25 Apr 2012

You’d never know (Umbria, Italy – Day One)

When you think about the most impressive and unique wine towns in the world, there are some that immediately spring to mind. Not necessarily for the quality of the wines, that goes without saying for many, but for a combination of other factors. Chateauneuf-du-Pape and St. Emilion for example are gorgeous old villages that sit on top of hills with vineyards surrounding them. Montalicino sits in the midst of forests and vineyards, with spectacular views of the Tuscan countryside thanks to the altitude. Villages in Alba like Serralunga d’Alba and Castiglione Falleto seem to be perched on the side of hills about to fall off. Traben-Trarbach and Bernkastel-Kues sit on opposite sides of the Mosel River, connected by historic bridges. Cafayate in the Salta region of Argentina is so isolated and small you would never know it was there, and feels like a Wild West town. Nothing could prepare me for Orvieto in south western Umbria, near the border of Tuscany and Lazio. The geological origins of the area are a combination of volcanic and inland sea, and sit on the famous Tiber River. The village itself sits on top of prehistoric rock, and was once a medieval castle. Inhabitants have not only built homes amongst the narrow cobblestone streets, but they also used the rock like a natural city wall and carved passages and cellars into it. The population exceeded the village long ago, and residential areas have spilled out into the surrounds underneath. In the past the region was famous for the quality of the white wines, but became associated with very simple fruit driven wines many years ago. Small producers are attempting to return the region to its former glory, and one such producer is Palazzone who I visited to learn more about the region.

The majestic village of Orvieto
Back in the late ‘60s Italy was in a state of change, as land ownership and agricultural practices went from a semi-feudal state to a modern agrarian system. Previously large land owners allowed farmers to live and work the land, and they paid rent by providing the crops to the owners. When the government changed the system the farmers couldn’t afford to buy the land they were living on, nor could they afford to pay monetary rent as they were not really earning any money. This made land very cheap, particularly in areas for viticulture, and continued into the ‘80s before the boom of Italian wine began. This was a great time to invest in viticulture and winemaking, but was very risky at the time as there wasn’t a lot of money in it. Whilst visiting friends in Orvieto from Rome, Giovanni Dubini’s family fell in love with the landscape and purchased land.

Giovanni above his vineyards
His father planted vineyards and some olive trees, and for many years sold the fruit to local cooperatives. The initial focus was on producing more fruit to get more money, and it wasn’t until the late ‘70s that they considered making their own wine. They invested in some equipment and began setting aside some of the best fruit in each vintage, selling the rest to the cooperative. Giovanni studied viticulture and winemaking in Perugia, and gained experience in regions around the world including the Mornington Peninsula and Hunter Valley in Australia. He then looked at the vineyards, and began the slow transition towards quality by replanting vineyards to particular varieties, densities and trellising systems. Whilst the local D.O.C. consistently changed the laws concerning the use of varieties and yields, he remained committed to the use of indigenous varieties and making wines in a traditional way. Today he is regarded as one of the best white winemakers in Umbria, and despite his acclaim still only produces wine from 12 hectares of vineyards. Oak is really only used for the IGT red wines, with at least 80% of production being white wines made in stainless steel tanks.

Etruscan cellars
The Terre Vineate Orvieto Superiore 2011 was very fresh and bright with apples and kiwis on the nose, bold and textural on the palate and some intense minerality and richness as well. The Grek is a 100% grechetto, which is not allowed in the DOC and thus is classifies as an IGT wine. The 2011 vintage had a richer yellow colour and more intense nose of grapefruit and cumquat, had great elegance and purity on the palate, and whilst approachable and fresh had some complexity and texture. The Campo del Guardino Orvieto Superiore 2009 was the most complex of the white wines but also the richest and most expressive. On the nose there was both delicate florals and elegant herbs and spices, but also citrus and tropical notes too, whilst on the palate was mineralic and focused, with rich ripe fruit and texture. The Rubbio 2010, a blend of 60% sangiovese, and 20% each of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, showed quite spicy dark red fruits on the nose, with a mellow and rich earthy texture and softness, adding in some herbal warmth complexity. The Piviere is a 100% sangiovese red wine, and the 2009 had lovely sweet and mellow dark fruits, was very juicy and intense, but showed some nutty oak elements with the fresh red currant acidity. Rather than continue with the tasting as it was getting late, I joined Giovanni and his wife in the village for dinner where we enjoyed some local cuisine with a bottle of orvieto from Cantine Bigi, one of the large but very good cooperative wineries.

Treasures from Giovanni's past
Click here to see more photos from Day One in Umbria, Italy.

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