Like many other things, the wines of Umbria exist mainly in the shadows of their Tuscan counterparts. This is perhaps all the better for those of us in the know as there is quite often a deal to be had. There is plenty to discover here and plenty to appeal to the wine romantics amongst us. Viticultural history here goes back to the Etruscan civilisations. The industry also thrived in the Middle Ages and while walking the medieval streets of Perugia, Assisi, Torgiano or Orvieto, one needs little help in imagining 12th century popes and aristocrats washing down a hearty meal with the local wines.
Surrounded on threes sides by the Apennine Mountains, Umbria shares many of the geographical and climatic characteristics so celebrated in Tuscany. Cool breezes come off the mountains to the east while the warming currents of the Mediterranean create excellent conditions for the ripening of grapes. Despite all this Indigenous white varieties such as Grecchetto, Trebbiano, Verdello and red varieties such as Sangiovese and Sagrantino are being joined by increasing plantings of Cabernet and Merlot. Despite this, eight of the thirteen DOCs in the region were created after 1980. We are still in the early days of modern Umbrian wine making.
For white wines look no further than the charming medieval town of Orvieto, perched majestically on a tuff cliff. It’s Gothic duomo, a one time summer retreat for the Papacy, makes for an impressive focal point. In recent decades though the wine of the same name has won as many enemies as it has friends, accused at times of being fairly innocuous and bland. But things are changing. Trebbiano, Grecchetto and a liberal amount of many other varieties are blended (according to the intricacies of the vintage) to produce a light and refreshing wine; Aromas of apple, melon and lemon grass in particular. It is true that these wines will never find themselves in the high echelons of the world’s white wine elite, but they should not be overlooked so hastily.
Sangiovese is by the far the most planted red variety in Umbria and by implication the wines often draw comparison with their Tuscan neighbours. Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG is one such Sangiovese based wine and shows cherry fruit aromas, with soft, supple red fruit flavours. The basic Torgiano DOC appellation allows for the production of several varietal wines, Cabernet Sauvignon for example or Pinot Nero.
It is hard to discuss the red wines of Umbria with any credibility without some praise for the cult wines of Montefalco. Sagrantino di Montefalco, course and ugly in youth but deep, complex and highly interesting in it’s senior years, is a wine not to ignore. Fill your cellars, be patient and then marvel as inky flavours of forest fruits merge with leather, charcoal and spice. It is only in these clay and limestone soils around the town of Montefalco that the temperamental Sagrantino grape grows. Just a mere 165 hectares or so are planted with the variety.
Few Umbrian brands have made much of a dent in the international consumers conscience, except perhaps Lungarotti, whose wines continue to improve and fly the flag, despite producing an eye watering 2 and a half million bottles annually. Smaller producers in Montefalco have made respectable names for themselves, Paolo Bea, Madonna Alta, Arnaldo Caprai and Rocco di Frabbri should all be tracked down.