Dubbed ‘the green heart of Italy” for its breathtaking biodiversity, the Umbria wine region stretches across rolling hills, wild forests, and pristine lakes bookended between the Apennine mountains.
The Italic peninsula’s only land-locked wine region borders Tuscany to the north, Marche to the east, and Lazio to the west. Settled by Etruscans millennia ago, a strong agricultural tradition underpins Umbria. But don’t let the ‘green acres’ vibe fool you. Under-the-radar Umbrian wines offer unexpected quality, diversity, and affordability.
“Umbria has a lot of things one might find in Tuscany, but it is wilder, less populated, more laid back, and less expensive!” says Tanya Morning Star of Cellar Muse, international wine educator, Vinitaly Italian Wine Ambassador, and Global Education Ambassador of Orvieto wines.
Currently, Umbria boasts 13 DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) and two DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata e garantita) wine regions, guarantors of wine quality. Amelia, Assisi, Colli Altotiberini,Trasimeno, Colli Martani, Colli Perugini, Lago di Corbara, Montefalco, Orvieto, Orvietano Rosso, Spoleto, Torgiano, and Todi rank as DOC’s; Montefalco Sagrantino and Torgiano Rosso Riserva as DOCG’s.
Umbria also encompasses four wine growing areas: Orvieto, Montefalco, Torgiano, and Trasimeno. Wine consortia oversee regulations, protect traditions, and spearhead marketing efforts in each region.
Many US consumers recognize the white wines of Orvieto made from Grechetto and Trebbiano, and the red wines of Montefalco made from Sangiovese and Sangrantino. However, that’s changing, region by region.
Located at the boundaries of Tuscany and Lazio, the tufa-escarved town of Orvieto overlooks the rolling Umbrian hills. Western-lying volcanics, eastern-flanking sands, a spine of alluvials, plus pockets of clay compose Umbria’s tessellated terroir.
“For me, the wine region of Orvieto represents beautifully the terroir diversity of Umbria, but also the general cultural juxtaposition between tradition and maverick innovation,” says Morning Star.
Orvieto produces 11 million bottles of wine annually. White wines predominate, most blended. Blending stems from Umbria’s ‘melting pot,’ fruit-exchanging history with neighbors Tuscany and Lazio. Regulations require a minimum blend of 60% Trebbiano (called Procanico locally) and Grechetto, the balance with thirty-plus approved varieties.
Popular styles include Orvieto DOC Classico, such as straw-robed, quaffable Ruffino, and Orvieto DOC Superiore, like Antinori San Giovanni Della Sala. (Superiore wines require 12% alcohol and an annual post-March 1st release date.)
But perhaps Orvieto’s most notable wine remains its least well-known, Muffa Nobile. Produced exclusively by winegrowers skirting eastern Lake Corbara, the lake’s fog helps develop botrytis on the grapes during late harvest.
Unfortunately, production remains small and expensive. Family-owned, bio-organic winery Barberani endures five to six passes each harvest to produce their honeyed ‘Calcaia Muffa Nobile’.
“There are very few places in the world historically well known for botrytis wine, like Sauternes in France,” says Giulia Di Cosimo, vice president of Consorzio Vini di Orvieto. “Muffa Nobile is a great champion of the area.”
Montefalco claims fame for two distinctly different Umbrian red wines. The first, silky Montefalco Rosso DOC, like that by Antonelli, incorporates a minimum of 70% Sangiovese, balanced by a blend of approved local and international grapes.
The second, tannic Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG, constitutes 100% Sagrantino.
Arnaldo Caprai’s Spinning Beauty produces one such grippy, structured, deeply concentrated version.
Torgiano perches south of Perugia, a walled town named for an adjacent medieval bell tower, “Torre di Giano,” or “Tower of Janus.”
Tiny Torgiano earned Umbria’s first DOC, Torgiano DOC, in 1968 with the help of local estate owner Dr. Giorgio Lungarotti. He also helped establish Umbria’s first DOCG, Torgiano Rosso Reserva DOCG, in 1991. Additionally, Lungarotti and his family founded renown Museo del Vino Torgiano wine museum in 1974.
Sands, loam, and clays, underscored by tufa and travertine deposits, comprise Torgiano’s soils. Approved varieties include Sangiovese, Canaiolo, and Montepulciano for reds, and Trebbiano, Grechetto, Vermentino and Chardonnay for whites. Representative wines include Tenute Baldo Auravitae Rosso di Torgiano DOC and Lungarotti Torgiano Rubesco Riserva DOCG.
In Perugia, Trasimeno contains Lake Trasimeno, Italy’s fourth largest lake. The lake brings gentle summer breezes and mild winters.
Consequently, agri-tourism abounds here. So does a drive to eliminate chemicals in the vineyards. Mostly family-owned, nearly 15 winemakers produce approximately 990,000 bottles of wine annually. “We find a lot of family-owned wineries and not a lot of international, non-local winemakers,” says Emanuele Bizzi, president of Consorzio Tutela Vini del Trasimeno. “This is important to have high quality in traditional winemaking.”
Trasimeno’s clay-rich, rocky soils, or galestro, yield minerally, concentrated wines. DOC Trasimeno Rosso from producers like Madrevite employ Sangiovese and Trasimeno Gamay. (Trasimeno Gamay arrived in the 1600s with the marriage of Spanish noble Eleanora Alarcòn y Mendoza to Trasimeno’s Duke Fulvio Della Corgna. Mis-translating monks scribed the grape, part of her dowry, as ‘gamay.’)
However, younger consumers increasingly clamor for fresh, lively Trasimeno Grechetto DOC like Montemelino, and DOC Trasimeno Rosato DOC by Podere Marella. “We concentrate on drinking these wines during the aperitivo, during sunset,” says Bizzi, “Which is our most convivial part of the day!”
Clearly, Umbrian wines overdeliver in quality, diversity, and affordability. “Umbria has a lot to discover in terms of wine styles,” concludes Morning Star. “The wines of Umbria are extremely affordable, and many are quite age-worthy.”