The Other Italy - Umbria: Getting out of Tuscany's Shadow

Oct 2, 2009

Umbria's narrow streets like cisterns
that stop up ancient time tasting of sweet wine,

Adam Jagajewski 'To See'

Let’s face it a book called Under the Umbrian Sun would cause more confusion than inspire sales. Tuscany exudes the romance many travelers need when they imagine Italy. Umbria (or, for some, ‘Tuscany without the coast’), unfortunately doesn’t have the same tourist-attracting panache as its western neighbor. For those with Florence and Sienna in mind, the capital of the region, Perugia sounds to most North Americans like something you spread on a pizza as opposed to a place to visit.

But there’s more to this landlocked landscape. I won’t use the term ‘diamond in the rough’ but it is a wine region that needs a little bit more time to ferment attraction and attention.

Umbria is the 4th smallest of Italy’s 20 regions in terms of physical size and population. With Tuscany to the north and west, Marche and the Apennines to the east and Lazio to the south, Umbria is completely surrounded by Italian neighbors – unlike other regions that share a border or seaway with another country.

Named for the Umbri tribes who settled in the region around the 6th century B.C., the area is largely mountainous. Archaeological finds in the region indicate there was a wine culture existing before the Romans. The Romans loved Umbrian wines which at the time were mainly white with some reds and rosés.

Monastery in Assisi
One of the main tourist attractions is the town of Assisi, birthplace of St. Francis who founded the Franciscan Order there in 1208. The other town of interest is -

During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the town of Orvieto became a highly reputed artistic centre. It was in Orvieto cathedral, during the late 14th century, that Ugolino di Prete Ilario began to paint the Life of the Virgin, a wall mosaic in the apse illustrating various scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary (Ugolino died before it was completed; his students Pintuiricchio and Antonio Viterbo finished the piece.)
Life of the Virgin

The work compliments Ugolino’s other famous masterpiece, Miracle of Bolsena, a series of scenes depicting Christ’s passion also painted in the cathedral in the Cappella (Chapel) del Corporale. Michealangelo is said to have been influenced by these works when he painted his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.

The wine of Orvieto could then be the liquid artistic equivalent of the great Italian masterpieces and architecture of Umbria. During the twelfth century, the various popes who came to admire Ugolino’s work, summered at Lake Corbara where they drank this thick, sweet wine from Orvieto. The sweetness was achieved by storing the grapes in humid caves following the harvest. While waiting to be pressed, the grapes would get moldy, the Noble Rot then would concentrate the fruit flavours.

The famed poet, Gabriele D‘Annunzio called the wine ‘the sun of Italy in a bottle’.

Town of Orvieto with Cathedral in the far right corner
Today, the town of Orvieto continues to rest remote and timeless on its ancient hilltop. The wines of the area have become more modern in style. The majority of these whites are invariably secco (dry) and commonly exported to the North American market. However, if you happen to visit Italy, and make your way into Umbria, you may even be able to track down an Abboccato style (slightly sweet), an Amabile (semi-sweet) and a Dolce (sweet) in some grocery store or wine shop.

Orvieto, like Chianti in nearby Tuscany, is a blend of grapes. The predominant is Trebbiano, known locally as Procanico. The other varieties include: Verdello, Grechetto, Drupeggio and/or Malvasia Toscana. Wine produced around the historical area of Orvieto can be called ‘Classico’ because they are the original vineyard sites for this wine.

Today, there is a new Orvieto emerging in the form of an Orvietano Rosso, a red blend from numerous grapes including a 70% mix of Aleatico, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Canaiolo (used in Chianti), Ciliegiol, Merlot, Montepulciano (famous in Abruzzo), Pinot Nero (also known as Italian Pinot Noir) and Sangiovese; and up to 30% Barbera and Dolcetto (both grown in Piedmont), Cesanese, and Colorino. Whewww!... A lot of grapes but the region is growing more potential.

Sagrantino is considered the new star grape in the Italian world of winemaking grown particularly in Montefalco. Recently, Sagrantino di Montefalco was elevated to DOCG status in the mid-1990s. The grape is often blended with Sangiovese. Nicolas Belfrage in his book, Brunello to Zibibbo believes the latter grape has a better ‘affinity’ with Sagrantino than the French varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

The grape has been in the area for a considerably long time. Some believe it dates back to the Roman times, the Itriola grape mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. Others suggest it was originally from the Middle East and brought to the region via Spain. Franciscan monks from the Middle Ages are rumoured to have first planted the variety. Whatever the story, Sagrantino has a strong presence in Central Italy.

Despite the size of its small berries and bunches, it is big in other ways including colour, acid, sugars, tannin, extract and sugar. Like the Corvina grape used to make Valpolicella, it has contributed to making and still to some extent today, semi-sweet wines. The grapes, like we find in Amarone and Ripasso were dried and pressed. Traditionally, the wines were consumed for special occasions like Lent. With 30-100 grammes of residual sugar per litre, it was far too massive of a wine used for mass (although the name Sagrantino or sacramento - ‘sacramental’ - suggests a different story).

Up until the end of the 20th century, Sagrantino remained under the radar. It was until the 1990s that the Arnaldo Caprai winery helped to create renewed interest in the variety. Arnaldo and his son Marco, with the help of wine maker Attilio Pagli experimented with the variety, modernized and reorganized their winery and launched this little-known, small-berried grape onto the world stage. The results have all been positive.

Orvieto and Montefalco are places beyond the usual tourist-beaten path. Their wines have a quiet romanticism simply worth seeking out, from the chilling and beautiful lemon-citrus of the dry white (sometimes sweet) to the full-bodied bosom of the red. These wines exude (and I'm sure D'Annunzio would agree) the true Umbrian sun.

Bastianich, Joseph & David Lynch, Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. Clarkson Potter, New York, 2005.
Belfrage, Nicolas, Brunello to Zibibbo: The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2001. Cernilli, Daniele & Marco Sabellico, The New Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2008.
Clark, Oz, 2009 Pocket Wine Guide. Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, 2008.
Insight Guides, ed. Insight Guides Italy, 6th Edition. London, 2009.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


ANNOUNCEMENT: Happy b-day Pete Magreet


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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