Known as Italy’s ‘green heart’, Umbria has a rich and ancient wine culture that has long been overlooked, yet a journey of discovery reveals a deep-rooted wine scene that’s thriving, diverse and contemporary, as well as a hospitable local character and superb food enhanced by some of Italy’s best olive oil.
Umbria’s chief wine areas lie away from the more mountainous east, where Assisi of St Francis fame and Norcia, celebrated for its charcuterie, are located. One up-and-coming spot is around scenic Lake Trasimeno in the region’s northwest, where the intriguing Trasimeno Gamay thrives, making velvety-smooth red wines with alluring fruit and spice aromas and a bluish hue that echoes soft mists over the lake and hills. No relation to Beaujolais’s Gamay, the grape is actually Grenache, thought to have arrived from Spain in the 16th century, or with shepherds from Sardinia, where it’s known as Cannonau.
While the Duca della Corgna cooperative is to thank for keeping it alive, alone in continuing to produce the wines through the 1970s and ’80s, dynamic young producer Nicola Chiucchiurlotto of Madrevite has led Trasimeno Gamay’s recent return and his Riserva, C’osa, is one to try. Like many Umbrian wineries, olive oil is made here too, and production at the estate also includes pulses, notably the Slow Food presidium, Fagiolina del Trasimeno bean. Every weekend through summer, the winery, which has views to both Lake Trasimeno and Lake Chiusi, holds a popular sunset event: ‘Picnicco’.
Another Trasimeno winery offering walks, events and varied produce – including speciality cured meats – is Azienda Agraria Carini. Here, Trasimeno Gamay is blended with 30% Sangiovese for the excellent Òscano. Gamay jam and juices are also available.
The Trasimeno area is well organised for visitors, and wine events include Corciano’s Castello Di Vino each October, and a springtime rosé festival in Castiglione del Lago, where a striking castle overlooks the lake. Castiglione’s Il Cantinone holds fortnightly meet-the-producer events showcasing local wineries.
Perugia, the region’s main town, located about 20km from the lake, is a fascinating medley of pale stone arches and alleys, slopes and steps. The Umbria Jazz festival (50th anniversary, 7-16 July 2023) is a major draw but you can always enjoy jazz vibes with local wines, good food and a relaxed atmosphere at Bottega del Vino.
Just south of Perugia, at the confluence of the Tiber and Chiascio rivers, Torgiano is a must for wine lovers in Umbria. Founded in the early 1960s, the Lungarotti winery has been a leading light in the region’s wine world ever since. Chiara Lungarotti continues in her father Giorgio’s footsteps as an enthusiastic ambassador for the region she loves, whilst introducing sustainable practices and making memorable wines such as Rubesco Riserva Vigna Monticchio DOCG, a multi-award-winning Sangiovese cru with delicious complexity and balsamic elegance. The family’s wine and olive oil museums are outstanding, wine tastings are held at the Enoteca, and there are numerous cultural initiatives, such as vineyard watercolour lessons. Despite the considerable size of the estate (230ha) there’s an authentic and quintessentially Umbrian feel throughout.
Around 25km further south, Lungarotti has another small estate in Montefalco, where an attractive amphitheatre landscape recalls the ancient lake once here. Montefalco itself, known as the balcony of Umbria, features a lovely yellow-stone historic centre and frequent wine-themed events. The famously tannic Sagrantino grape is protagonist here, used alone for Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG and in small percentages with Sangiovese for the food-friendly Montefalco Rosso DOC.
The tasting room is always open at Arnaldo Caprai, the winery that raised the profile of Sagrantino. Here, vinification intégrale (barrel rotation) winemaking methods are used to soften Sagrantino’s tannins, making inviting wines that pair well with traditional lamb and truffle-based dishes.
Also aiming for refreshing elegance in Sagrantino is Peter Heilbron’s Tenuta Bellafonte near the delightful village of Bevagna. Heilbron, who started the winery from scratch in 2008, is a purist growing only local varieties, initially just Sagrantino and Sangiovese, until he discovered Trebbiano Spoletino, a complex, versatile white that’s surging in popularity; his version is the perfect poolside drink at the estate’s self-catering villa.
Nearby, Scacciadiavoli, founded in 1884, makes an intriguing Trebbiano Spoletino in amphora and wood, as well as traditional method Sagrantino spumante.
Orvieto, home to Umbria’s ageworthy, best-known white wine perches on an outcrop of tuff in southwest Umbria. With its magnificent cathedral, it’s a landmark that’s visible for miles. Tours of the labyrinthine chambers carved into the rock below the city are fascinating; the Etruscans made wine here assisted by gravity, spanning three floors. Many Orvieto wineries use ancient caves such as these as cellars. A good time to visit Orvieto is during Benvenuto Orvieto diVino (9-11 June 2023) while many wineries throughout Umbria adhere to the Cantine Aperte open-cellars days (27-28 May 2023).
Today’s Orvieto DOC is composed principally of Procanico (Trebbiano Toscano) and Grechetto (Grechetto di Orvieto or fruitier Grechetto di Todi), the blend traditionally being completed with Drupello, Verdello or Malvasia – although some winemakers introduce international varieties.
Traditionalist, Enrico Neri of Cantine Neri is based in a handsome Templars’ manor northwest of Orvieto. He offers blending experiences and vertical tastings of Orvieto Classico Superiore, paired with estate-produced charcuterie.
Nearby, Argillae takes advantage of the area’s clay-based soil, even making amphorae with it. The resulting Primo d’Anfora is a fresh, elegant old-vine Grechetto/Drupeggio/Malvasia blend.
While respecting traditions, Enzo Barbi of Decugnano dei Barbi enjoys experimenting with different varieties, and his mineral-infused Orvieto Classico Superiore incorporates Vermentino and Chardonnay. In the early 1980s, Claudio Barbi pioneered winemaking with botrytised grapes; the mists from nearby Lake Corbara, alternating with dry winds, provide perfect conditions for Botrytis Cinerea, and the style is now an Orvieto mainstay. The gorgeous farmstead can be dated back to the 13th century, when it was owned by the church and used for wine production. Today, it boasts a splendid five-bedroom self-catering rental villa.
My perfect day in Umbria
Begin your day in western Umbria at Locanda Palazzone, waking up near Orvieto in one of the stylish rooms housed in a medieval tuff-stone building that originally hosted pilgrims. While many Umbrian wineries offer self-catering accommodation, here bed and breakfast is available.
After a morning walk through the vineyards and a quick swim, it’s time for breakfast with a view, then to stock up on your favourite wines, including the Campo del Guardiano Orvieto Classico cru, before a 10-minute drive to Cantine Neri.
Like most in the Orvieto area, the winery tour includes Etruscan caves where wines, including traditional method Grechetto and Procanico, are aged. Owner, former showjumper Enrico Neri, loves the ageing potential of local whites; opt for a vertical tasting of Orvieto Classico paired with cured meats from the estate’s free-range Mangalica ‘sheep-pigs’. From here, make your way north, stopping at Seven Café for a dish of delicious truffle pasta.
Carry on to Castello di Montegiove nearby to see the magnificent 13th century castle winery owned by the Misciattelli family since 1780, and now run by Danish-born agronomist Lorenzo Misciattelli, who concentrates on making satisfying red wines such as the inky Elicius (70% Montepulciano, 30% Sagrantino). The estate has extensive woodland including a 10ha natural truffle bed (truffle hunts are available), while the castle’s former olive mill houses three attractive guest apartments.
Continuing north, the next stop is just before Lake Trasimeno at the Madrevite winery to get better acquainted with the local Trasimeno Gamay wines. Be sure to also try the winery’s Trebbiano Spoletino, including a refreshing pét-nat version.
Enjoy a sunset stroll around the castle at charming Castiglione del Lago followed by dinner at L’Acquario, a Slow Food-endorsed restaurant serving local specialities including lake fish. Finish the day relaxing on the terrace of a delightful apartment at the Montemelino estate, savouring the peaceful night air and planning the coming days exploring more of this gorgeous region and its enticing wines.
Your Umbria address book
Where to eat
Re Tartù, Montefalco
The season’s best truffles are used in abundance for culinary masterpieces that delight the senses. This inviting restaurant with a welcoming atmosphere is located in an independent villa in central Montefalco. There are also two bedrooms available.
Civico 25, Perugia
A cosy trattoria, popular with locals for its friendly service and lively atmosphere, as well as an extensive wine list and delicious dishes such as Sagrantino-braised beef, stuffed pigeon, or strangozzi pasta with radicchio, pancetta and Parmigiano.
Seven Café, Monteleone d’Orvieto
Midway between Lake Trasimeno and Orvieto, this contemporary-style eatery run by chef Michele and his sommelier brother Andrea is open all day, but come at mealtimes for wild boar pasta or something with truffles gathered by the chef himself: gnocchi perhaps, or even gelato.
Where to stay
Poggio alle Vigne, Torgiano
This lovely stone farmhouse on the Lungarotti estate has been transformed into 10 charming apartments surrounded by a garden and breakfast terrace overlooking olives and vines. Barbecues and pizza evenings are sometimes held. There’s also a pool, and bikes are available for vineyard rides.
Locanda Palazzone, Orvieto
Interiors at this 13th century pilgrims’ hostel on the Palazzone wine estate successfully combine historic features and contemporary design. There are seven stylish rooms, a restaurant, open-air pool, and a light-filled lounge with sweeping stone arches and an open fire which is lit in the winter.
Montemelino, Lake Trasimeno
The small group of enchanting farmhouse apartments at this olive oil and wine estate overlooking Lake Trasimeno are simple yet full of character. Each one has kitchen facilities and an outside space, including a pool among the olive trees. The estate is also home to a family of donkeys.
What to do
Museo del Vino, Torgiano
An astonishing museum with a vast collection of beautifully preserved practical and artistic items related to wine culture since Etruscan times, including artworks by Mantegna and Picasso. The Osteria del Museo serves traditional dishes. The olive oil museum nearby is equally fascinating.
Walk through the vines
Footpaths abound at wineries and some – such as Palazzone – provide maps. They offer truffle-hunting excursions too, as do Castello di Montegiove and Seven Café. The Scacciadiavoli and Azienda Agraria Carini wineries are on the Big Bench viewpoint circuit, and Experience Trasimeno has routes for walkers and cyclists.
Wine therapy spa
Book a relaxing multi-sensory experience and recline, glass in hand, in a barrel of wine for a whirlpool bath at the luxury adults-only Altarocca Wine Resort in Orvieto where accommodation includes private spa suites, or at Le Tre Vaselle resort in Torgiano.
How to get there
While Umbria’s Perugia airport does have some international flights, the major Rome airports are just a two-hour drive away. Florence is about 150km away, and Ancona 130km.