While Gabriele d’Annunzio called it “the sun of Italy in a bottle,” and Pope Gregory XVI requested that his body be bathed in it prior to his funeral, the white wine called Orvieto Classico is only a whisper of its former self. As stainless steel, temperature-controlled fermentation became popular and drier, crisper wines became the favorite among consumers, Orvieto Classico followed suit and apparently became very ordinary along the way.
The region of Orvieto Classico is a broad basin surrounding the very picturesque town, which is perched on a cliff of white tufaceous rock, at the perfect altitude to create mists in the autumn that kiss the vines with botrytis cinerea, or noble rot that is responsible for many of the worlds greatest dessert wines. The varietals grown here are procanico (their local version of trebbiano) grechetto, verdello and malvasia. Orvieto was made famous as a vino abboccato or a slightly sweet wine that in its time must have been superb. Today, as a crisp dry white, Orvieto is satisfying at best and thin and stripped of character at worst. In order to appreciate the real McCoy, one must search out the abboccato or amabile styles which are the regions specialties. This is an area so suited for growing sweet wine that the equivalent in France would be for the region of Sauternes to abandon its production of sweet wine in preference for dry. Sauternes too would slip into obscurity.
Maybe someday we’ll get over this sweet wine versus dry wine thing and start concerning ourselves with good wine versus bad wine. Until then Orvieto will never be considered in the first ranks of Italian white wine.
That having been said, if you’re looking for a crisp dry white that won’t be too challenging, that will accompany you alongside a pool or on a summer picnic, Orvieto can deliver some pleasant sipping. Look for the wines of Palazzone, Salviano, Bigi and Poggio del Lupo for good examples.
A special mention should go to the property owned by Piero Antinori in Orvieto called Castello della Sala. As he does in Tuscany, Antinori produces represents tremendous value with wines like his Orvieto Classico. For more noteworthy wines, his Cervaro della Sala is a blend of chardonnay with a small percentage of Grechetto, which is fermented in oak and given an extended aging on its lees in oak to produce one of Italy’s richest and oakiest whites.