Uncorking Umbria: A Guide to the Best Wines of the Umbrian Region
This is a kind of diary about our last wine trip to Umbria. In this extraordinary land, human genius and the generosity of nature have been interweaving with one another for centuries, creating a fabulous landscape made of hills draped with olive trees, forests, vineyards, and small stony villages, which recall the Renaissance frescoes by Perugino.
Umbria is often called the “green heart” of Italy, which is too simple a way to describe a region with such a rich history of art, culture, winemaking, and food.
Umbria has a discreet, hidden charm. Fortunately, tourism is less frenetic: tourists are rarefied and wander around warily, as if they wouldn’t disturb the silence that reigns supreme, save for a few lonely bells.
The silence also covers Assisi and its crows of pilgrims. When the sun goes down, everything slowly cools down, the shadows lengthen on the walls, and this calm does nothing but accentuate the feeling of being in a land where the past has never stopped living.
The atmosphere is mystical, and the mountains surrounding the great Umbrian plains are full of monasteries, churches, and solitary places that recall the peace of the Buddhist monasteries on Mount Koya in Japan; it’s easy to indulge in the pleasure of meditation among these rocks, in search of your ego.
By the way, what is surprising is the variety each area has to offer. When you scroll through the map of Umbria, you’ll notice that each city is associated with something good: a Slow Food specialty, a plate of umbricelli topped with delicious truffle slices that will brighten your day, a white wine in a land of bold reds, a bloody anecdote related to one of the many feudal lords who battled from one castle to the next, but most will be the simple beauty of the villages to seduce you.
Our journey begins in the south of Umbria, with the beautiful churches in the historic center of this ancient city, which experienced a sudden industrialization following Italy’s unification, which completely changed its physiognomy. On the right bank of the Nera River, you can immerse yourself in a steampunk location that has few equals: old factories, derelict warehouses, and iron and steel skeletons sadly dozing among the houses built in the late nineteenth century in what was to be a neighborhood based on the precepts of industrial positivism. If you like old industrial architecture, this is your place.
After so much metal, a trip to Marmore’s waterfalls will quench your thirst for natural wonders. We can continue to the west, along the border with Lazio; we are entering the DOC Colli Amerini, the youngest in Umbria. You know those fairy tale books’ illustrations where a castle dominates a sea of chubby wooded hills, with many sunflowers popping in sunny fields, and everything seems peaceful?
This is the view that awaits you, with many feuds scattered along the road that winds along the course of the Nera River. Stroncono, emerging from a sea of olive trees, and the fortress of Narnia and Amelia, surrounded by walls built by the Cyclops, are the few but necessary stops. You do not have to stay here for days and days; the cities are delicious on their own; a walk is enough; and even just traveling from one village to another is an absolute pleasure.
Majolo, from Zanchi, is an unblended Tuscan Malvasia. a white that seems cut in stone, full and structured, with a warm roundness that unfolds in flowers, butter, and ripe yellow plums.
Castello delle Regine’s Merlot sumptuous, rich in spices and substance, and able to translate the nuances of this rocky terroir into a round and supple elegance.
The particularity of Orvieto is the volcanic stone that grows up in the hills around, making the landscape unique and the wine inimitable. The view of the city standing on a red cliff, with the pinnacles of the cathedral rising in the sky, is so perfect that it seems unreal, like a giant plastic model built by divine hands. Maybe watching Las Vegas appear on Interstate 15 is a comparable shock.
You should spend a whole day in the city, visiting places like the cathedral, which has Luca Signorelli’s amazing frescoes of the Last Judgment, and the Popes’ Palace, which has some of the best art collections in the world. And if you spare some time, Soliano palace is a monumental tower made of tuff, inside which you can find an excellent statue museum. The next day, explore the lesser-known churches in the narrow streets, take a trip to the Etruscan necropolis just outside the walls, and prepare for the winery tour.
Don’t forget to visit Decugnano dei Barbi, one of the oldest—they have been known since 1212, when it was an ecclesiastical possession. Expect great white wines, a maze of tunnels dug into the tuff, and the first sparkling wine made in Umbria using the Spumante Metodo Classico method.
Palazzone Winery instead has the opposite philosophy: they grow mostly native grapes—Grechetto and Procanico—according to the ancient, classic Orvieto recipe, but with a modern approach, and you can find pleasant surprises such as Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.
Vigna del Sole, from a small organic winery called Tenuta di Freddano, is an ode to this land. clean and saline, with an elegant bouquet of herbs and a zipping thickness that lingers in the mouth.
The Orvieto Classico Campo del Guardiano comes from a small cru owned by the Palazzone winery. This first-class white wine displays uniqueness and harmony: it starts with plenty of ripe fruit, broom, almonds, melon, and weeds and suddenly turns to herbs. It becomes almost pungent, always supported by an incredible mineral escalation.
Ficulle, into the wild
Going north, towards Lake Trasimeno, you’ll find a less crowded but still pristine, rustic charm land. The western hills of Umbria are the ideal destination for those who want nature, hiking in the woods, castles perched on the rocks, and very difficult-to-reach wineries, but which are perhaps among the most original and sincere as output.
After a stop in the picturesque and gothic town of Ficulle, you have to prepare to lay siege to the Castello della Sala, where among these peaks is grown an awfully good Pinot Noir.
Muffato della Sala is a iconic wine, one of the most stylish and famous Sauternes style wine in Italy and to be honest its reputation is deserved. However, with the 2007 vintage, Palazzone’s Muffa Nobilis has thrown down the gauntlet, a diamond-encrusted gauntlet.
If you love red, bold wines, Vitalonga is your go-to winery. They produce only red wines and with knowledge of the facts, since the surrounding soil is predominantly made of clay. Montepulciano, Merlot, Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are opulent, tamed by the elegance of oak, very warm and exuberant, even if the goal is to create elegant wines. We are on the right track.
Terre di Confine, Vitalonga, a supple wine with plenty of spiced and herby nuances that are gently fading into an echo of plum, cocoa and cherries.
Cervaro della Sala. Elegant and fruity, with hints of almonds and honey wrapped in a salty zing that keeps this gold nectar always and bravely straight. A good riddle of sweet and sharp spices carves the finish, with a flashback of slices of ripe golden apples and baked peaches.
A couple of days are enough to stroll along the banks of the lake and discover the villages around. To the east, Castiglione del Lago is clearly the most charming village, thanks to a water-bordering walk on the walls of the Castello del Leone. Even Panicale and Magione are lovely towns, especially Magione, for the castle of the Knights of Malta and their winery, which produces unpretentious but juicy wines.
We are not far from Montepulciano, so the soil is not in doubt; the lake also contributes to the creation of a warm microclimate, making this location ideal for the cultivation of high-quality vineyards, the most notable of which are Gamay, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet.
The 2008 Nero di Cavalieri A Pinot Noir in central Italy? Produced at the Knights of Malta’s winery? Are you kidding me? Not at all! It’s fresh, with currants, anise, and a delicious minty finish. Definitely worth trying.
Capofoco 2008, from Madrevita winery A delicate wine with silky textures and the fruity liveliness of the Montepulciano grape: perfect for sipping in front of the lake’s waves.
Torgiano is the ultimate city for wine lovers. A small enclave where everything revolves around the precious grape juice fermentation: like a living amphitheater, the vines hug the hill on which it stands, and inside you will find both the museums of wine and oil and a couple of pretty churches. After that, you are free to visit the wineries, with Lungarotti and Terre Margaritelli standing out of the pack.
Focus on Torgiano bianco, made of Trebbiano toscano and Grechetto, a nice, salty, and lean-edged white wine with plenty of herbs, and then on Torgiano rosso, made of Sangiovese, a simple, everyday wine with a tart plum and cherry vitality that will seduce you.
Torgiano rosso riserva is a high-quality DOCG produced with only the best grapes and requiring one year in barrel and a few years in the bottle. 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir is the formula for Torgiano Spumante Methode Classico.
Costellato 2011, a high-quality white Torgiano from Terre Margaritelli, for its mineral freshness and vibrant fruit storm.
Torgiano Rosso, Riserva Monticchio 2008, from Lungarotti Monumental structure and mineral intensity condensed into the glass, with spices strategically placed to make the fruit mysterious and round, yet deliciously tart with rhubarb and tea leaves present.
Our journey in Umbria ends here; for further grape musings, check out our Montefalco report and the Umbrian wineries pages, but we want to close with a remark on the title: Umbrian Renaissance.
We have chosen it in homage to the glorious past of this region, but also because we hope it could be a good omen for the future, for the potential that this area has to become one of the most coveted destinations, not just among foodies and wine lovers and St. Francis lovers, but for anyone who wants to discover a wonderful land too.