Each month Tina Morey from Protocol Wine Studio leads a group of wine writers on a virtual tasting tour of a fascinating wine region. From one month to the next, she and a rotating cast of importers, winemakers, educators, and wine travel specialists explain what makes a given region special: grape varieties, winemaking styles, local culture and history. It’s a great way to engage with other wine lovers, exchanging observations and opinions on everything from possible food pairings to the distinctive aromas of each wine. During the month of August, Tina and her panel of experts escort us through the undiscovered Italian regions of Le Marche and Umbria – and I’m lucky enough to be part of it! We gather Tuesday evenings at 9 pm EDT for a live chat on Twitter, using #winestudio to follow the conversation. If you haven’t yet experienced a live Twitter chat, you’re in for a treat. Participants join the discussion from all over the country, with a few even chiming in from abroad.
This is the first of two posts on my virtual wine odyssey, and it takes us through the vineyards of Le Marche. My second post, which should be available in a few days, will showcase the unique appeal of Umbria. So, off we go, to Central Italy!
To date in Wine Studio, we’ve delved into the secrets of Le Marche (pronounced MAR-KAY), which is located southeast of Tuscany, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. The region takes its name from the word marchese, the Italian word for a nobleman of hereditary rank, usually a landholder. It also refers to a frontier territory, an apt description for a land which, during medieval times, served as a buffer between the Papal States of Rome and their enemies to the north. While the political divisions of Italy now run along completely different lines, present-day Marche still serves as a demarcation of sorts.
Situated between the Apennine Mountains and the sea, Le Marche’s climate varies quite a bit, depending where you’re located: it is continental in the north, near the capital of Ancona, but warmer and more typically Mediterranean the further south you go. Its soils are calcareous; not surprising given that much of Central Italy was once submerged beneath the ocean. Compared to its more famous neighbors to the west, Le Marche is quieter, with rural vineyards tended by small farmers. In some ways it is a throwback to Italy’s rustic past, when everything was made locally, including your food and wine. Our August Wine Studio was subtitled “Undiscovered Italy” because Le Marche remains authentic, genuine; a place that revels in the traditions of the past, welcoming those who want to take part in them. It still has its soul, one that is unapologetically old-school Italian.
Tasting SessionNumber One
Marchigiani wines have plenty of character, too. Verdicchio, the predominant white variety, gives rise to wines of zesty acidity, with beautiful herbal notes. They are decidedly mineral in character and make great partners with the abundance of local seafood and cheese. Trebbiano is also grown here, making light, floral wines that are fantastic aperitifs. As for the reds, Montepulciano and Sangiovese are both important contributors. For our first tasting, we sampled three wines: a Verdicchio, a Trebbiano, and a red blend.
The wines, provided by Jonathan Zeiger of ZGR Imports and Wines of Marche, were from the Cantina dei Colli Ripani, a cooperative founded by a small group of farmers in 1969. Nowadays the Cantina includes more than 330 growers, tending small parcels that average between two and four hectares each. The dedication and focus of these farmers have raised the quality standard for the entire region, and established Cantina dei Colli Ripani as an industry leader.
Note: Cantina dei Colli Ripani Wines are available through ZGR Imports. You can buy them here.
2014 Cantina dei Colli Ripani, Marche Trebbiano IGT (sugg. retail $9.99)
100% Trebbiano Toscano. Pale lemon yellow in the glass and, right away, intense floral aromas arise but I can’t quite identify a single flower. It’s more of a bouquet of white flowers, all different. A sip reveals a tiny hint of effervescence and bright acidity, telling me this would be a great everyday white wine for someone who lives in a tropical climate (as I do.) The wine has medium body, with a bit more weight than I expected. The finish is long and leaves a sweet/bitter trace of almonds. A really pleasant surprise, one I’d be happy to serve with hors d’oeuvres on the balcony after a long, hot Florida day.
2014 Cantina dei Colli Ripani, Irideo Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC (sugg. retail $11.99)
Pale straw color and, initially, very shy on the nose. As the glass warms up (so important!) I detect notes of white currants and grapes, with an enticing splash of lime zest that wakes up my senses. On the palate, this wine is clean and refreshing, with more acid than the Trebbiano and a freight-train of minerality that comes right at you. It’s drop-dead gorgeous! On the finish there are hints of lime again, along with almonds. I loved this wine, and enjoyed it with a plate of pasta with pesto sauce, a beautiful match. Whereas the Trebbiano showed well with a good chill on it, the Verdicchio let loose its charms only after it warmed up a bit. Well worth the wait, I assure you. Hey, some of us need time to warm up too, right?
2014 Cantina Colli Ripani, Rupe Nero Rosso Piceno DOC (sugg. retail $10.99)
A blend of 50% Sangiovese and 50% Montepulciano, the signature red grape of Le Marche, this wine is deep, ruby red, reminding me of a basket of black cherries. The color is dense at the center, becoming paler toward the rim. Strawberry and cherry notes waft from the glass in a flirty swirl of red fruit aromas. A taste delivers all the red fruit promised on the nose, along with earthier notes of cocoa and thyme. The tannins make themselves known, indicating that this is a wine that can stand up to grilled steak or even wild game. On the long finish I get hints of herbs again, along with a trace of licorice and even what (to me) tastes like tomato skin. At this price, you get a big bang for your buck.
Tasting Session Number Two
For our second round of tastings, Jonathan introduced us to the wines of Tenute Rio Maggio, a true labor of love for Tiziana and Simone Santucci. When Simone’s father passed away in 1993, the couple took over his farm in Monte Granaro, planting vineyards dedicated to fine-wine production among the rows of corn, beets, wheat, and sunflowers that already flourished. For Tiziana, the shift to agricultural life was dramatic: she left her job at a perfumery, trading in her tailored suits for jeans and tee shirts. She has written a beautiful essay about the history of Rio Maggio and her transition from corporate professional to vigneron. I’ve excerpted a paragraph below, in which she looks at the vineyards through the lens of a fragrance expert, but you can find the entire piece here:
I sometimes have the sensation of living a fairy tale where everything is magically perfumed by different aromas that originate in the special union that our vines create with land and sky, with the corn and the sunflowers surrounding them, and with their predetermined and inexorable vegetative cycle. – Tiziana Santucci
We were also lucky enough to taste a wine from Centanni Vini di Famigli, whose name (meaning 100 years) reflects the generations-old family tradition of winemaking. Their motto gets right to the heart of their philosophy: “When you drink Centanni, you drink Marche!” Centanni is certified organic, according to European Union requirements that mandate less than 100 parts per million (ppm) of added sulfites. The winery also uses glass stoppers instead of corks, a new experience for me. Why? They allow for easy resealing of the bottle, eliminate the risk of cork taint, and they look, according to Centanni, “molto chic!”
Rio Maggio and Centanni wines are also part of the ZGR Imports portfolio, and you can buy them here.
2012 Rio Maggio Colle Monteverde Falerio Pecorino (375 ml; sugg. retail $12.99)
The Pecorino grape was on its way to extinction when, in the 1970s, Guido Cocci Grifoni began replanting this native Marche variety. As far as white grapes go, this one is a bit of an oddity, with its thick skins, high sugar levels, and potentially high alcohol. In fact, the locals have a saying about Pecorino, calling it “the red wine that dresses as a white.” Pecorino can age as long as 10-12 years, and is at its best around four years. This wine is pale lemon yellow, with intriguing aromas of citrus, flowers, and yeast (four months resting on the lees.) It’s medium to full-bodied, and brings zesty citrus flavors and a savory fennel character that, to me, is irresistible. As it warms, it reveals more of its personality, with additional notes of white flowers and hay. One of my favorite white wine discoveries in quite a while.
2011 Rio Maggio Contrada Vallone Rosso Piceno (375 ml; sugg. retail $15.99)
A blend of 70% Montepulciano and 30% Sangiovese, this wine was crafted in an old-world, Bordeaux style, including 8-10 months of aging in French oak barrels. After bottling, the wine rests another four to six months before release. The grapes come from Block 145, the oldest vineyard on the property, up in the hills of Monte Granaro. In the glass, the wine is deep red in color, giving rise to hedonistic aromas of red berries and plums, underpinned by just a touch of baking spices. As it opens and I take a sip, I get a whole other view on this wine: tobacco, leather, wood. Plus all the fruit of the nose. This is a sexy wine! Uncork it and let the genie out; trust me, you’ll be glad you did!
2013 Centanni Rosso di Forca Rosso Piceno – Organic (750 ml; sugg. retail $14.99)
This wine, a blend of 50/50 blend of Montepulciano and Sangiovese, needs time to emerge. It’s moniker, Rosso di Forca loosely translates to Red Fork, and represents the “hunger that drives us all.” I opened it and tasted it, then left the glass to open for an hour. Beautifully red, it is also aromatic: cherries, cocoa, black currants, I think. On the palate it is rich and earthy, too, with some tannins that say, “Give me a rib-eye, STAT!” There is even a smokiness to this wine that suggests a delectable pairing with ribs or anything with bacon. The next day it was still delicious; a little softer and more floral, begging for a roast chicken with garlic and herbes de provence.
Wine Tourism in the Marche
If you’re looking to spend time in romantic Italy, without the throngs of tourists that gravitate to places like Florence, Venice, and Rome, then Le Marche is for you. Situated on the Adriatic coast, time moves a bit slower here, and much respect is paid to the traditions of old. Jonathan Zeiger, of ZGR Imports fell in love with the region years ago, when he went to work for Lavanda Blu, a lavender farm in Ascoli Piceno. He now works to bring wines from Le Marche to US markets, and his website, Wines of Marche is chock-full of pertinent information on the region.
Both Rio Maggio and Centanni welcome wine lovers to their properties in Le Marche, and would be a great beginning to any trip to Italy. You can find more information on accommodations here:
I have thoroughly enjoyed my virtual tour of Le Marche, its wines, and history. It has piqued my interest to explore the region further, especially its wines. Everything we sampled during August’s Wine Studio was well-made, approachable, and easy on the wallet. And for me, in a few cases, it was addictive! Thanks again to Protocol Wine Studio, Jonathan Zeiger of ZGR Imports and Wines of Marche for making this journey possible.
Looking forward: My next post, An Umbrian Adventure: Part Two of Italy’s Undiscovered Wine Country, will be up in the next couple of days. It focuses on the second half of our August Wine Studio – Umbria: a land well-known for its truffles but less so for its wines. All I can say is that perception needs to change. There are some positively delicious wines from Umbria that deserve attention, and I’ll talk about them next time.