The Winning Wines of Umbria
Umbria is one of the most beautiful regions in Italy. Often referred to as the “green heart of Italy” the region has verdant, rolling hills dotted with ancient hill-towns - such as Assisi, Perugia, Orvieto, Spoleto, Todi, Spello and Gubbio - that offer fascinating views into their Etruscan and Roman pasts.
The region has a rural, agricultural orientation and its most famous products are olive oil, truffles, sunflowers and wine grapes. While Umbria has a long and interesting winemaking past, its winemaking initiatives in recent years have been largely overshadowed by those of its next-door neighbor to the west, Tuscany.
There was a time when Umbria’s white wines were known throughout Italy, especially its white wines from the Orvieto area. These wines were lean, floral, often sweet and were held in such esteem that they led even the most dour popes to drink. But those long ago times were, well, long ago.
White wines still play a significant role in Umbria today and comprise the bulk of the region’s wine production and wine exports. Trebbiano (known locally as Procanico) and Grechetto are Umbria’s two most important white varieties but other local white varieties include Canaiolo Bianca and Malvasia Bianca.
But it is Umbria’s red wines that have garnered the most attention in recent years. The Sangiovese-based Torgiano Rosso Riserva wines from the Torgiano area south of Perugia and the Sagrantino-based wines from the area around the ancient hill town of Montefalco, just south of Torgiano, are wines of character and distinction that collect rave reviews from wine critics and consumers alike.
The region includes eleven classified growing areas (DOC’s), the majority of which are for white wines, and two DOCG’s, both of which are for dry red wines.
Here’s an overview of Umbria’s wine scene today which is an active mix of white, red and sweet wines.
Umbria’s White Wines
The vast bulk of Umbria’s white wines consist of the crisp and light wines from the Orvieto DOC which encompasses the town of Orvieto and its environs on Umbria’s western border. Orvieto is an ancient and beautiful hill-top town that draws thousands of tourists each year who admire its largely intact historical center and its magnificent cathedral, one of Italy’s most beautiful.
The Orvieto DOC, which includes a large “classico” area, is reserved exclusively for white wines. Wines that carry the Orvieto DOC designation are primarily Trebbiano and Grechetto blends with varying amounts of other varieties such as Verdello and Malvasia Bianca. At their best, Orvieto wines are crisp with delicate white fruit and floral aromas and zesty citrus flavors. They go well with a variety of appetizers, salads and first courses, especially if they involve seafood of any kind. They also pair well with spicy Asian dishes and spicy cold cuts.
Orvieto wines produced from grapes grown in the large “traditional” zone qualify for a “Classico” designation and can also qualify for a “Superiore” designation if the wine meets certain minimum alcohol and ageing requirements.
Orvieto’s white wines are some of Italy’s most well known wines. They are generally inexpensive and a lot of them are produced and exported around the world. While Orvieto wines can be crisp, delicate and refreshing, too many of them, unfortunately, are light, uninteresting and totally lacking in definition. They can charitably be characterized as underachievers. They are capable of much more but their producers have for what are probably commercial reasons decided not to spend the additional time and effort required to improve the quality of their product.
So when you’re confronted with a long shelf of Orvieto wines in a wine shop, how do you go about selecting a reliable Orvieto wine? Unless you have prior information it’s important to pay attention to who makes the wine. It is individual producers that count and excellent Orvieto wines can be found from conscientious producers.
Here is a short list of reliable, quality-focused Orvieto producers and their labels, presented alphabetically by producer.
Antinori, Santa Cristina “Campogrande” Orvieto Classico 2010 (about $12)
A small percentage of Chardonnay is added to the traditional Orvieto Classico varieties. It is a crisp, fruity and reliable white that is widely available and a good bargain at this price.
Barberani, “Castagnolo” Orvieto Classico Superiore 2011 (about $16)
Extensive pruning of the grape vines by Barberani results in very ripe grapes with floral aromas, great fruit and pleasant acidity. It is also a white wine that will age well.
Decugnano dei Barbi, “Il Bianco di Decugnano” Orvieto Classico Superiore 2009 (about $24)
Decugnano dei Barbi is a celebrated producer of premium wines. Its Il Bianco di Decugnano is elegant and well balanced with pleasant citrus aromas and flavors. It is one of Umbria’s best white wines and a serial recipient of Gambero Rosso’s coveted Tre Bicchieri award.
Palazzone, “Campo del Guardino” Orvieto, 2010 (about $26)
This wine is made from carefully tended and vinified grapes from selected vineyard sites. It is flavorful and elegant and will only improve with time.
Palazzone, “Terre Vineate” Orvieto Classico Superiore 2011 (about $15)
This wine is a blend of Trebbiano and Grechetto with splashes of three other traditional varieties. Like the estate’s Campo del Guardino, this wine is made from carefully tended and vinified grapes from selected vineyard plots that was honored with a Tre Bicchieri award from Gambero Rosso.
Rocca della Macie, Orvieto Classico 2009 (about $12)
This wine is from one of Tuscany’s most celebrated estates. The grapes are sourced from the Caiano vineyard in the heart of the Orvieto Classico area. It is an intense and fruity wine with a hint of almonds on the finish and is a remarkable bargain at this price.
Other white wines from Umbria:
Castello della Sala, “Cervaro della Sala” 2010 (about $46)
Made primarily of “non-traditional” Chardonnay with a splash of Grechetto, this wine is from the Orvieto area but is not an Orvieto DOC wine. This wine goes through an extended fermentation and ageing in barriques before being blended and bottled. It then spends 10 months ageing in the bottle before release for sale. It is a creamy and complex wine that will age well and is a repeat recipient of Gambero Rosso’s prestigious Tre Bicchieri award.
Antonelli San Marco, Grechetto dei Colli Martani 2011 (about $15)
This wine is made entirely of Grechetto grapes from the hills in the Colli Martani DOC. Grechetto vines are typically low yielding plants that produce grapes with concentrated flavor and are at their best when paired with seafood appetizers, first courses or spicy cold cuts.
Novelli, Trebbiano Spoletino IGT 2011 (about $16)
This wine is 100 percent Spoletino, an ancient Umbrian grape variety rescued from the brink of extinction by Cantina Novelli. The grapes are harvested in late October from the winery’s vineyards around the town of Spoleto. It is medium-bodied with appealing citrus and white fruit flavors.
Umbria’s Red Wines
Torgiano Rosso Riserva
Torgiano is a small town in Umbria located about 4 miles southeast of Perugia, the regional capital. A number of red and white varietals such as Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Trebbiano, Grechetto and Malvasia are grown in this area and various blends of these varietals - both red and white - can qualify for Torgiano DOC status. The DOC includes the entire town of Torgiano and its environs.
In 1990 a portion of the Torgiano DOC was upgraded to DOCG status with the creation of the Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG. Wines have to consist primarily of Sangiovese and Canaiolo and must be aged for a minimum of three years in order to qualify for Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG status. The wines are long-lived and elegant with heady aromas and flavors that evolve and become more complex as they age.
Founded by Giorgio Lungarotti in the early 1960's, the Lungarotti winery is virtually synonymous with Torgiano. The Lungarotti winery firmly established the Torgiano area as a quality wine producing region and for many years its red and white wines were the wines of Umbria. The Lungarotti winery was instrumental in securing Torgiano’s DOC designation in 1968 - Italy’s first DOC - and played a major role in the subsequent upgrade to DOCG status in 1990.
Lungarotti, Rubesco Riserva “Vigna Monticchio” Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG 2000 (about $45)
Although the Lungarotti estate produces a variety of red and white wines, it is the Vigna Monticchio (veen yah mon teek’ kio) Rubesco Riserva that burnishes Lungarotti's long-established reputation for quality wines. Comprised of Sangiovese (70%) and Canaiolo (30%) from its Monticchio vineyard, the wine is fermented in stainless steel for 15-20 days, barrique aged for one year and bottle aged for an extraordinary 5 - 7 years. It is a long-lived wine that will age well for up to 30 - 35 years and is a serial recipient of Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri award.
Sagrantino is an indigenous red grape variety unique to the Montefalco region in south central Umbria. It is a sturdy, thick-skinned and late-ripening variety that produces dark-colored wines with prominent tannins and acids. Although Sagrantino has a history that goes back at least several centuries, until recently the variety simply grew wild on remote Umbrian hillsides as it languished in obscurity.
But because of an intensive program of varietal research, experimentation and technological innovation initiated by Marco Caprai of Arnaldo-Caprai winery in partnership with the University of Milan in the late 1980’s, the variety was not only rescued from obscurity but elevated to the top ranks of Italian grape varietals. In recognition of Marco Caprai’s pioneering initiatives in bringing the Sagrantino grape to the forefront of Italian viticulture, Wine Enthusiast magazine selected Arnaldo-Caprai as the European winery of the year in 2012.
Today, Sagrantino wines are one of Italy’s most celebrated red wines. The Sagrantino grapes come from a very limited area in the hills surrounding the town of Montefalco in Umbria. The variety does not travel well and has not been grown in any appreciable quantity outside of the Montefalco area. While the number of producers has grown in recent years they are still relatively small in number and total output Sagrantino is limited. Regulations require that these wines consist of at least 95% Sagrantino but many, if not most, are made entirely of Sagrantino. The wines are traditionally aged for long periods to soften the prominent tannins. It is a generous grape that dispenses plenty of color, tannins and flavors. With their explosive flavors, Sagrantino wines are best served with robust dishes such as roasted or braised meats, game and/or hard, strong cheeses such as pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Sagrantino di Montefalco wines gained DOCG status in 1992.
Here is a short list of some of the best Sagrantino di Montefalco wines and their producers:
Tenuta Alzatura, “Uno” Sagrantino di Montefalco 2005 (about $40)
The wine is aged in small oak casks for approximately 16 months. It is a textbook Sagrantino - full bodied, complex and intense.
Antonelli San Marco, Sagrantino di Montefalco 2006 (about $38)
Despite its hefty tannins, this wine is ready to drink now with hearty meat dishes and/or hard cheeses. But if you have patience and the luxury of time, you can lay it away where it will only improve over time. This wine is a frequent recipient of Tre Bicchieri awards from Gambero Rosso.
Paolo Bea, “Pagliaro Secco” Sagrantino di Montefalco 2006 (about $68)
This wine spends a month and a half in fermentation and maceration followed by 12 months in steel and another 24 months in large oak barrels and 9 months in the bottle. Full-bodied, tannic and flavorful, this wine has achieved a cult-like status from a devoted following and is one of the most sought-after Sagrantino wines.
Arnaldo Caprai, “25 Anni” Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG 2004 (about $90)
First released in 1993 to commemorate the estate’s 25th anniversary, the 25 Anni has subsequently become one of not only Umbria’s but Italy’s most celebrated and iconic wines. Made entirely of Sagrantino, Caprai’s 25 Anni is aged in oak for 24 months and then spends 8 months in the bottle before release. It is a big, brooding, generous wine with imposing tannins that could still use some additional time ageing to fully compose itself.
Colpetrone, Sagrantino di Montefalco 2007 (about $30)
Colpetrone is a highly-regarded producer of Sagrantino di Montefalco. This wine is full-bodied, concentrated, long-lived and a real bargain at this price.
Cantina Novelli, Sagrantino di Montefalco 2005 (about $48)
Aged for 16 months in barriques, this wine is dark and full-bodied with intense, dark fruit flavors and a persistent finish.
Rocca di Fabbri, Sagrantino di Montefalco 2006 (about $36)
This wine spends 12 months in stainless steel, 18 months in a combination of oak casks and barriques and is bottled 32 months after harvest. It is a full-bodied, concentrated and opulent wine.
Rosso di Montefalco
Another noteworthy red wine from the Montefalco area is Rosso di Montefalco . It is a blended red wine consisting primarily of Sangiovese and Sagrantino and can include up to 15 percent of other red varieties such as Montepulciano, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Even though the wine comes from the Montefalco area it is not a Sagrantino wine per se because only a small percentage of the total wine consists of Sagrantino. The ageing requirements are also less strict and they are not as long-lived as Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG wines. They are also considerably less expensive.
Montefalco Rosso wines have their own DOC appellation. The regulations for this little known DOC specify the geographic area where the grapes can be grown, what varieties and proportions can be used in the blend, the ageing requirements and other particulars necessary to qualify for Montefalco Rosso DOC status. Typically these wines are not meant to be cellared but to be consumed when young although in some exceptional vintages they can benefit from additional bottle-ageing.
Here is my short list of my recommended Montefalco Rosso wines:
Arnaldo Caprai, Montefalco Rosso 2009 (about $22)
This wine consists of 70 percent Sangiovese and 15 percent each Sagrantino and Merlot. It is aged in oak barrels for 12 months followed by 3 months in bottle. The three varietals work well together with the Sangiovese providing acidity and rich fruit flavors while the Sagrantino adds structure, tannins and longevity to the mix while the Merlot softens the austere Sagrantino while adding color and a fruity bouquet.
Antonelli San Marco, Montefalco Rosso 2008 (about $19)
This wine is a blend of 65% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino, 10% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon that spends 9 months in cask and 9 months in the bottle. Antonelli typically makes balanced wines with good body, intense flavors and gratifying finishes at wallet-friendly prices and this Montefalco Rosso is no exception.
Other red wines from Umbria:
Adanti, "Arquata" Rosso dell’Umbria 2006 (about $30)
This wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Barbera. It is aged in a combination of large and small casks for 24 months and then spends an additional 6 months in the bottle prior to release. While the blend is comprised primarily of “international” varieties, the wine still has an Italian profile - good food-friendly acidity and firm tannins that give it plenty of staying power. It is a lot of wine for the money, especially when you consider that it was the beneficiary of a Tre Bicchieri award from Gambero Rosso.
Antonelli San Marco, “Contrario” Umbria Rosso 2008 (about $26)
While Antonelli’s “Contrario” is made entirely of Sagrantino grapes it is vinified in such a way as to make it available when younger and fresher. With its muted tannins, good acidity and well-developed red fruit aromas and flavors this wine will be a flavorful companion to a wide range of food dishes.
Paolo Bea, “Pipparello” Montefalco Riserva 2006 (about $64)
This wine is a blend of Sangiovese, Sagrantino and Montepulciano. The wine spends over a month macerating in contact with the skins and is then aged in stainless steel for a year followed by two years in cask and another year in the bottle before release for sale. This is a generous, rich wine with layers of dark fruit flavors and enhanced with the flamboyant flourishes for which Paolo Bea is famous.
Falesco, Umbria Merlot 2010 (about $16)
The Falesco winery was established in 1979 by two of Italy’s most acclaimed winemakers, brothers Riccardo and Renzo Cotarella, and has consistently racked up wine awards since its founding. The winery is located near Orvieto in the southwestern corner of Umbria that borders the Lazio region. It has established a well-earned reputation for turning out quality wines at reasonable prices.
This wine is made entirely of Merlot from the Orvieto area. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel, aged in barriques for seven months and then bottled without being filtered so as to preserve the wine’s rich varietal character. It is very nicely balanced, elegant and quite simply is one of the best Merlot wines available at this price point.
Lamborghini, “Campoleone” Umbria IGT 2006 (about $46)
This “super-Umbrian” blend of Sangiovese and Merlot from the estate’s vineyards on the southern shore of Lake Trasimeno spends 12 months ageing in oak barrels. It is rich and full-bodied with layers of dark fruit flavors and sweet tannins.
Sweet wines from Umbria
In recent years there has been increased interest in Umbria in producing sweet, dessert-style wines - both red and white - often made in the passito style from semi-dried grapes. The result is that Umbria now produces some of central Italy’s best sweet wines. These wines are intense and decadent and should be served with not-too-sweet desserts or simply enjoyed by themselves when you’re in a contemplative mood as a vino da meditazione, a wine for meditation. Unfortunately, these artisanal wines are only produced in very small quantities and are hard to find.
Here are two worth looking for:
Barberani, “Calcaia” Orvieto Classico Superiore 2007 (about $48 for 500 ml)
A sweet dessert-style wine made of Grechetto, Trebbiano and Sauvignon Blanc. It is rich and sweet with lively acidity. Small production and difficult to find but certainly worth a try - you can’t go wrong with one of Barbarani’s sweet wines.
Arnaldo Caprai, Sagrantino Passito 2006 (about $52 for 375 ml)
This sweet wine is 100% Sagrantino that spends 15 months aging in French oak barriques and 12 months in the bottle. This delectably sweet wine has a velvety feel with dark fruit flavors overlaid with Sagrantino’s signature tannins.
Umbria's Diverse Winemaking Tradition
Umbria has a rich winemaking tradition and with 11 DOC-classified growing areas there undoubtedly are other producers of quality wines in Umbria that merit attention but are impossible to include in a brief survey article like this. Some are small, boutique wineries relentlessly pursuing local, traditional approaches to wine making while still others may be putting new spins on otherwise traditional procedures. But because of their small scale of operations and limited marketing budgets their visibility may be limited to their own local market areas. They're just waiting to be discovered. Since their wines typically are not exported, the best way to uncover them would be to schedule your own wine tour of Umbria - who knows what wine pleasures you might discover.
Note – prices indicated are averages of generally available retail prices and will vary from store to store. Since availability at your local store is not guaranteed, it would be best to call to check on availability and/or price before making the trip. If out of stock some wine stores will gladly special order wines for you.
February 12, 2013