Okay, so you’ve mastered the wines of Tuscany. Or maybe, after all those trips to Florence and all that Frances Mayes, you’re just Tuscaned out. You want a new frontier to explore. Make it easy on yourself and just amble next door into Umbria. Physically, this little landlocked region looks very much like an extension of Tuscany (and some Tuscans treat it as such). Viticulturally, Umbria shares a number of key grape varieties with Tuscany, and with each new vintage, is beginning to challenge its larger and more famous neighbor.
In fact, Umbria has never lacked for good products — just name recognition. Umbrian olive oils are some of the best you’ll ever taste, but they’re generally harder to find than Tuscan ones. Black truffles from the hills around Spoleto and Norcia are another Umbrian specialty whose provenance isn’t always duly noted. And aside from Orvieto, Umbria’s best-known wine, the region’s vinous offerings are a somewhat scattered lot.
The main reason for this is size: Umbria is Italy’s fourth-smallest region and, as such, it simply doesn’t produce a lot of wine (olive oil, in fact, is a more significant export). As with every other Italian region, it has its signature grape varieties, but the most unique and flavorful one — the spicy red sagrantino — is sparsely grown (only about 300 acres of it exist). And although rich red wines such as Sagrantino di Montefalco are gaining in recognition, the wines (mostly white) of Orvieto still account for about 70 percent of all DOC-classified wine in Umbria.
Orvieto is one of those classic Italian white wines that people have traditionally drunk on vacation, somewhat indifferently. Most of us think of Orvieto as a light, at times insipid, white, a clean and pleasant wine but not necessarily a memorable one. Orvieto is a blended white, incorporating local grapes such as Trebbiano Toscano, Grechetto and Verdello, among others, but during the seventies and eighties, when Orvieto’s popularity began to rise, producers relied more heavily on the ultra-vigorous (but resolutely dull) Trebbiano.
As many experts have noted (including Gerald Asher of Gourmet Magazine), the trend in Orvieto today is to reduce the percentage of the fairly neutral-tasting Trebbiano in favor of more of the aromatic Grechetto. Many Orvieto producers are also using Chardonnay and Sauvignon to add complexity to their wines. In recent months, I’ve tasted some surprisingly substantial Orvieto whites from Salviano, Bigi, La Carraia and Palazzone, each of which brought a little something different to the table — the Orvieto blending formula is fairly liberal, so it’s not unusual to encounter vastly different expressions from within the same appellation.
While Orvieto revives its image, another Umbrian appellation, Montefalco, is enjoying sudden fame. Nestled in the center of Umbria, southeast of Perugia, the town of Montefalco is now Umbria’s red-wine capital. Although a relatively paltry amount of Sagrantino di Montefalco is produced each year, it has become a readily recognized name among wine geeks. Thought to have been brought to the region by Franciscan friars, the sagrantino grape is Umbria’s jewel –and Umbria’s alone. There are a number of excellent Umbrian reds made from sangiovese, cabernet, merlot, and other central Italian varieties, but they tend to suffer in comparisons with Tuscan wines. Sagrantino di Montefalco, a big, funky, spicy red that occasionally reminds me of good red zinfandel, has no peer. If you haven’t yet tried it, be sure to put it on your list.
We, of course, have put it on ours. Here’s a great sagrantino, along with a few other Umbrian specialties, to look for on your next visit:
Palazzone Orvieto Classico “Terre Vineate” 2001
Cool, clean, even a little creamy. A portion of this wine is fermented in oak but what it’s really about is freshness. Perfect for Mario’s Whole Grilled Branzino or Monkfish Piccata.
Arnaldo Caprai Sagrantino di Montefalco 1998
A slick red, with a sheen of new oak dressing up otherwise funky scents of blackberry, tar and wintry spices. We usually decant this wine before serving it to soften its tannins and bring out its evocative aromas. Big and burly and ready for the Ribeye For Two.
Antinori-Castello della Sala “Muffato della Sala” 1999
Sweet wines have long been a specialty of Orvieto, and this one, made by the Antinori family at their beautiful castle in Orvieto, is designed to rival the wines of Sauternes. Made from late-harvested Sauvignon Blanc, this wine is said to be affected by the beneficial mold (muffa in Italian) called botrytis, or “noble rot,” lending it a characteristic smokiness and richness.