This week we resume our series of trekking through Italy, in search of lesser-known grapes grown in the midst of historic regions. I trust you’ve picked up a few ideas for new wines with which to experiment, and wine regions to explore in the (near- mid- or long-term?) pandemic-restrictive future.
I’m having an internal tug of war this week in deciding which region to explore. My heart, and my palate, yearns to explore Tuscany. It is the one region for which I hold the fondest memories of Italy and for which I continue to compare every other region in Italy. The history, architecture, art and landscape – and of course, the food and wine – are unsurpassed as a total cultural experience.
No other region evokes such passion. The five regions we’ve trekked through thus far on our virtual Italian tour have each had elements of the lure and attraction of Tuscany, but not the ethereal, all-consuming experience of La Bella Vita that is Tuscany.
Campania has its great Aglianico wines, which I prefer over Tuscany’s Chiantis. Sicily has its ancient Greek temples and artifacts, built well before the Etruscans settled in Tuscany. The Veneto region has Venice, a European power centuries before the Medicis aspired to the same lofty status in Florence. Piedmont’s rolling hills and hilltop villages offer more photo-ops than the nooks and crannies of Tuscany. Friuli has mesmerizing and plentiful white wines, sorely lacking in Tuscany.
But alas, our virtual journey twists and turns along the Italian wine route, with many detours before we arrive in Tuscany.
So, where to next? Where to find a region that is most Tuscan-like, that may even fill in the few gaps that are easily overlooked in my obsessive fascination with all things Tuscan?
As we travel southeast from our last stop, Piedmont, Tuscany lures us and our Alfa Romeo seemingly takes on a life of its own and heads in the direction of Florence. But at a critical crossroad on the Autostrada, we bear left, not right. A few hundred kilometers later, southeast of Tuscany, enveloped on three sides by mountains, we begin to see the milepost markers for Perugia, Assisi, Orvieto and Montefalco. This is the region of Umbria, the stepchild of Tuscany.
Umbria is a land of ancient people and ancient vines that continues to exude the essence of Italian culture: rich and elegant history intertwined with the simple life. Here we find the elegant city of Perugia, with the buildings of its famous chocolate industry sitting over a subterranean ancient Roman city; the internationally acclaimed arts festival of Spoleto; the famous Duomos of Orvieto and Assisi presiding over the olive groves, vineyards and truffle-rich forests below their bell towers; and the storied wines produced by the winemakers in Montefalco.
On to the grapes.
Sangiovese, the heart of Chianti and Brunello wines, and therefore Tuscany, also dominates the wines of Umbria. But there are two other grapes that have become symbolic of the emerging popularity of Umbrian wines.
Sagrantino: The warm summers, tempered by the breezes of the Apennine Mountains, aid in producing long growing seasons in the subregion of Montefalco. The resulting wines are rich and unctuous, with strong tannins (uncharacteristically sweet) critical for aging. A profile of blackberries and earthy forest floors dominates the wines. This grape has mesmerized me for years. It was even my “new favorite” for several months.
Grechetto: A crisp, dry wine with notes of apples and pungent herbs. Although it has an enticing, creamy mouthfeel, the influence of the chalky soils of the region adds a clean minerality and a tangy acidity. It is also a component of the famous Orvieto wines of this region. Grechetto and the other Umbrian white grape, Trebbiano, together produce more white wine than in all of Tuscany.
Just on the other side of the Apennines from Tuscany lies a land rich in history that modern times has seemingly ignored. But as an alternative to Tuscany, Umbria is every bit as fascinating, with a cultural and gastronomic ethos sure to please the most discerning traveler.
Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.