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For some years now, Umbria has been turning into one of Italy's most innovative wine laboratories: hardly anywhere else are young producers and modern wineries experimenting so carefree with new methods and old grape varieties. Markus Blaser was able to witness the progress in four wine-growing regions.

The driving force behind the emancipation of Umbria is the Montefalco Consortium under its enthusiastic president Giampaolo Tabarrini. There, the focus is on the single-varietal Sagrantino. This variety, which is grown almost exclusively here, has always been about taming the powerful tannin in the deep red and alcohol-rich wine. In the meantime, a growing number of winegrowers are succeeding better and better. New wineries in particular are using the leeway offered by the production regulations (37 months of ageing, twelve of which in wood and four in the bottle) in a variety of creative ways.

At a glance: More than 300 wines from Umbria at the tasting

Sagrantino vineyard with a view of Montefalco and the Apennines in the background

Markus Blaser

At just 29 years old, Luca di Tomaso is the youngest winemaker in the bunch. His Sagrantino comes along quite structured with 30 months of ageing in used tonneaux, although Luca does not aim for a strong wood imprint and therefore also uses cement tanks. But the available quantities do not fill large barrels everywhere, as is the case at Agricola Mevante by Paolo and Antonella Presciutti. The siblings produce a well-balanced, classic-modern Sagrantino with 24 months of wood ageing.

Ilaria Cocco 's Sagrantino spends only 18 months in wood, the rest in steel and also in cement. She manages to keep the tannins in check with a crisp acidity, which makes the Sagrantino seem downright elegant. All three wineries have only emerged in the past decade and are among the promising newcomers in Montefalco that deserve attention.

Orvieto: the soil makes the difference

In terms of volume, Orvieto is much more important than Montefalco. More than half of the wine produced in Umbria comes from this growing region. White wines must consist of at least 60 percent Grechetto and Trebbiano Toscano, which is called Procanico here. A maximum of 40 percent may be added from other white varieties. Given these open specifications, the identity of Orvieto lies in its diversity, at least in its dry version.

In the future, however, the four different soil types in the growing area could point the way, as a tasting organised by the Orvieto Consortium shows. The differences between the dry Orvieto Classico from volcanic, sandy, clay and alluvial soils are indeed astonishing. However, they are not easily discernible in all wines, because the young, emphatically fresh Orvieto Classico from important producers are cuvées.

The fact that there is no lack of know-how and quality is shown by the example of Cardèto, as the winery cooperative founded in 1949 has called itself since 2005. Today, the grapes from around 500 hectares of the approximately 80 members are processed in state-of-the-art facilities and three million bottles are produced annually. The Orvieto Classico with the skyline on the label definitely shows its own character.

This also applies in a different way to the Orvieto Classico Superiore "Panata" from Argillae. The name of the winery says it all, as the vines here mostly thrive on clay soils, which give the wine a certain structure. That is why the young Giulia Bonollo, who has been running the winery owned by the well-known grappa dynasty since 2015, dares to ferment a small part of the Grechetto for her top Orvieto in wood, which makes the wine particularly different from other Orvieto.

Almost an antithesis to this is the Orvieto Classico Superiore "L'Escluso" by Lapone from the steel tank. For the winemakers, the flint note indicates the volcanic rock on which the vineyards stand. For a long time, Piero and Ramona Cantarelli delivered their grapes to a large winery, but they have only been vinifying themselves for a good ten years.

The "wrong" Gamay from Trasimeno

Compared to Orvieto, the wine-growing region around Lake Trasimeno is a dwarf. About ten times less wine is produced by the only 15 wineries of the Trasimeno Consortium, which had invited to a presentation of their treasure for the first time: the Gamay. In fact, it is the Grenache grape variety, which arrived here in the 19th century at the latest and was originally raised as a sapling (alberello) in the French style.

The Trasimeno Gamay also shows itself as a rosé in many facets

Markus Blaser

This is said to have led to the confusion of names, which was nevertheless adhered to when the variety was added to the national register in 1970. This is why Gamay is produced exclusively on Lago di Trasimeno. Unlike its Sardinian brothers Cannonau - as Grenache is called there - Gamay is not extremely dark and heavy, but rather ruby red and elegant. With its certain complexity, the Trasimeno Gamay is a serious red wine that you would hardly have come across like this ten years ago.

Until recently, Gamay was on the verge of disappearing, and the Duca della Corgna winery cooperative has saved it from disappearance by producing a single-varietal wine. Their Trasimeno Gamay Divina Villa (white label) from the steel tank, with its red-berry freshness, may well be considered a benchmark to which other winemakers orientate themselves - also in order to set themselves apart. Since his first experiments in 2008, Nicola Chiucchiurlotto from Madrevite has also relied on pure vinification for all his wines, but often prefers cement to steel tanks. His Gamay Opra is comparatively dark, blueberry-fruity and yet fresh and light.

Coldibetto 's Gamay E-trusco from the steel tank is dark cherry-red in colour, smells of pickled sour cherries and impresses with its crisp tannins. With this organic wine, the young Raffaele Chierico won a gold medal at the international Grenaches du Monde 2021 competition. Yet the 27-year-old only discovered his vocation for viticulture after missionary and language stays in Bolivia and England, before he took over the management of the family business in 2016.

Torgiano: The influence of large and small woods

Torgiano was long considered synonymous with Lungarotti. Thanks to Giorgio Lungarotti, the doyen of the well-known wine house, the small growing area south of Perugia was recognised as one of Italy's first controlled designations of origin as early as 1968. However, many people are more familiar with the wine name Rubesco, which was carefully modified by the daughters Chiara and Teresa after Giorgio's death at the turn of the millennium: Since then, the Sangiovese has been blended with Colorino instead of Canaiolo, and the one-year ageing in large wooden barrels has been retained. Resisting the enthusiasm for barriques at the time has paid off today: The Rubesco has become more modern and, with its balance between fresh fruit and fine tannin, has remained a classic food companion.

Astonishingly versatile production in the small Torgiano growing region

Markus Blaser

Apart from Lungarotti, three other farms have dedicated themselves to wine production in addition to grape production for some years now. The pleasing Umbrian dynamism has thus also taken hold of the small Torgiano consortium. In the meantime, the Rubesco has got competition that stands out quite clearly from it.

The fact that the wines at Terre Margaritelli are predominantly matured in small wooden barrels is probably in the family's DNA. They have been producing railway sleepers and parquet flooring for decades, among others in Burgundy. There, a collaboration with some of the most renowned cooperages in France was established. The barriques made of oak from the Bertranges forest give the Miràntico made of Sangiovese, Malbec and Canaiolo above all concentration, structure and power.

The small wood is also used at Tenute Baldo and brings to light intense wild berry fruit and crisp, grainy tannins in the Auravitae made from Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Torgiano wines like these are aimed at an audience that is just as curious and young as the team around Mattia Casini. They only took over the winery at the end of 2018 and are bursting with the joy of experimentation.

Like Lungarotti, Tenute Baldo also has vineyards in Montefalco - and this closes the circle: the fruit-driven Sagrantino of the newcomers is an innovative alternative to the structured Sagrantino of the traditional house. The resulting competition for contemporary wine style and timeless wine philosophy is not only good for the Umbrian wine scene. It is good for the whole of Italy.

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