Compiled by Bryce Wiatrak, our latest expert guide tackles the wine regions of Central Italy. It is the second in a four-part series about the wines of Italy. Part I is a broad introduction to Italy's history, land, wine law, and grape varieties. Parts III and IV are to come.
Central Italy comprises the heart of the Italian Peninsula, both geographically and historically. Lazio, which houses the capital at Rome, roughly corresponds to the ancient Roman city, while Tuscany equates generally to the older Etruria. Millennia later, Tuscany grew to become a major economic power in Italy, first as the Republics of Florence and Siena and later as the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Before the Risorgimento, much of the rest of centraI Italy was made up of the Papal States, under direct rule of the pope and the Vatican. This guide will consider five regions as central Italy: Tuscany, Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, the Marche, and Lazio.
Central Italy begins south of the Po River basin, and, like much of the country, is defined by the Apennine Mountains at its center. Its climate is varied by not only latitude but, importantly, elevation, with many of the top wines coming from higher sites. With Tuscany, central Italy serves as a powerful driver of the Italian wine industry, home to many of the country’s largest and oldest winemaking families, such as the Antinoris and the Frescobaldis. The initial sparks of Italy’s 20th-century winemaking revolution were lit here, with the first bottling of Sassicaia in 1968 and the Super Tuscans that followed.
Today, central Italy is no less dynamic. Italy’s most planted grape variety, Sangiovese, achieves its finest expressions in Chianti Classico and Montalcino. Nearby, in Umbria, Sagrantino has been reimagined for the production of dry red wines. Further north, Emilia-Romagna cultivates the best-known appellations worldwide for sparkling red wine with its various Lambruscos. White wine, too, finds prominence in central Italy, notably in the bottlings of Orvieto, the Malvasia blends of Lazio, and the Verdicchio wines of the Marche. In addition, winegrowers throughout central Italy continue to bottle cellar-worthy wines made from French varieties.
Malvasia: Perhaps the most complicated of the grape “families,” Malvasia refers to an extraordinarily broad range of varieties not only in Italy but across Europe. In France, there is Malvoisie; in Spain, various Malvasias; and in Portugal, Malmsey—an anglicization of one of Madeira’s noble varieties. Several theories have been used to debate the shared name. Ian D’Agata, for example, believes it relates to the Republic of Venice’s dominance of maritime trade, including that of wine. A number of sites in the Floating City continue to incorporate the name Malvasia, and, historically, wine bars were called malvasie. A second hypothesis suggests Malvasia is a bastardization of Monemvasia, the name of a Greek town that once served as a key port, eventually controlled by Venice, through which much wine traveled from the Greek to the Italian Peninsula. Though genetic testing suggests Malvasia varieties are not in fact Greek in origin, several wine styles across medieval Italy could have emulated the dried-grape wines made across the Adriatic.
Eighteen unique Malvasia varieties are registered in Italy, both red and white and offering a set of wines as diverse as any. In central Italy, four Malvasias, all white, are most important: Malvasia Bianca Lunga, Malvasia del Lazio (Malvasia Puntinata), Malvasia Bianca di Candia, and Malvasia di Candia Aromatica. Malvasia Bianca Lunga is most famously grown in Tuscany, where it historically has been an important component of the Chianti blend developed by Bettino Ricasoli in the 19th century. Top Chianti and all Chianti Classico wines today exclude white varieties, but Malvasia Bianca Lunga remains essential to the production of vin santo, typically a blend to which the variety contributes body and aroma. Malvasia del Lazio and Malvasia Bianca di Candia are often interplanted and mixed in the white wines of Lazio, most notably Frascati. Of the two, the former is considered the superior variety, identified by its piney, rich mouthfeel, while Malvasia Bianca di Candia is more neutral. Malvasia di Candia Aromatica is unrelated to Malvasia Bianca di Candia. Its wines are floral and spicy, with monovarietal examples found in a handful of Emilia-Romagna’s denominations.
Grechetto di Orvieto: Numerous Italian varieties incorporate some version of Greco into their names, a vestige of the Italian Peninsula’s affinity for Greek wines in the Middle Ages. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what is often discussed as Grechetto generally refers to two separate grapes: Grechetto di Orvieto and Grechetto di Todi. The latter is identical to Pignoletto.
In spite of its name, Grechetto di Orvieto is likely native to Umbria and shows some genetic ties to Trebbiano Toscano. The thick-skinned Grechetto di Orvieto shows good disease resistance, a benefit in the fog-dense regions where it is commonly grown. While its wines can be indistinctive, the best examples come from the tufaceous soils of Orvieto, where it is blended with Pignoletto and Trebbiano Toscano.
Pignoletto: Synonymous with both Grechetto di Todi and Rèbola, as it is sometimes called in Emilia-Romagna, Pignoletto, like Pinot Noir, derives its name from the pine cone shape of its clusters. A vigorous variety, Pignoletto is perceived as higher in quality than Grechetto di Orvieto and is planted in higher concentrations near the Todi and Colli Martani DOCs, though the two Grechettos are frequently blended in each of these and a number of Umbrian appellations. There are also significant plantings of Pignoletto in Emilia-Romagna, with successful examples found in the Colli Bolognesi Classico Pignoletto DOCG. Its expression varies widely between the two regions, in each case characterized by what Ian D’Agata describes as a chamomile character, though the wines from Umbria have a stronger thiol-driven grapefruit quality.
Vernaccia: The name Vernaccia is used for an abundance of grapes with seemingly no common genetic link as well as, confusingly, a selection of wines made from non-Vernaccia varieties. The term comes from the Latin word vernaculum (native), though some theorize it refers to the Ligurian town of Vernazza. Vernaccia di San Gimignano may have been brought south to Tuscany from Liguria, where a Vernaccia grape was known to be grown. Some scholars claim the variety is related to Spain’s Garnacha (Grenache), especially in light of Vernaccia’s synonym Granaccia. Yet despite the shared etymology, those assertions seem unfounded.
Vernaccia varieties are found in several pockets of Italy, including Sardinia, where Vernaccia di Oristano is vinified into a Sherry-like fortified wine. The two most important Vernaccias, however, are both cultivated in central Italy: Vernaccia di San Gimignano and Vernaccia Nera. The former is white and has its own DOCG, and the wines range from simple and crisp to richer, slightly oxidative styles aged in oak. Vernaccia Nera is red, as the name implies, and harvested primarily in the Marche. It is known for its flamboyant, violet quality.
Sagrantino: While Sagrantino is widely considered indigenous to Umbria, it remains debatable whether this is the grape Hirtiola, mentioned in ancient texts by Pliny the Elder and Martial, as some attest. Despite its superlative quality, Sagrantino neared extinction in the mid-20th century, before its resuscitation by such producers as Arnaldo Caprai in Montefalco, an area that continues to hold nearly all of Sagrantino’s global plantings. Commercial success has led to an exponential increase in plantings, which surged fivefold in Montefalco in the 2010s to more than 600 hectares as of 2020.
Sagrantino is late ripening and demonstrates exceedingly high polyphenolic content. The variety is robust in both pigment and tannin, leading to wines that are impenetrable in their youth. Top examples are long lived and celebrated among Italy’s finest red wines. Before producing dry wines, Sagrantino was traditionally used for sweet, red dried-grape wines.
Lambrusco: Lambrusco is not a single grape but, according to some counts, more than 60 varieties found throughout Italy. The best-known examples and the highest concentrations, however, are cultivated in Emilia-Romagna, where they are vinified into a range of sparkling red wines. Lambrusco varieties must not be mistaken for Vitis labrusca, a separate vine species native to North America, though the etymology is the same. Lambrusco translates to “wild grape,” and this series of varieties is said to be domesticated from wild vines. Accordingly, some Lambrusco varieties share characteristics with Vitis vinifera subsp. sativa, the subspecies for wild cultivars. Like wild vines, Lambrusco di Sorbara cannot self-pollinate. Though genetically hermaphroditic, its flowers display only female sex organs. To remedy its challenges with fruit set, the variety must be interplanted with a separate pollinator (often Lambrusco Salamino).
While a host of Lambrusco varieties have been identified, five are most important for quality and quantity. Lambrusco di Sorbara yields the lightest, most floral Lambrusco wines, while the thicker-skinned Lambrusco Grasparossa makes the most tannic and structured. Centered between the two is the most cultivated Lambrusco variety, Lambrusco Salamino, whose name refers to the salami shape of its bunches. These three are most associated with the province of Modena, while Lambrusco Marani is associated with Reggio Emilia and Lambrusco Maestri with Parma. Lambrusco Marani wines show both elevated tannin and acid, and Lambrusco Maestri wines are the most fruit driven and generous.
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