Umbria & Lazio: Italy’s Underdogs
BY ERIC GUIDO | AUGUST 19, 2021
From a geographical and varietal point of view, Umbria and Lazio make strange bedfellows, yet they share one thing that keeps them grouped together in my mind: they are the two Italian regions that receive significantly less credit than they deserve. When we think of Umbria, there are only two or three producers that most consumers can recall. In addition, Sagrantino, the red grape Umbria is known for, tends to intimidate people because of its imposing structure.
As for Lazio, I doubt the average wine lover can name even a single local variety. However, the work that producers are doing with Cesanese is absolutely worth paying attention to. When it comes to value, both regions offer that in spades. There’s a newfound energy here, higher-quality winemaking, and a focus on terroir that I’ve never witnessed before in either Umbria or Lazio. It’s only so long until word gets out. Frankly, these are two of the most exciting winemaking regions in Italy today.
The Tabarrini vineyards in Umbria.
Umbria: Beyond the Expected
The landlocked region of Umbria and its winemakers are surrounded by some pretty serious competition. With Tuscany to the northwest, Marche to the northeast, Lazio to the southwest and Abruzzo extremely close in the southeast, Umbria has to compete with the ever-popular Sangiovese, Aglianico and Montepulciano grapes found throughout those neighboring regions.
When it comes to wine, Orvieto and Montefalco Sagrantino remain the two principal categories, but the region has a lot more to offer than most people realize. For one thing, Umbria has taken production of Sangiovese-based Rossos to a new level. These wines are most often blended with a dollop of Sagrantino to add a bit of regional character, or with Montepulciano, another Italian favorite. Paolo Bea’s San Valentino and Riserva Pipparello will make you a believer in this blend. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot occasionally appear in certain Rossos as well, yet I’m happy to say that the percentage of international varieties has been in decline. In a few cases, I’ve even witnessed some Barbera being added to the mix by producers like Tabarrini and Plani Arche, really adding a spicy kick to these vibrant reds. While world-class, 100% Sangioveses are still far from common here, I have the impression that their day will come. Another fun addition to the red varietal wines of Umbria is Ciliegiolo, a grape that is most often seen in Tuscany’s Maremma. However, there are producers in Umbria, like Leonardo Bussoletti, who are convinced that Ciliegiolo deserves its own spotlight. From my tastings, the results seem pretty promising. White varieties, such as Trebbiano Spoletino, Grechetto di Todi and Grechetto di Orvieto are now receiving more attention by a larger number of winemakers. Umbria is exploding with exciting new wines, and even the producers that are steeped in the classics of Orvieto and Montefalco are happily experimenting outside their comfort zones.
Circling back to Orvieto, the denomination is shared between both regions, the Classico zone, is entirely located in Umbria, but wineries in a small northeastern segment of Lazio are also able to use the DOC. Only a small representation of producers made it into this report; however, those that did are turning out something really special. Orvieto may be one of Umbria’s best-known categories, but due to overproduction, low-quality standards and the overuse of international varieties, the wines have simply lost favor with wine buyers. The good news is that a small number of winemakers in the region are determined to show that, in the right hands, and with a focus on regional varieties, Orvieto deserves more attention. Good examples are balanced, plush and jovial expressions, often blending Grechetto, Procanico, Verdello and Malvasia; although you will still find Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier sparingly mixed in by some wineries. Producers like Palazzone, Decugnano dei Barbi and Antinori’s Castello della Sala all had strong showings, as did Barberani, who believes very deeply in the importance of Grechetto and produces an Orvieto that is not only excellent upon release, but also has the potential to improve with cellaring. Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention the region's ability to attain a healthy onset of noble rot (Botrytis cinerea) due to its proximity to Lake Corbara, as well as the Tiber and Paglia rivers. It’s because of this that these same producers excel with their dessert wines.
There's a lot more to Umbria Rossos than just Sagrantino.
Last but not least is Montefalco Sagrantino. Which should be the best but too often falls just short of its potential. Even though many of the Umbria Rossos that I mentioned earlier in this piece are produced here, the primary topic of conversation in Montefalco is Sagrantino. Montefalco (“falcon mountain”) sits in a basin, surrounded by the Apennine mountains. The soils are rich in clay with a mix of sand and limestone. However, as you push into higher elevations, rising up to 1,500 feet, you’ll also find clay-calcrete, an almost-cement-like blend of clay, gravel, sand and silt. The region is warm (some would say too warm in recent vintages), but it benefits from moderating winds coming down from the Apennines, along with Mediterranean influences carried across the Tiber River. This harsh climate is the home of Sagrantino, a grape renowned for its deep red color but also for its powerful tannins, which can be difficult to tame. Going back centuries, Sagrantino’s first leading role was in the production of sweet wines, where its power and broad tannins would be balanced by rich textures and riper fruit developed through appassimento (air-drying the grapes).
In an attempt to make Sagrantino more palatable for the average consumer or international wine lover, the majority of winemakers began to age their wines in new oak, a practice that, for the most part, continues to this day. In the right hands, the end result is a dark, burly, powerful wine that has softened the blow of Sagrantino’s naturally high tannins yet enshrouded it in a veil of oaky spice and opulence that still requires a decade or two to integrate. In less skilled hands, the full-throttle, big fruit and tannins of Sagrantino, together with poor oak management, create wines that are nearly Port-like in their intensity, soupy instead of elegant, and unlikely to ever achieve balance. The problem is that the latter case is the most typical expression throughout the region. This makes buying a Sagrantino a bit risky for the average consumer. Going back only 10 years, my personal approach to the region was to overlook the majority of producers and stick with the benchmark, quality-minded Arnaldo Caprai for internationally-styled Sagrantino, or the totally opposite stylings of Giampiero Bea, who employs an uber-natural approach of nothing added and nothing taken away from what Mother Nature intended. The good news is that today that list has grown to include many producers who have taken a serious interest in refining their practices, studying their terroir and creating Montefalco Sagrantinos that really can compete on the world stage. These are still big, tannic wines that need time to resolve, yet the purity of fruit and stamp of terroir that I’m now finding in the wines of Antonelli San Marco, Bocale, Montioni, Tabarrini and Fongoli are worthy of the praise that they received in my recent reviews. In the end, it’s only so long before Montefalco Sagrantino gets the credit it deserves.
The original old-vines planted by the Prince of Venosa, in the Alberico vineyards.
Lazio: Full of Potential
If I was tasked to offer one region from Italy that offers unlimited potential, tremendous value and romantic stories (wine lovers need those) and still flies comfortably under the radar, it would be Lazio. However, if you asked me which of their three DOCGs or 27 DOCs is the one category to keep a close eye on, I’d explain that other than the three Cesaneses (more about them below), you might be better off looking elsewhere. As sad as this might sound, this is the ever-changing world of wine that we’re talking about, and the reality is that what’s most interesting about Lazio today, beyond Cesanese, are the producers that are using the Lazio IGTs, with their looser regulations and varied list of accepted varieties, to create many of the region’s most exciting wines. (Keep in mind that there was a time when Tuscany had a very similar situation.) The problem is that even with all of the producers in Lazio turning out amazing varietal Cesanese, or the few Frascati producers bottling Malvasia Puntinata into something altogether different from the bulk-produced versions that adorn tourists’ tables throughout the region, a lot of wine made in Lazio is still low-quality, high-production and unworthy of serious attention. Unless, of course, you’re in the market for amazingly fresh, crisp and quaffable white wine for summer sipping - Lazio certainly has plenty of those.
As I mentioned previously, Lazio has the potential to be great, though at present there are only a small number of producers who are actually contributing to improving the region’s reputation, and even fewer being exported beyond its borders. Considering Lazio’s location gives us a good idea of what’s possible. Tuscany sits on its northern border, along with Umbria to the northeast. You’d be hard-pressed while driving down A1 through these three regions to notice much of a change in landscape. As we get close to the center of Lazio, arriving in Rome, Italy’s capital, we find Abruzzo to the east, along with the ever-present spine of the Apennines. The hilly landscape you’re now traveling through has more of a volcanic origin, with steeper elevations and fertile, well-draining tufa, rich in calcium and potassium. Following this volcanic train of thought, and continuing south, we arrive in Campania. Through all of this, Lazio benefits from the moderating effects of the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west. It isn’t hard to imagine a burgeoning region in the making, which is exactly what a number of younger winemakers are banking on, turning around their families’ farms, once geared toward large production to be shipped off to co-ops, and beginning to bottle their own wines.
The SIlene vineyard of Damiano Ciolli in Lazio.
This brings me back to Cesanese - the variety and the three growing areas that produce it, Cesanese del Piglio, Cesanese di Olevano Romano and Cesanese d’Affile. In my opinion, if Lazio has a future in creating world-class red wine from an indigenous variety, then Cesanese is the one. This late-ripening red grape offers up a gorgeous, perfumed bouquet of dark fruits mixed with wild herbs, florals and spices, as well as the structure to carry them in the cellar. Truly exciting examples are out there, yet only in small quantities and a bit difficult to find. Producers such as Damiano Ciolli, Abbia Nòva, Corte dei Papi and Maria Ernesta Berucci are just a few that submitted outstanding versions. Otherwise, when it comes to red wine, Lazio continues to excel with international varieties, which the region has a long history with. Here we find a small number of quality-minded producers that are bottling some amazing examples of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Even though they may seem expensive for Lazio wines, they actually represent amazing value when compared to their competition across the border in Tuscany.
As for white varieties, the potential is there, but not yet realized in any significant way. Bellone and Malvasia del Lazio, otherwise known as Malvasia Puntinata, are the two local varieties that could one day prove their worth outside of Lazio’s borders, but beyond that, you quickly find yourself presented with examples of Sémillon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Aside from a few standout producers, I wasn’t thrilled with the majority of white wines submitted from Lazio. Even so, tasting through the wines of Lazio for this article provided a lot of satisfying experiences. Consumers just need to know where to look. I hope that the tasting notes in this report are a great place to start.
It’s important to keep in mind that although Umbria and Lazio are attached, further north Umbria is more affected by the alpine influences of the Apennines and much less by the sea, whereas Lazio’s vintages are often more similar to southern Tuscany.
Older vintages at Colli di Catone resting in the traditional manner of the region, covered in sand.
Montefalco Sagrantino & Rosso
Since the required time prior to release of Montefalco is 37 months, many of the wines in this article are 2015s, 2016s and 2017s, so I thought a short rundown on these vintages would be helpful. As a general guide, 2015 was a warm vintage for Montefalco, with well-timed rains throughout and a healthy harvest. The wines show a lovely freshness, which, combined with the riper fruit, makes for an excellent contrast to Sagrantino’s grippy tannins. There’s a lot to like in these wines. In 2016 the region was faced with a generally warm season, which was aided by spring rains that built up water reserves, as well as periodic precipitation throughout the summer months and into the early fall, which helped to regulate ripening and maintain fresh acidities. The late-ripening Sagrantino enjoyed an extended growing season under ideal fall conditions. In 2017 Montefalco experienced a very hot and dry growing season that was also heavily affected by a late spring frost. Rains in the early fall helped to regulate ripening to a certain degree, yet not enough to put the season completely back on schedule. Ultimately, production is down as much as 40%. There will be some successful wines from this vintage, as producers in Montefalco have started to better understand how to endure through warm years; but expect a more balsamic or jammy character in general.
There's a noticeable uptick in quality throughout Montefalco as names, both old and new, start to make an impact.
A More General View of Umbria and Lazio
Trying to nail down the 2018 vintage is actually quite difficult through much of central Italy. Traveling from one town to the next, you receive completely different reports regarding the temperatures and amount of precipitation. Two-thousand eighteen was generally a problematic vintage no matter where you look, but that’s not to say that there aren’t some excellent wines. The key to success was time in the vineyards and selection. The year started off cool, yet with a steady amount of rain, which began in the late spring and continued through much of the summer months, slowing vegetative growth. This, coupled with the warmth of July and August, also added a risk of rot among the bunches. In the end, production was down by as much as 30% as producers worked to bring in only healthy fruit. Dry whites offer pretty aromatic profiles and enough acidity to carry them, while the reds, though perfumed and fruity, can often show an unbalanced tannic structure and sometimes a bit of greenness.
The 2019 vintage couldn’t have been more different than 2018. The winter was mild, followed by a cooler-than-average spring with frequent rainfall. This combination delayed flowering and fruit set. Toward the end of May, conditions improved drastically, with warm, dry days and fresh, cool evenings. Even through the warmer summer months, especially in August, as temperatures reached their peak, the buildup of water reserves in the soil kept the vines healthy. Ideal conditions continued through harvest, delivering perfectly ripe fruit; both white and red varieties were widely successful. There was also a healthy onset of Botrytis cinerea throughout the Orvieto region of Umbria.
The 2020 vintage is generally very good, yet it had its challenges. The year started out cool and rainy through the winter months. With spring came milder temperatures and dryer weather, accompanied by a balanced amount of precipitation. Budding was earlier than usual. The first significant challenges of the year arrived in July and August, which were two very hot months. Well-timed rains in August helped maintain some freshness. A number of producers spoke of leaving a much thicker canopy on the vines as a means of shading the fruit from the sun. In September, more mild weather set in, helping to extend the season even further, and this was coupled with ideal amounts of rainfall. As a result, the 2020 vintage yielded very healthy, fully mature grapes for both red and white varieties. The wines are undeniably elegant, with balanced acids and ripe tannins. If anything, I feel that the 2020s are a small step behind the 2019s in terms of classicism and balance, but they will be widely appealing and enjoy open and broad drinking windows.
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