varieties of central Italy. Until recently Grechetto was used almost exclusively in blends, notably in Umbria’s highest-profile DOC, Orvieto. This wine, produced in an area with tufaceous soil reminiscent of Vouvray, brings together no fewer than five grapes with, as demand for quality grows, an ever-decreasing percentage of central Italy’s ubiquitous but boring Trebbiano (here called Procanico) and an increasing dollop of Grechetto. In the past decade a growing number of mainly Orvieto producers (Barberani, Bigi, Caprai, Colli Amerini, Duca della Corgna, Le Poggette, Palazzone, Rocca di Fabbri) have been experimenting with varietal Grechetto, as Grechetto Umbria IGT or Grechetto Colli Martani DOC. Orvieto itself – the blend – has for a long time stood as one of Italy’s best-known white wines, but it was only in the 1980s that quality began to justify the renown. Very good examples include Barberani’s Castagnolo, Decugnano dei Barbi’s Il, La Carraia’s Poggio Calvelli, Le Velette’s Velico and Palazzone’s Terre Vineate. Perhaps the wine form that comes nearest to excellence from Orvieto is the noble-rot style. Antinori makes a version which stands outside the DOC called Muffato della Sala. Decugnano dei Barbi’s Pourriture Noble is also very convincing, as is Barberani’s Calcaia and Palazzone’s Muffa Nobile. On the red side, Umbrian wines are today making significant strides, thanks to the winemaking skills of peripatetic consultant Riccardo Cotarella, said to be Parker’s favourite Italian winemaker. Cotarella, brother of Antinori’s technical director Renzo Cotarella, originates from Umbria and has made the resurgence of the wines of his native territory something of a holy crusade. His greatest successes have been with French grapes, notably Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but he has also brought Umbrian Sangiovese to greater prominence, using it in his blends. Perhaps Cotarella’s most famous Umbrian creations are the Campoleone of La Fiorita Lamborghini and the Villa Fidelia of Sportoletti. Other highly rated wines include Armaleo of Palazzone and Palaia of Monrubio, and he has scored heavily with Montiano, a Merlot made in the Cotarella family winery of Falesco at Montefiascone. Currently the hottest of the band of Italian wine consultants, Cotarella also works in numerous wineries across central and southern Italy, as far as Sicily, helping to raise the vinous profile of Umbria significantly.
But the crowning glory of Umbrian viniculture is the deeply coloured, complex, exciting Sagrantino grape from Montefalco, in the heart of the region. Until recently Sagrantino was used almost exclusively to make passito, powerful, tannic and sweet, in the manner of Recioto di Valpolicella but ruder and rougher. No clonal research had ever been carried out on it, and it had been left to develop hundreds of sub-varieties. Such research got going fully in the 1990s, by universities in conjunction with producers, and today we are witnessing the early results of their work.A top Sagrantino (non-passito), such as Caprai’s 25 Anni, is a wine that can combine great power with amazing elegance. It is essential to manage the potentially fierce tannins correctly and to bring the rich, succulent fruit to the fore. The proof is that, for the first time, a son of Umbria is being drafted into Tuscan vineyards, a possible future partner for Sangiovese, as distinct from the Merlots and Cabernets which have little affinity with the king of central Italy. Production of Sagrantino is still extremely limited, and production of the top stuff even more so, but enough exists to demonstrate that Umbria possesses a world beater.
Apart from 25 Anni, other excellent or potentially excellent wines under the Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG come from Adanti (Arquata), Antonelli, Caprai (the non cru), Colpetrone, Milziade Antano and Rocca di Fabbri. And don’t forget the passito style. A richer, more concentrated, more exciting wine scarcely exists from middle Italy. In this, and in its normally vinified form, Sagrantino has already raised the banner high above the parapet for Umbria, and I have no doubt that it will continue to do so in the future.
Nicolas Belfrage is an Italian expert, and the author of Brunello to Zibibbo