If I could change one thing about Italy–wait, who am I kidding? I love living in Italy, but given the chance I would change roughly 14,000 things about it. But for argument’s sake, let’s choose one thing—it would be the ethnic food situation. Italy doesn’t do ethnic food. It doesn’t even do inter-regional food that well. If I go to my vegetable guy at the outdoor market and ask for black cabbage, I get a look and a, “Black cabbage?!? I don’t sell that. That’s what they use to make ribollita in Tuscany!” as if Tuscany were a remote province in southern China and not the bordering region roughly a 20 minute drive away. In Umbria, you eat Umbrian food. Just like in Puglia you eat Puglian food and in Liguria you eat Ligurian food. And if you want anything outside of those gastro-geographical borders, you need to book a flight.
Part of me is happy about that. I believe very strongly in eating mindfully (it’s about at new age-y as I get). Our food doesn’t inhabit a cultural and historical vacuum; our food is part of a larger context of land and people, the ebb and flow of economies and conquering armies, and often there’s a side helping of religious traditions on our plates, as well. Eating locally in a country like Italy—which has a rich gastronomic history and culture currently under attack by the invasion of fast food and imported counterfeits—is both a pleasure and a civic duty.
Of all the foods that weave a seamless tapestry between culture, history, and land, wine is the most illustrative. To really get a sense of the importance of millenia of viticulture and vinification on the landscape, art and literature, and cuisine of Umbria, Italy, and the entire Mediterranean basin, a visit to Torgiano’s excellent Wine Museum is de rigueur.
Though founded in the mid-1970s, careful upkeep and curation have made this far from a dusty, arid storehouse of wine related bric-à-brac, but more a compelling walk through the history of wine in all its thousand facets: gastronomic, economic, social, ceremonial, and medicinal. The museum, housed in the the 17th-century Palazzo Graziani-Baglioni six kilometers from Perugia, displays a vast array of items from archeological artefacts, artworks, and ethnographic collections—all aimed at illustrating the history and civilization of wine from its import from the Middle East, through the Etruscan and Roman cultures, until the Industrial Revolution.
Perhaps the most charming section of the museum is the vaulted stone and brick basement holding the antique wine cellar, with its collection of reconstructed antique grape presses, immense vats, and other wine-making equipment, many of which still used in Umbrian cantinas until just a few decades ago. One can just picture a winsome Sofia Loren-esque country maid, with her skirt hitched up and a come-hither look on her face, as she stomped through grape must and captured the heart of a roomful of farmboys.
I had expected an academic vibe to this museum, but instead found it captured the light-hearted, human side of wine–and drinking. From the collection of “lover’s cups”—used to woo one with wine—to the animal-shaped flasks, to the pieces dedicated to the ubiquitous Dionysian Myth, to the hip contemporary ceramic and graphics sections, at the Wine Museum I was reminded of how such a humble chemical reaction (we’re just talking about fermented grape juice, after all) can produce something so central to an entire civilization’s history and culture.
That said…um, I’m really craving a samosa right now.
One of my favorite wineries is right down the road: Terre Margaritelli. Stop in for a tasting!
There are wines that are meant to be consumed with gravitas. They require our full attention, want to be at center stage, and pout and sulk if we are distracted from their brooding power. They need the trappings: decanters, broad-bowled stemware, exact temperatures. These are Sagrantino from Montefalco.
Then there are happy-go-lucky wines. They are light-hearted, easy-going, and just pleased you invited them to the party. They are fine sitting elbow to elbow with picnic fare or finger food and deal well with backpacks, jostling, and even—gasp—plastic cups. These are Trebbiano, Grechetto, and Sangiovese from Colli Martani.
The DOC whites—Trebbiano and Grechetto—which come out of the tiny triangle of area between the Umbrian towns of Foligno, Todi and Spoleto are produced primarily with the local sub-varietals of Trebbiano Spoletino and Grechetto Spoletino and yield two straw-colored, clean and linear wines, the former fruity with a spicy tail and the latter rounded with herb and nut flavors.
The ruby-toned Sangiovese DOC is a perfect quaffing wine when young (aged minimum 12 months), with its dry, lightly tannic mouth feel and herb and berry flavors. The darker Riserva, aged two years—and finished in oak—is more complex and structured (it can even get a little Chianti-esque), but still friendly and approachable.
All of this is well and good, but begs the question of what to pair with these wines. Well, I suggest a bike.
Ok, ok, pipe down. Hear me out. I’m not a big biker either, but if anything is going to inspire you to hop in the saddle and peddle your way from cantina to cantina, it’s going to be the bucolic rolling vineyard-blanketed hills surrounding the tiny hamlets of Castel Ritaldi, Giano dell’Umbria, Marcellano, and Gualdo Cattaneo. This is what they meant when the phrase “wine country” was coined, because nothing shapes a countryside more than a 2,000 year history of cultivation. (Oh, and big box stores, I guess. Those can really shape a countryside quickly. But I digress.). These are hills that were planted with vines by the Etruscans, followed by the Romans, followed by the noble class in the Middle Ages, followed by a group of small-scale vintners—almost exclusively family businesses—who are passionate about this land and the historic varietals they are keeping alive with an eye on the past, but their heads in the future.
What better way to savor both the landscape and the wines in this area than by taking the slow food/slow travel route and biking the wine roads (fortuitously low-trafficked), stopping in the wineries dotting these hills for tastings fo wines light enough that you will still be street-safe? A perfect starting point is the startlingly excellent Bike in Umbria website (full disclosure: I have since become friends with the folks behind this organization, but the site was fabulous long before I knew them.). You can arrange hiring bikes and booking bike-friendly accommodations through them, but where the site really shines is in their itineraries. Divided by difficulty, type of bike, and area, they give a number of great suggested routes—with maps, descriptions, and practical information—in the Colli Martani (and neighboring Sagrantino) area. By doing a quick cross-reference with the locations of the area’s cantine (see below), it’s easy to pull together a day-long bike excursion broken up with visits to wineries along the route.
Some wineries along biking itineraries near the Colli Martani are:
Any conversation about Umbria and her wines must necessarily begin at the very heart of this region, both geographically and historically, which is to say at Sagrantino.
This hearty dry red (and honeyed sweet) is made primarily (or exclusively, in the case of the DOCG) from the indigeneous Sagrantino grape varietal—though indigeneous is relative for a plant that has probably been growing in this area for centuries. Did it come from Greece? Did French friars import it? Did, as the legend goes, Saint Francis bring back a cutting from the Middle East to use for sacramental wine? No matter, it’s Umbrian now.— which is cultivated in a limited geographical area surrounding the hill town of Montefalco. The micro-climate in this undulating valley is marked by hot, dry days, interspersed with nights cooled by the Tramontana breeze from the north, a long Mediterranean growing season, and clay soil…all of which form a perfect storm to turn out the dark, tannic grapes which define Sagrantino.
Which is where we hit our first glitch. Because I am about to commit the biggest blasphemy any lover of Umbrian wine can—a stab in her heart, so to speak—and admit that Sagrantino is not my favorite wine. It’s not the complex, earthy flavor—marked by dark red fruit, spice, and smoke—or the masculine boldness (these are big wines, but I’m a big girl) that I find unapproachable. It’s the incredible, suck-your-tongue-dry, let-age-a-minimum-of-a-decade, decant-for-at-least-twelve-hours-prior-to-drinking tannins. And by tannins, I mean Tannins. Sagrantino is one of the most tannic grapes in the world, and many young Sagrantino labels are lip-puckeringly tight and really only show their true colors after almost ten years of aging…and even then, the tannins don’t beat around the bush.
Which is cool if you are drinking Sagrantino with what it is meant to be paired with. Like marinated lamb chops. Or steak. Or a big chunk of braised cinghiale. It is not so cool if, like me, you are a vegetarian (another blasphemy in the region where Pork is King) and are limited to a thick bean soup dressed with peppery olive oil or hard aged cheeses. Which may keep the tannins at bay for while, but they are still nipping at you through the bars of their cage.
The tannin question may also be behind the rise in popularity of this wine over the past generation. The traditional diet in Umbria—indeed in most of Italy, a poor, rural country until the 1960s—was light on meat and heavy on grains, legumes, and vegetables (none of which are particularly suited to a beast of a wine like Sagrantino). What is known here as la cucina povera and in the rest of the world as The Mediterranean Diet gradually began to change with a rise in standard of living through the 1960s and 1970s, with the consumption of meat moving to center stage rather than being limited to once a week or, the in poorest areas of Italy—including Umbria—feast days.
And, parallel to the growing frequency of strong meat-based dishes came the rise of Sagrantino, a wine that needs a plate of grilled sausages as its foil. Though Montefalco has a history of grape cultivation mentioned by Pliny, the Sagrantino grape itself had fallen into disuse and was on its way to extinction until the 1970s, when a number of cantinas around Montefalco “rediscovered” this historic varietal and embarked on a campaign of scientific research, rivitalization of both vineyards and wineries, and—most recently—savvy marketing and promotion. Sagrantino di Montefalco became a DOC in 1980 and a DOCG in 1992, and the prestige and quality of the region’s labels continues to grow. Combine that with the fortuitous economic reality of the rise of a meat-based cuisine well-paired to this robust wine and, voilà, a Cinderella story.
If you are like me, you may find yourself the ugly stepsister, but the meat eaters out there will probably discover themselves Prince Charming to this Princess of a wine.
Here are a few of my favorite cantine which offer visits and tastings:
The enoteca is housed in the restored cellars of the convent, and charmingly decorated with works by Orvieto's historic Michelangeli workshop. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)
If you think the closest you’re going to get to heaven in Orvieto is gazing at the Signorelli frescoes in the magnificent Duomo’s San Brizio Chapel, keep walking uphill.
Yep, up the Corso, across the Piazza della Repubblica, and through a series of steep, narrow alleyways (if an older gent stops you with a “Psst, Signorina, do you want to see my Etruscan cave?” go ahead and take a look. He really does have an Etruscan cave under his floor.) until you finally reach the highest point on the dramatic cliff which has been home to Orvieto for the better part of humanity.
Take a peek in the Palazzo del Gusto's pretty cloister, but for the good stuff head downstairs to the cellars. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)
Here you will find the former convent of San Giovanni, which is now the headquarters of the “Palazzo del Gusto”, an umbrella enogastronomic and cultural association which hosts a series of workshops, courses, and thematic dinners and tastings aimed at promoting traditional cuisine, Slow Food, and local wines.
The entry to the Enoteca holds examples of local crafts...the approach to celebrating local products isn't limited to just food and wine. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)
Head downstairs to the restored cellars (the architectural history of which runs from the Etruscan era through the Middle Ages) underneath the convent, where you can take a guided tour of the “Enoteca Regionale”, a regional wine library which holds more than 120 different labels of the best DOCG, DOC, and IGT wines in Umbria.
The tasting rooms are tucked under medieval vaults and over Etruscan caves. (Copyright Palazzo del Gusto)
Different “packages” are available for wine tastings, or you can splurge for a prepaid “wine card” to sample up to 16 different wines from automatic dispensers. Between the dispensers and the handy information-laden touch-screens, you can almost throw together a DIY visit, but try to nab Graziella, Lucia, or Francesca, three walking local wine and food encyclopedias who have been involved in the Enoteca Regionale through its conception and expansion. Their passion for the gastronomic history and culture of the region is contagious, as they give a lively context to each wine, elevating it from the Enoteca’s evocative underground cellar to exalted heights.
For more information or to reserve a tasting, take a look at the Palazzo del Gusto‘s terrific website.
I spent the month of January blogging about wine for Umbria on the Blog, and, while it was certainly one of the funner months in recent history (the parts that I, ahem, remember), the experience served to bring home one truth: there can, indeed, be too much of a good thing. I got pretty wine-d out by the time the project came to a close with the International Wine Tourism Conference in Perugia, but before I hop on the wagon I thought I’d throw together a quick guide to the principal wines produced in Umbria with some suggestions for my favorite places to sample each.
Hard at work researching. Really.
Though this region has a wine-making tradition that began with the Etruscans over 2000 years ago, the Umbrians spent most of the past two millenia brewing up tiny batches of wine for use by family and friends, and never made the name for themselves to rival that of their Tuscan neighbors.
That said, over the past twenty years the culture surrounding wine in this region has moved out of the private sphere and into the public eye. Commercial cantinas have begun to make themselves an international reputation by both refining the traditional varietals and by pushing the envelope with new products and blends.
The principal wines produced in Umbria are:
Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG from the area surrounding Montefalco. This tannic, full-bodied red made from the Sagrantino grape is aged a minimum of 30 months (the final 12 in wood barrels), has spice, berry, and earth flavors, and is best paired with roasts, lamb, game, and aged cheeses. The Passito dessert version–made with grapes which have been dried at least two months–goes well with biscotti or berry jam tarts. Blended with Sangiovese, the Sagrantino grape is also used to make a Montefalco Rosso DOC.
Colli Martani DOC is produced in much of the same area as Sagrantino and includes a Trebbiano (made primarily with Trebbiano Spoletino) and a Grechetto–two light, clean whites and a Sangiovese which, if aged for a minimum of two years the latter of which in oak barrels, carries the name Sangiovese Riserva. The Riserva is more complex and structured than the easy-going Sangiovese and can even get Chianti-esque, pairing well with grilled meat and aged cheese.
There are a plethora of excellent wineries in the area surrounding Montefalco where passers-by (I’m always impressed with myself when I remember how to make that plural) can stop in for a tasting. Arnaldo Caprai is, perhaps, the best known, and for good reason. The Caprai family almost single-handedly resurrected the largely-forgotten Sagrantino grape in the 1970s and has been one of the most active wineries in refining and marketing the wine. Their tasting room is sleek and modern and their wines the same. I also love the equally historic yet more rustic Scacciadiavoli winery, and the venerable winery Paolo Bea is making some excellent award-winning Sagrantino. Also rans are di Filippo, both for their wines and for their vibe, and Colpetrone, one of the few wineries in the area that’s not a family business.
Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG is produced in the area surrounding Torgiano and made from Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Trebbiano, Ciliegiolo, and Montepulciano grapes. This complex wine must be aged at least three years and its bold yet balanced flavor is best enjoyed with roasts and fowl, game, and hard cheeses. Torgiano also produces a number of DOC wines, both white (with Trebbiano and Grechetto grapes) and red (with Sangiovese and Canaiolo). It is also one of the few areas in Umbria which produces spumante.
There are only two wineries in Torgiano proper: Lungarotti, the Grande Dame of Umbrian wineries, began selling their wine in the 1960s and continue to be one of Umbria’s most well-known names in wine; and, just down the road, the upstart Terre Margaritelli, which is just six years in the biz but already making some of the most interesting wines in the area and is one of my favorite wineries right now.
Orvieto DOC Perhaps one of Umbria’s best-known wines is the crisp white made with Trebbiano, Grechetto, Verdello and Canaiolo grapes from the hills surrounding Orvieto, which makes up 75% of Umbria’s total wine production. The mineral and delicate fruit flavors in the dry white come from the particular volcanic rock in the area; these wines are best with fish, vegetables, or strong cheeses. A sweet version is produced by letting the grapes stay until late into the fall on the vine, where they produce a high level of sugar. Sip them with cookies or creamy cheeses like gorgonzola.
Lago di Corbara DOC The microclimate around Lake Corbara between Todi and Orvieto is such that producers there have been experimenting with innovative blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Nero–not widely found in other areas of Umbria–along with the classic Sangiovese. The full-bodied reds coming out of these wineries are intense, dry, and slightly tannic.
My favorite vineyard near Orvieto (overlooking Lake Corbara) is Barberani, but I openly admit that this is largely because I have a huge crush on the cutie-pie brothers who run the winery. My friend and guide Alessandra Mallozzi from Discovering Umbria, who, as a sommalier, is probably more objective, suggests the award-winning Palazzone and the small, family-run Custodi.
Assisi DOC hails from the vineyards of Assisi and Spello and comes in a white version (with Trebbiano and Grechetto grapes), light, dry, and best used as an aperitif wine or paired with fish, and an intense and persistent red–Rosso, Rosato, and Novello–(with Sangiovese and Merlot grapes), best served with pasta dishes.
The place I head to first when I want to pick up some local swill is the charming Saio winery just outside of Assisi. Lovely wine, and the family has organized some pretty walking trails and picnic spots in the surrounding vineyards with some great views towards Assisi and Mount Subasio.
Colli Perugini DOC This is a large area, extending from Perugia through Marsciano and Monte Castello di Vibio (including one of our favorite wineries). The wines produced in this area (primarily Trebbiano and Grechetto whites and a Sangiovese red) are friendly quaffing table wines, but there are also a few heirloom native varietals worth searching out, including Mostiola, il Tintarolo, la Pecorina e il Lupeccio.
The Goretti winery near Perugia has one of the niftiest stores around: there are retrofitted gas pumps in the shop, and locals come with their own containers to fill up. It’s pretty cool, as is the medieval castle where the winery is located.
Colli del Trasimeno DOC wines hail from the area ringing Lake Trasimeno with its unique microclimate allowing for the cultivation of a number of grapes not found elsewhere in Umbria: a white with Trebbiano, Verdello, and Grechetto and red with Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo, Gamay, Malvasia, and Trebbiano grapes. The light white is perfect for aperitifs or with fish and the bright, smooth red with roasts, game, and cheese.
Colli Amerini DOC is produces in the area including Amelia and Narni. The red varieties blend Sangiovese, Merlot, Montepulciano, Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo, and Barbera grapes. The Rosso can be opened young or aged and is served with pasta in meat sauce, grilled meats, or semi-aged cheese. The fruity Novello pairs well with traditional Umbrian dishes, charcuterie, or fresh water fish. Rosato, with its delicate fruit flavors, goes well with truffles, spelt soup, or pasta with pork ragù. The prestigious Rosso Superiore, aged a minimum of two years (at least seven months in oak barrels) has a bold flavor best served with braised meat, boar, and game. The whites include Trebbiano, Malvasia, Drupeggio–a variety of Canaiolo–, and Grechetto grapes and are known for being dry yet smooth, with a delicate fruit undertone that pairs well with vegetarian pasta dishes or fried seafood.
Colli Altotiberini DOC is produced in the Upper Tiber Valley. The delicate white–best paired with fresh water fish or young cheeses–is made from Trebbiano and Malvasia varietals, while the well-rounded red (Rosso and Rosato) includes Sangiovese and Merlot and should be served with legumes, risotto, or roasted chicken.
The best place to sample these lesser-known wines is at the fantastic Enoteca Regionale in Orvieto.