The Best Wines from Central Italy: Umbria, the Marches, Latium

Since the mid-1990s, central Italy-which might be defined as a belt of territory stretching across the peninsula to the south of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna-has been attracting considerable attention as a new source of quality wine. The reasons for this interest are clear: as the best, and best known, wines of Tuscany have risen dramatically in price as a result of increasing recognition and demand, discerning importers and distributors have begun looking for alternative sources of good wine at more affordable prices. And the more intelligent and far-sighted producers in the regions of Umbria, the Marches, and Latium have been quick to realize that new opportunities were readily available if they succeeded in raising their overall quality level.

This is not to suggest that an avalanche of splendid wines is imminent from this area; the record is still spotty. But so it was in Tuscany as well: what began as a trickle in the mid-1970s became a flood in the 1990s. We may not have to wait two decades for this sort of improvement in central Italy, but neither will it be an overnight affair. Still, some very interesting new wines are beginning to appear. In other cases, producers in central Italy are consolidating the gains they have already made. Accordingly, this article focuses on the better wines that are now being made-in an overwhelming majority of cases those that merited scores of 85 or more points in my recent tastings-along with brief profiles of the wineries that produced them. Although these high-quality wines are still a minority in the overall picture, they are a harbinger of things to come.

A similar potential, at least in theory, exists in Abruzzo as well, but with the exception of Edoardo Valentini and a few lesser luminaries, this region seems to be dedicating its energiesto the production of bulk wine and, at the moment, is not participating in the overall quality improvement of the rest of Central Italy. Things are beginning to change, but the first results will probably not be seen for another two or three years; Abruzzo wines are therefore not part of this article.

Climate and terroir Any sort of extended analysis of an area so large would run the risk of excessive generality and abstraction. Suffice it to say that, in general, the climate is warm and dry and that there are plenty of slopes with excellent soils and expositions for vineyards. Italy best wines, in all cases, come from hillsides, at least partly due to the fact that higher positions offer some nighttime relief from the often stifling heat of an Italian summer, and this coolness is essential in conserving bouquet and acidity. There are, in any case, no Italian equivalents of the Medoc or Chateauneuf-du-Pape, zones with little elevation which nonetheless yield superior wines.

Grape varieties. In terms of grape varieties, there are some resemblances between Tuscany and the area immediately to the south. Sangiovese is very widely planted, as are, alas, trebbiano and malvasia for the white wines. But here the three regions begin to diverge. The northern part of Umbria is relatively cool (Orvieto, for example, has always been an area for white wine), at least partly due to the influence of wind currents and to the presence of a large lake, Lake Trasimeno. Antinori, to cite just one producer, has experimented with cabernet in this part of the region and, although the grapes ripened, the resulting wines did not have the intensity of superior Tuscan cabernet. Chardonnay and merlot seem to do very well here, the latter often bottled on its own but at times used in attractive blends with sangiovese. Further to the south, in the province of Terni, cabernet does very well indeed, as does montepulciano, though little wine from this latter variety is currently being produced. The striking hill town of Montefalco deserves a brief mention on its own: here sangiovese seems able to give Tuscany's finest examples of this variety a real run for their money, and sagrantino, the town's indigenous grape, has given remarkable results in the 1990s-wines of truly uncommon power, structure, and character.

There is much sangiovese in the Marches as well, but most of the vineyards, planted in the '60s and '70s with questionable genetic material, yield wines of erratic quality. But the occasional satisfying bottle suggests that, with better clones and (above all) less abundant production, sangiovese could do much better than it is currently doing. Fortunately, the Marches have some very interesting alternatives to fall back on. Montepulciano, a grape perhaps better identified with the Abruzzo, also seems able to give high-level results, and the improvement in the better bottles from the Rosso Conero zone has been dramatic in recent years. Americans who have tasted too many bottles of anodyne, characterless verdicchio may find it hard to believe that this is a quality variety, but the fact is that verdicchio, when well cultivated and fermented, is a wine of real personality. Concentration and extract levels are high, and aromas, which can recall in a lower key both the light greenness (asparagus, bell peppers) of sauvignon blanc and the exotic spiciness of gewurztraminer, are intriguing. And the unusual combination of high pH and high acidity promises both smoothness and freshness, as well as some ageability in bottle. Here, too, there has been much improvement since the mid-'90s.

Latium's chief specialty has long been trebbiano- and malvasia-based white wines, but the bottom has now dropped out of this market, chiefly as a result of the totally anonymous character of the wines themselves. Some efforts are being made to regroup, but no clear trend has yet emerged. Suffice it to say that sangiovese and montepulciano offer some promise in scattered areas and that Bordeaux varieties are beginning to give interesting results.

Readers are likely to note that many of these wines, particularly those from Umbria and Latium, do not carry any appellation tag. The D.O.C. regulations, laid down during a period when quantity was far more important than quality, often lag behind the wines themselves. Estate owners here have more or less had to make up their own rules if they wanted to achieve a certain level of recognition. Just as in Tuscany, the first important bottles from many of these producers are frequently being marketed as IGT wines [Indicazione Geografica Tipica, a somewhat more specific designation than vino da tavola], a fact that unlikely to disturb more discerning wine drinkers.

Recent vintages. 1995 and 1997 were mostly high level, with 1994 and 1996 giving less consistent results, the former due to excessive heat and lack of rainfall, the latter to September rain. The one exception is the Marches, where 1995 was generally less successful than in Umbria or in Tuscany. But 1997 seems first-rate throughout this part of Italy and, with the greater commitment to quality by producers, should serve as an excellent introduction to the wines of Italy's central belt.

The role of consulting enologists. A relatively small number of consulting enologists has had a dramatic impact on Central Italy's wines in the 1990s. Many object to the importance given to their work, claiming that this sort of attention is to the detriment of terroir and other important issues, not least of which is the commitment of the producer. Perhaps. But the fact of the matter is that without their abilities, progress would have been far more halting and uncertain. Riccardo Cotarella is undoubtedly the major protagonist: now in his early 50s, he toiled manfully in the late 1970s and 1980s, doing the best he could under the circumstances. He was ready for bigger and better things but the producers-in many cases large cooperatives-were not. But in the 1990s his profound technical capacities and extensive wine culture, along with those of brother Renzo, have changed the face of a large part of Central Italy. Matura, a group of talented young enologists, all from Tuscany, is also worth citing: Attilio Pagli, Alberto Antonini and Paolo Cacciorgna. And a final mention should go to Fabrizio Ciufoli of Umbria, whose work at Boccadigabbia in the Marches has been exemplary.