Beyond Orvieto: Rediscovering Umbrian Wines

published Jan 20, 2011
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Following on my resolution to enjoy lots of different wines in 2011, this week I delved into Umbria – a somewhat underappreciated central Italian wine region. Located next door to Tuscany, Umbria has long remained in the shadow of its more illustrious neighbor. How high up is Umbria on your wine radar?

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Many of you might say, “Not high at all.” But what if I had asked, “Have you heard of Orvieto?” I am sure most would have said, “Of course.” Many of us cut our teeth on Italian whites with a glass of inexpensive Orvieto. While Orvieto remains the most important DOC wine from Umbria, there are lots of other exciting wines, both red and white, that are waiting to be discovered.

Umbria is one of Italy’s smallest regions and is the only Italian region to be totally surrounded by Italy! Every other Italian region either touches the sea or another country. It is also quite sparsely populated, because the Apennine Mountains cover a lot of the area. While it might appear remote and rural it is very easily accessible, being between two and three hours drive from Rome or Florence.

Umbria: A Land of Remarkable Charm
What it lacks for in size it certainly compensates for with history and charm. Fortified ancient hilltop Etruscan towns such as Orvieto, Perugia and Assisi are a wonder to explore. I first visited Umbria in 2004 for my sister-in-law Ruth’s wedding . I was absolutely taken aback by the beauty and sense of calm and tranquility. While much of the trip was taken up by the wonderful wedding festivities, I did manage to sneak in a few winery and vineyard visits to Lungarotti and Arnaldo Caprai – two of Umbria’s most highly regarded wine producing families. During these visits I rediscovered many delicious white wines beyond Orvieto, as well as developing a better appreciation for their deeply colored, tannic Sagrantino wines.

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The Grapes and Wines
For whites Grechetto is the most important variety in terms of quality and capable of making fairly full-bodied, textured wines. Other white varieties include Trebbiano, Malvasia, Verdello and Canaiolo Bianco.

Orvieto is a blend of these varieties, with Trebbiano usually taking the lead place (up to 65%) alongside smaller amounts of Malvasia, Grechetto, Verdello and Canaiolo Bianco. There are two types of Orvieto wines – regular DOC Orvieto and DOC Orvieto Classico, coming from the best sites in the heartland of the region. For the most part Orvieto wines are fairly light-bodied and easy-drinking wine. Admittedly, there is a lot of forgettable Orvieto produced, but there are many extremely quality-conscious producers worth seeking out. Also look for the Classico wines, many of which are made using a higher proportion of the nobler Grechetto grape.

Apart from in Orvieto, Grechetto appears in the more interesting, but smaller DOCs of Torgiano, Colli di Assisi, Colli Martani and Colli Amerini as well as in an increasing number of regional IGT Umbria wines. As these wines become more available in the US, it is worthwhile to seek them out.

For red wines, Umbria’s gift to the world has to be Sagrantino. Sagrantino has been cultivated in Umbria, especially around the area of Montefalco (located east of Perugia) since the Middle Ages. Thick skinned, the wines are dark, full bodied and tannic. Traditionally Sagrantino wines were sweet – a passito style, which helped balance the tannins. It was really only in the 1990’s that we began to see dry Sagrantino wines, pioneered by leading winemaker Marco Caprai.

Over the past 15 years dry Sagrantino wines have made such progress that the Sagrantino de Montefalco appellation has been elevated to DOCG status and have developed somewhat of a cult following, due to their relative scarcity. So they can be quite pricey ($50-$70 and upwards) to buy for regular consumption. But these wines are definitely wonderful to enjoy with a special meal, as a gift or indeed to cellar up to 15 years.

For those of us on more modest budgets, there are the delicious Rosso di Montefalco wines. These wines are made predominantly from Sangiovese alongside Sagrantino from younger vines. The appellation also allows for up to 15% of other permitted red varieties. More traditionalists tend to stick to the duo of Italian varieties while modernists more often include some international varieties like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines typically retail for about $20.

Other important red wines come from the renowned area of Torgiano, which is south of Perugia. These red wines are typically blends of Sangiovese and Canaiolo Nero and include the DOC Torgiano as well as the DOCG Torgiano Riserva. Lungarotti is the most renowned producer in the Torgiano area have been largely responsible for putting and keeping Torgiano on the world of top wine regions.

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Some Delicious Umbrian Wines To Try

2008 Arnaldo Caprai Grecante Grechetto, Colli Martani DOC, $20 – Very minerally nose with hints of wild flowers and citrus fruit. Very refreshing and juicy with a moderately-rich texture. Strong minerality follows through across the palate alongside delicious stone and citrus fruit and a hint of dried herbs.

2006 Lungarotti, Torre di Giano Bianco di Torgiano DOC , $16 – Another mineral driven wine against a backdrop of bright fruit. Smooth, nice palate weight, medium-bodied. Quite delicious.

2009 Orvieto Classico Superiore “Castagnolo”, Barberani, $15 – A very delightful example of what Orvieto can achieve. This one is based on Grechetto alongside Malvasia Trebbiano and Verdelho. Quite pretty aromas and flavors showing spring flowers, yellow plums and pear. Crisp and dry with nuances of spice and dried herbs finish.

2008 Paolo Bea Santa Chiara Bianco, IGT Umbria, $45 – Blend of Garganega, Grechetto, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The Santa Chiara wine from the Paolo Bea winery is fermented in stainless steel and left to ferment on the lees for almost a year which gives it wonderful texture. Layers of aroma, stone fruit, fig with mineral and floral notes. Lively and refreshing with great depth of flavor and very long finish. Expensive but worth it for a special splurge occasion.

2007 Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Rosso DOC, $23 – 70% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino and 15% Merlot. Wonderful subtle but intense aromas of wild dried cherry, plums, forest fruit and hints of vanilla, spice, tobacco and warm earth. Medium-bodied with lovely bright fruit flavors that linger. Smooth with well-structured tannins giving just the right amount of grip.

2005 Lungarotti Rubesco, Rosso di Torgiano, $15 – A blend of 70% Sangiovese and 30% Caniolo Nero. Probably Lungarotti’s most internationally well-known wine. Juicy, packed with bright ripe black fruit – plums, dark cherry, hints of warm spices, earth and dried herbs. A great value red.

2004 Arnaldo Caprai Collepiano Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG, $60 – Made entirely form Sagrantino this is a wonderful expression of the grape. Traditionally made with a long maceration period, this wine is deep, brooding, drawing you in with every sip. It is complex with layers of aromas and flavor. Well balanced this is a big, structured, powerful wine, yet retains a sense of elegance. Best to decant a few hours before enjoying.

Until next week enjoy!

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She hold the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

(Images: Mary Gorman and producer websites)