Last week I took you on a virtual tour of Le Marche, the wine region that lies on the central Adriatic coast, due east of Tuscany. It was part of an educational excursion put together by Protocol Wine Studio and its fearless leader, Tina Morey. The other half of our August sojourn took us to the geographic heart of Italy – Umbria. Nestled among some of Italy’s most-visited regions, Umbria remains relatively undiscovered and true to its roots. Summer tourists, who flock to the hills of Tuscany, and the metropolis of Rome to the south, seem to stop short of the Umbrian countryside, allowing locals to bask in the relative quiet. Umbria is a landlocked pocket of serenity that appears to have kept itself hidden from the passage of time.
If you look behind the façade, you’ll quickly sense the passionate heartbeat that pulses throughout this magical region. It’s in the soul of the artist traveling to Spoleto for the annual Festival of Two Worlds, which the city has hosted every summer since 1958. Offering a vast array of concerts, opera, dance, drama, visual arts and roundtable discussions on science, it’s a draw for thinkers, poets, and visionaries. You’ll feel it in the devotion of local farmers who, in their daily work, bring to life the philosophy of St. Francis of Assisi: communing with nature and always protecting it. In Perugia, Umbria’s capital, the pulse quickens as you might expect in a university town, where young people dream of the future amid villages constructed by the Etruscans. And of course there’s Orvieto, Umbria’s first wine town, perhaps more famous for its collection of Papal estates than anything else.
But there is another place where the Umbrian heart strikes a different rhythm, perhaps a little more quietly than in the cultural centers I’ve just described – the vineyards. There, the pulse bumps along steadily, faithfully. And if you listen for a minute or two, you’ll swear it’s trying to tell you something. I think it’s whispering a secret, opening your eyes to an enchanting treasure that lies hidden in plain sight: Umbrian wine. Even if you’re an aficionado who’s familiar with Italian wine, unless you’ve spent time in Umbria, your exposure to its wines has probably been limited. Before participating in this month’s Wine Studio, my knowledge of these wines was purely academic; I hadn’t tasted many of them for myself. Well, my experience the past few weeks has me looking at things differently. Not only has my knowledge of the wines increased, but I intend to seek them out and drink a whole lot more of them!
Umbria is surrounded by the regions of Tuscany and Lazio to the west, and Le Marche and Abruzzo to the east, leaving it the only central Italian region with no coastline. Its most distinguishing geographical features are the Apennine Mountains, which dominate the landscape, Lakes Corbara and Trasimeno, both former volcanoes, and the Tiber River, which slashes through the center on its way toward Rome. The climate is moderate, making it a hospitable place to grow grapes intended for fine wine. The most prominent red varieties are Sangiovese, Tuscany’s claim to fame, and Sagrantino, a lively but tannic specialty of the town of Montefalco. International varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are interspersed in the plantings, allowing winemakers some flexibility in their recipes where DOC regulations permit. Trebbiano is the most-planted white variety but it is Grechetto which makes the wines with most character. Wines made here are intended as partners for the local cuisine, which includes dishes featuring wild game, river fish, pasta, olive oil, and black truffles.
Each month Wine Studio brings together wine writers and educators with industry professionals who discuss their wines in depth, offering guided tastings, and providing insight into the local culture where the wines are produced. For this tasting session, Tina Morey invited Giulia Luccioli, Senior Managing Director of Sagrivit, an Italian Agricultural and Vinicultural Company, which manages the work of fourteen producers throughout Italy. One of those properties is Castello di Magione from Umbria, three of whose wines we were lucky enough to sample. The Castello di Magione portfolio is available in the United States thanks to Clay Fritz, founder of Fritz Underground Winery in Dry Creek Valley, California.
As you’ll see in the photos, each bottle carries a label emblazoned with a large, white cross, the symbol of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Founded in 1099 as the Knights Hospitaller in Jerusalem, the Order of Malta is a Roman Catholic lay organization devoted to assisting those in need, making it the world’s oldest surviving chivalric order. Present-day members raise money for their charitable efforts by making wine; Castello di Magione is one of their projects. Clay Fritz is a member of the Order of Malta, and filled us in on its history. We were fascinated to learn that the winery is an actual medieval castle (castello, in Italian) that still serves as a summer vacation residence for the head of the Order.
2013 Castello di Magione Monterone Grechetto, Colli di Trasimeno DOC ($25.00 retail)
Grechetto is the oldest native white Umbrian grape, and it is a specialty of Castello di Magione. As far as white Italian grapes go, this one is a bit of an outlier: its thicker skins give rise to a wine that is noticeably tannic and heavier in weight than the Trebbianos that comprise many Umbrian blends. That said, it was right up my alley! It was creamy and a little herby, and it had texture to it. The nose showed a little yeasty quality, testament to the five months it rested on its lees. It was positively brilliant with a plate of charcuterie, and still going strong long after the ham was gone. There’s nice acidity, making me think of my next possible pairing – fresh hogfish snapper with lemon and dill.
2014 Castello di Magione Sangiovese, Umbria ($20 retail)
The minute I uncorked this bottle I knew I loved this wine. Beautiful red cherry fragrance practically danced into the air; even my husband remarked on it which is, in itself, remarkable. On the palate it is medium-bodied, with cherry, berry flavors riding a wave of crisp acidity. It was literally mouth-watering. But my favorite part was that aroma. It reminded me of bright-red lollipops. After an hour or so, some intriguing notes of thyme and even ash emerged from the glass. A really enjoyable wine at the end of a long day; the vinous equivalent of getting a big, sloppy welcome home from your dog, who totally missed you.
2008 Castello di Magione Morcinaia Colli di Trasimeno DOC ($40 retail)
This beauty is a Bordeaux-style blend of 40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 20% Sangiovese, a Super Umbrian, if you will. The wine is aged in oak barriques for ten months, lending subtle notes of vanilla to aromas of plum, black currants, and cherries. It’s pretty tight right out of the bottle, but give it an hour to open and it’s all charm. Tannins are prominent but a nice check on the exuberant fruit, for a perfect balance. I paired this wine with a plate of Pasta alla Norcia, and the black truffles in the sauce brought out earthier elements in the wine that I hadn’t noticed before. (Thanks to Sabatino Truffles, for supplying the critical ingredient, one that isn’t native to my town in South Florida!) A grilled steak would make a nice match, as would rabbit in white wine and rosemary.
Traveling to Umbria
Have I piqued your curiosity about this Italian diamond-in-the-rough? All I can say is that my husband and I are trying to plan a trip there as soon as possible. He’s a big history buff, particularly anything related to the Crusades, so he’s set. And I can get into the history as long as I know I’ll be sampling a delicious local wine at the end of the day. So, maybe we’ll see you there? If you need expert guidance in planning your itinerary, you have to get in touch with Giselle Stafford of Gusto Wine Tours. She and her husband did what all of us at one time or another have dreamed of doing: they moved to Italy and founded a wine tourism service. They have several different trip options that can be adapted to suit your group, so check it out.
I’ve been drinking, studying, and enjoying wine for quite some time now, and I’m ashamed to say I never got to know the wines of Umbria until last month. But, thanks to Protocol Wine Studio, Clay Fritz, and Castello di Magione, I feel like I’ve been let in on a secret. One that lies at the heart of Umbria, itself the heart of Italy: lovely wine crafted by passionate artisans who, day in and day out, pay tribute to centuries-old traditions. Now that I’ve let you in on it, too, do you think we should tell the others?
Note: A personal thank you to Suzi Perez, CEO and founder of Vinmaps, LLC. I just received my map of Italy (photo below) and it is gorgeous. It’s both a study tool and an art piece that will be my constant companion over the next month, as I prepare for the Italian Wine Professional certification. For any of you who are studying wine or just really like maps, please check out her selection here.