Ian D'Agata on the Best Wines of Central Italy

You will doubtless recognize some wine names from the central Italian regions of Emilia Romagna, Marche, Lazio, Umbria, Abruzzo and Molise, but the majority of them won’t mean a thing to you. While lambrusco, verdicchio and montepulciano are familiar to most serious wine lovers, that will not be the case with Cori bianco or pecorino, the latter being the name of both a grape variety and a wine, and not just the name of cheese made from sheep’s milk. Wines like these aren’t well known even in Italy, outside of their immediate production zones.

The second consumer challenge posed by central Italy’s wines is their extremely variable quality: frequently, outstanding wines stand on shelves next to indescribably bad plonk, something that is generally not true of Piedmont or even Tuscany. (Tuscany, of course, is also in central Italy, but as its wines have been considered in separate articles of the IWC devoted to Brunello, Chianti, Vino Nobile, Super-Tuscans and the Tuscan coast, that region is not discussed in this article.) But while some wines of central Italy have deservedly lousy reputations, the better examples are worth getting to know. As is often the case, the trick is to learn what each wine made with lesser known grape varieties is supposed to taste like, and which producers to search for. This research can be tricky, as the fact that some native grape varieties have only recently been rediscovered (ten years ago I wouldn’t have been able to write about any wines made wholly from varieties like passerina or pecorino) has also resulted in much experimentation in winemaking.

There are not just good and bad wines made in Central Italy, but a lot of each. Abruzzo and Emilia Romagna lead the way, but when it comes to squeezing grapes, the other regions are no slouches either. The wines of central Italy often end up being lumped together with other wines with which they have nothing in common, such as those of southern Italy. Or they are barely covered at all, with only the larger producers receiving attention. Few wine writers visit the estates or have much of an understanding of the wine-producing areas themselves or of the grape varieties involved, often confusing the various names and characteristics of grapes and wines with those produced elsewhere. If even a famous area such as Montalcino has enjoyed years of high praise and laughably high scores lavished on some ridiculously dark, peppery wines with color, aroma and flavor profiles far removed from anything resembling 100% sangiovese, you understand the hurdles that stand before the little-known, anything-but-fashionable wines of central Italy.

Another consequence of the lack of media exposure is that, more than with any other part of Italy, many of central Italy’s best wines available in the U.S. are handled by smaller importers. Some estates have lost their importers altogether, a consequence of difficult economic times, and others don’t send their wines to America at all. Importers willing to do a little legwork can find some lovely, little-known gems at prices appropriate to today’s market. But doing the legwork is a necessity, as this is one part of Italy where only relying on Italian wine guides is iffy at best. This is because the best wines of central Italy are usually produced by small family estates that do not have the means to invest either in magazine advertisements or in big traveling road shows. And as far as I am concerned, suddenly hiring a well-known, media-savvy consulting winemaker doesn’t necessarily mean wines will become better overnight. On the contrary, even some of central Italy’s more expensive top-of-the-line reds are made in a distinctly international style, with strong chocolate, spice and toasty oak notes that overwhelm any soul or somewhereness they might otherwise display.

I’ve been following and writing about Central Italy’s grape varieties and wines for years; in fact, I have convinced a number of wine estates to change the way they label their wines in order to showcase the high quality of little-known varieties, such as in the case of malvasia vs. malvasia puntinata (see Pallavicini). My hope is that by writing about these often obscure wines in depth, I can help IWC readers and producers alike.

Recent vintages in Central Italy. Two thousand eight was a potentially very fine year, blessed with a very warm summer but cooler temperatures leading up to the harvest than in 2007. The result was plenty of perfumed white wines and reds that often show more elegance than structure. Unfortunately,’08 was not a very good year for noble rot: the botrytis arrived too late in the season, and the grapes also failed to dehydrate sufficiently in the cool late-season weather to produce late-harvest wines of adequate concentration.

The 2007 vintage was a hot one, in much the same mold as 2003. However, a key difference between these two vintages was the amount of rainfall: 2003 was scorchingly hot but very dry as well. This was not the case in 2007, when timely rains arrived late in the season (in late August and again in early October in most areas). As springtime weather had been normal, and as there had been good diurnal temperature variation, sunshine and breezes during the summer, the grapes ripened early and well. In fact, in Emilia Romagna grapes were picked an average of 20 days ahead of schedule, while in the Marche the harvest took place about 15 days earlier than usual. In the area around Poggio San Marcello in the classic Castelli di Jesi production zone of Marche, verdicchio grapes were picked at the end of August, something unheard of, as the harvest almost always occurs after the 10th of September. In Umbria, where the late-ripening sagrantino stays on the vine well into November, timely rains in the first week of October made all the difference in producing more balanced, less tannic wines, though some excessively tannic examples were made in other areas. Overall, sangiovese in Umbria fared better in 2007 than sagrantino.

Two thousand six is generally considered a very good year in central Italy, on a par with 2004. Without question, 2006 was a stellar year for sweet wines in Emilia Romagna: with loads of noble rot thanks to timely August and September rains, these wines are characterized by high acidity levels and noteworthy complexity. In Umbria the 2006s generally feature big structures, but also exhibit minerality and refinement, the latter traits being even more evident in the wines of 2004, a cooler vintage in Umbria. In fact, differences between ’04 and ’06 are more marked in the Marche, where many estates are located at significantly higher altitude than in Umbria. In Lazio, 2006 was remarkably successful, with highly perfumed white wines and boldly structured reds: it is the best recent vintage for this region, although very late-ripening varieties such as cesanese did better in the warmer vintages of 2003, 2007 and 2008.

It is safe to say that 2005 is the poorest of the last four vintages, generally marred by cool temperatures and untimely rains. And yet Umbria’s sagrantino area escaped the rains and the hail, and actually enjoyed above-average temperatures. This did not translate into a memorable year, as a shortage of rain from June onwards led to highly tannic wines that often lack generosity. But at least these wines avoid problems of rot and mold, not to mention dilution. In Abruzzo, quality was also slightly above average, especially for those Montepulciano producers located farther inland and sheltered from spring and summer rains. Elsewhere, the news in 2005 was generally fairly grim.

As I noted above, 2004 was overall an excellent year, with many perfumed, powerful and well-balanced wines made, though some pockets experienced problems due to foul weather, such as sudden bursts of hail. Abruzzo produced strong, harmonious red wines and solid, penetrating whites. In Umbria the mean temperatures recorded in the Montefalco area were slightly lower than those of 2006, and this was true in Orvieto as well, which resulted in somewhat sleeker and more elegant wines. Some estates in the Sagrantino area were hit hard by hail in ’04. This vintage was one of the better ones in recent memory for Emilia Romagna and Lazio. Dessert-style late-harvest wines were excellent in both Umbria and Lazio; in fact, 2004 may well be the best vintage in recent memory for this style of wine, with plenty of noble rot producing some wonderfully complex and rich wines.

Rome-based Ian D’Agata has been writing and lecturing about wine for more than 20 years and is currently the director of the International Wine Academy of Rome. Among his writing credits, he has written parts of several editions of Gambero Rosso’s Italian wine guide and has co-authored a number of wine books, including one on Italy’s native grape varieties. D’Agata’s in-depth reports on the wines of Southern Italy, Northeast Italy and the Tuscan Coast have appeared in past issues of the International Wine Cellar.