A quick question for you. Do you ever wonder what you’d choose as your specialist subject if invited to be a contestant on Mastermind? Well I do. Deliberating this question has been a source of personal angst for years. However, after much soul searching I can say with absolute certainty, my specialist subject would be the wines of Umbria. I’ve been living in Umbria on and off for 12 years and have had the pleasure to get to know these wines intimately over the years. However, few English speakers, even committed wine lovers, know much about the wines of Umbria and that’s a real shame (but also means I’d win Mastermind – silver lining).
As an English speaker, and as Umbrian wines are rarely imported to the UK/USA, any exposure you’ve had to Umbrian wines has probably been on holiday? Umbria boasts some of the most enchanting hilltop towns in Italy and is a favourite with tourists and foodies alike. From Todi to Narni, Orvieto to Montefalco and with UNESCO sites like Assisi and Perugia, this small county of Italy is bejeweled with some of Europe’s most important historical cities. Yet the wines of Umbria, whilst enjoyed plentifully on vacation, do not enjoy the international reputation of their near neighbour; Tuscany. But why?
The wines of Umbria benefit from huge variety. They do not focus on one red or white grape neither are they dominated by one wine. Surprisingly, the most famous individual wine of Umbria is not even made from a local nor Italian grape, but from barrel fermented Chardonnay, the Cervaro della Sala. Truth is, Umbria has a wine identity crisis. If you were to ask a wine expert what they thought the most frequently planted grape in Umbria was most would guess incorrectly. The #1 planted grape isn’t Sagrantino, Grechetto or even Trebbiano, the last two create the base for Orvieto wine. It’s not the vineyards of Montefalco nor Orvieto that dominate the wine landscape in Umbria. The one thing Umbria does share in common with Tuscany is its #1 planted grape; Sangiovese.
It’s with Sangiovese that many local producers are experimenting and creating wines of outstanding quality and with this grape perhaps a new wine future for Umbria beckons. Smaller producers like Cantina La Spina (below), La Carraia, Todini and Colle Uncinano are creating stand alone Sangiovese wines that fly in the face of the DOC rules while many of the huge and celebrated Sagrantino producers are making room for blended wines containing Sagrantino, Merlot and Sangiovese. The most famous of these wines, Montefalco Rosso, is the #1 consumed red in the county, frequently under 10€ and delicious. With identity confusion comes experimentation and occasionally, and in the case of Umbria, tremendous value in places.
The wines of Umbria have undergone a quality revolution over the past 20 years. From the big money pouring in from Antinori (the Tuscan family who invested in Umbria), to the local winemakers throwing the DOC(G) rule book out of the window, to a few select wines growing in international reputation, Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG & Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG, the wines of Umbria have never been better. The price to quality ratio of Umbrian wines is among the best in Italy and Tuscany can no longer throw shade on its local rival. So which are the best Umbrian wines to seek out on your return home for holidays?
The wines of Umbria 2018 – Tre Bicchiere awards
A good place to start when looking for quality in Italian wine is the Gambero Rosso annual review. In 2018, nine Umbrian wines were awarded the prestigious Tre Bicchiere award, down from ten in 2017. Wines from the Piedmont, Veneto or Tuscany bagging a Tre Bicchiere award would often retail on the other side of 100€. The wines below are available from as little as 10€. Those wines scooping the top award in 2018 were;
- Tenuta Bellafonte – Montefalco Sagrantino Collenottolo 2013 – 20€
- Leonardo Bussoletti – 05035 Rosso 2016 – 10€
- Arnaldo Caprai -Montefalco Sagrantino Collepiano 2013 – 25€
- Castello della Sala – Cervaro della Sala 2015 – 40€
- Decugnano dei Barbi – Orvieto Classico Superiore Il Blanco 2016 – 20€
- Lungarotti – Torgiano Rosso Rubesco Monticchio Riserva 2012 – 25€
- F.lli Pardi – Montefalco Sagrantino 2013 – 25€
- Giampaolo Tabarrini – Adarmando 2015 – 15€
- Tudernum – Montefalco Sagrantino Fidenzio 2012 – 25€
Some of these wines are available in the USA, only a couple in the UK, via wine-searcher.com.
Another good way to explore the wines of Umbria is to visit a producer whilst on holiday. I’ve had the good fortune to visit Cantina La Spina, Antinori and Arnaldo Caprai this year, and all of these producers, though different in size and production, offer a range of wines for tasting that showcase the range of cultivars that excel in Umbrian soil. A visit to Caprai (above) is recommended for any wine enthusiast and will allow you to taste through several vintages of their flagship Montefalco Sagrantino as well as several other wines including several Rosso blends, white varietal wines of Grechetto, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and even a varietal Pinot Noir and sparkling wine.
There’s been wine production in Umbria since the Etruscans started laying down vines over 2000 years ago but there has surely been no greater time of industry, improvement or innovation in Umbrian wine over those past 2000 years. 2018 is the year to get into Umbrian wine.