Tipping the Scales: New Releases from Umbria


Umbrian wines continue to surprise as producers work to find equilibrium despite climate change and past stereotypes. I no longer have to sort through dozens of dark and overly tannic Sagrantinos to find one that is balanced. Moreover, the Montefalco Rosso category continues to improve, delivering a style unique to Umbria while providing fantastic value for consumers. Last but not least, a white wine revolution is taking place around Montefalco, providing an alternative to the highly variable Orvietos from Umbria's southwestern tip. Speaking of Orvieto, it can’t just be ignored. Aside from large production wineries, there is a core of high-quality, artisanal producers pushing the envelope. They are Orvieto’s hope for the future.

Castello della Sala's Chardonnay vineyards were planted in 1996.

Unlike Any Other

Landlocked Umbria must be seen to be believed. The unique terroir mostly contributes to its diversity amongst other Italian wine regions. Here, the spine of the Apennine Mountains splits in two, creating a large valley that engulfs Umbria's major towns, cities and vineyards. Any direction a visitor looks to from Montefalco will bear a picturesque landscape of hill-top towns with mountains in their backdrop. Soils are rich in clay with a blend of sand and limestone, giving way to clay-calcrete, an almost-cement-like blend of clay, gravel, sand and silt at higher elevations. This mix was created three million years ago when a large inland sea covered the entire valley. Today, Lake Trasimeno, in the region's northwest, is all that remains of that sea.

While extremely hot by day, Umbria occasionally experiences some of the strangest precipitation I’ve ever seen. A seamlessly cloudless sky will shed large dollop-size drops of water that last for moments, only to dry up and rapidly bring a refreshing breeze. These same breezes, generated by the change of pressure as warm air masses rise, contribute to the region’s nighttime cooling and extend the growing season, which is crucial in reaching physiological ripeness.

Few regions in Italy achieve such a balance of high-quality restaurants, shopping, welcoming locals and ease of accessibility. While Montefalco can be traversed by car, walking and taking in the regional flavor is best. The cuisine here mixes a little from each of its neighbors (Marche, Abruzzo, Tuscany and Lazio). I don’t find the same “tourist trap” feel often associated with some of Italy’s other top wine-producing towns. It isn’t rare to see the village square alight with a combination of tourists and locals, all sitting around watching groups of kids playing football (soccer to Americans) while enjoying drinks and chatting quietly amongst themselves. There is something magical and heartwarming about being there.

What’s more, the local Consorzio has prioritized wine tourism. With a local office that’s easily accessible and discernable, there are guided bike tours through vineyards, producer tastings, and clearly marked signs that help visitors locate their favorite wineries. For wine and food lovers, this is a region worth visiting.

Fongoli's historic cellar.

Getting The Balance Right

Every part of Italy faces a changing climate, but in Umbria, there is more of a shift in the style of wines. Climate change is especially challenging in the interior areas of Montefalco and Torgiano. Here, the terroirs are drastically different from those of Orvieto in the south. Many of Italy’s top reds are being made here, and producers are still up to the task, even as alcohol rises year after year. Umbria is known for being a dry and warm region, relying upon aqueducts for much of its water. Now, with the onset of augmenting temperatures, it is common to find Sagrantinos that reach from 16.5 to 17% alcohol. 

Similar to producers in famous regions worldwide, many Umbrian winemakers are capable of achieving high alcohol while maintaining balance, so their wines won’t be considered hot. At the same time, there are cases in which the combination of intense fruit, big tannins (in the case of Sagrantino) and zesty acidity can make these giants highly palatable. However, this combination moves them from the “food-friendly and inviting” category into the “monolithic, powerful and meant-to-be-sipped instead of drunk” group. Getting through more than two glasses of a modern-day Sagrantino can be difficult. It’s like eating a fantastic piece of rich chocolate cake. How many pieces can you finish? 

Mountains surround Umbria's interior on all sides.

Luckily for Montefalco, producers can rely on two factors. First, the Montefalco Rosso category. Unlike most other regions in Italy, the Rosso category does not require their principal grape (Sagrantino) to make up most of the blend. As a result, Montefalco Rosso is its own animal entirely, requiring 60-80% Sangiovese, 10-25% Sagrantino and 15-30% other authorized grapes, which tend to include Montepulciano, Merlot and Cabernet. These food-friendly wines show outstanding diversity and are often a remarkable value compared to the houses’ Sagrantino. I particularly enjoy Sangiovese-based Rossos, especially when mixed with some strange bedfellows. Barbera is a perfect example in Tabarrini’s Montefalco Rosso Boccatone. Or Refosco, which adds dimension to the Montefalco Rosso of Le Cimate.

The second factor is the re-emergence of Trebbiano Spoletino and, to a lesser degree, a new focus on high-quality Grechetto. These two white varieties are taking the region by storm. Three years ago, it was rare for a producer to show any whites. Granted, some, such as Paolo Bea and Tabarrini, were very proud of their Trebbiano Spoletino. Producers today look to uncover older vineyards, much like the Vite Maritata plantings (Trebbiano vines married with fruit-bearing trees) that feed the Paolo Bea Arboreus, or plant all new vineyards using massal selection. The list of high-performing Trebbiano Spoletino grows each year. In addition to the two producers mentioned above, check out the Trebbiano Spoletino from Fongoli, Antonelli San Marco, Bellafonte, Le Cimate, Romanelli, Madrevite, Scacciadiavoli, Tenuta Alzatura, Valdangius and Annesanti. These wines are rich yet balanced, with vibrant acidity and underlying minerality that comes with age. Often, they’ll show intense tropical fruit offset by zesty citrus in their youth and and gain complexity over time. Then there is Grechetto. In this case, we’re talking about Grechetto di Todi, not to be confused with Grechetto di Orvieto, the primary grape used in producing Orvieto in the south. Readers can expect to find two very different styles of Grechetto in Montefalco, one richer, more powerful and structured (Grechetto di Todi is the most tannic white grape variety) and the other more finessed and floral, sometimes a little too much so. The jury is still out on Montefalco Grechetto because of the disparity of styles, making it very difficult for a consumer to know what to expect.

Looking out across Orvieto and Lake Corbara from the Barberani winery.

Orvieto: The Gateway to Umbria

I often think of Orvieto as Umbria’s gateway. However, the Orvieto’s terroir couldn’t be more different than Montefalco's. Bernardo Barberani of the Barberani winery explained that their vintages have more in common with Tuscany than Umbria. 

Orvieto, the region's largest DOC, is in the west and south of Umbria and is partially shared with Lazio. Blending regulations permit 40-100% Grechetto, 20-40% Procanico (Trebbiano Toscano) and 20-40% other grapes, usually Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Many people associate Orvieto with volcanic soil. With its famous cliff outcroppings, the city of Orvieto is built upon a giant piece of tuff stone believed to have been ejected during an ancient volcanic eruption. Yet the reality is that the region is split between volcanic soils in the south and sandy, sedimentary clay rich in marine fossils from the center to the north. Coincidently, one could draw a line from three of the region's top producers, Barberani, Decugnano dei Barbi and Castello della Sala, outlining where these soils are present. One of Orvieto’s most defining characteristics is its proximity to large bodies of water: the manmade Lake Corbara and Lake Bolsena in Lazio. Besides adding a moderating effect within the area, these two lakes also allow for a healthy onset of noble rot (Botrytis cinerea), giving Orvieto the potential to create some of Italy’s best dessert-style wines.

So why aren’t we all drinking Orvieto? Unfortunately, the region and its reputation fell victim to over-production and marketing, which turned Orvieto into an easy-drinking but forgettable wine. Finding wines that are worth talking about today is still quite tricky. Still, the region’s top offerings are world-class whites for the benefit of consumers in search of value. The notes in this article include several whites from Orvieto that can compete with some of the best examples from Italy. Producers like Antinori’s Castello della Sala have discovered that Chardonnay excels in Orvieto’s hilly northern section. There is tremendous potential in this region. Yet, a more organized effort among producers must be made to outline a level of quality that can win over the palates of modern-day consumers.

Antonelli San Marco's barrel aging cellar.

A Brief Summary of Recent Vintages

Discussing vintages from Umbria can be difficult due to the late release of the Sagrantino DOCG, which requires aging for 33 months by law. Yet, most producers will hold them even longer to allow their tannins to mellow while the fresher whites can be released the year following the harvest. Because of this, many producers are still showing the 2017s and 2018s, while others are moving on to the 2019 vintage. 

The later released 2017s impress in the context of the vintage. This year was defined by torrid, hot and dry weather, coupled with a spring frost in April that further reduced yields. While the wines are balanced, they lack the complexity of years like 2016, 2015 and 2010. Readers can expect the 2017s to drink well over the next five to eight years, but I expect they will quickly age afterward.

Tasting the 2018s can be challenging, as the wines often feel like a pale comparison to their usual selves. The year started cool, with steady rain beginning in the late spring and continuing through much of the summer months. This, combined with warm temperatures, was a recipe for disaster. Selection was vital in 2018, yet even the best wines come across as more feminine and lighter in style. This benefits readers looking to enjoy their Umbrian reds sooner rather than later.

My first experiences with the 2019s have reinvigorated my excitement about the vintage. These dark, radiant, complex, structured wines are built for the cellar. The year brought dry and warm weather by day, alternating with fresh, cool evenings. The buildup of water reserves from spring rains kept the vines healthy through the warmer summer months, especially in August, as temperatures peaked. Ideal conditions continued through harvest, delivering perfectly ripe fruit. I am excited to return next year when there will be a more extensive selection to taste. Until then, there are some fantastic 2019s in this report to chase down. 

A few Montefalco Sagrantino new releases spanning from 2015 to 2019.

Looking at 2020, the wines continue to show a warm vintage character. From the Rosso perspective, I find more balanced acidity than initially expected, making them fun to taste. The 2020 vintage saw a warm spring and a hot, dry summer. September rains created problems for the later-ripening varieties, most notably Sagrantino and Trebbiano Spoletino. It will be interesting to see how the later releases show, but at the moment, 2020 remains a vintage for earlier consumption.

The 2021s are intense and fruit-forward yet deep and complex, balanced by zesty acidity. Most of the wines I’ve tasted are whites from Montefalco and Orvieto. The vintage started dry. Widespread frost in April affected budding throughout most of the region. The summer months were excessively hot, coupled with arid conditions, which often slowed vegetative growth. In Orvieto, many producers reported an earlier harvest to maintain freshness, starting as early as the beginning of August. However, a wet and cooler September and October allowed later ripening varieties to recover, specifically Sagrantino and Trebbiano Spoletino. While many of the whites I tasted showed fantastic balance, the reds may be large-scaled and blousy. Of the fresh Rossos, most fell between 14.5 and 15% abv. 

I tasted the wines for this report in Umbria during the summer of 2023, along with a small selection of wines shipped directly to our offices in New York City.

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