Colin Davies’ journey through Italy’s wine-growing regions takes him from Emilia-Romagna south to Toscana, Umbria, Le Marche and Lazio
Pictures by Colin Davies

So… I find myself in paradise! More importantly, the grapes which make wine, vitis vinifera, think so too. The Centro region makes the most stunning range of quality DOC and DOCG wines in Italy.

Emerging from the northern hillsides, we cross the great physical and psychological barrier running west-east across the whole country – the valley of the River Po. Flat and wide, it covers Italy’s most fertile agricultural land, producing the rich cuisine of Parma, Bologna and Modena. Running southward and rising steeply out of the plains are the Apennines – the spine of Italy. They divide the Adriatic Sea on the east from the Ligurian and Tyrrhenean seas on the west, thereby creating the perfect conditions for ripening grapes in the hot dry climate. Rolling hills reaching 1,700 metres result in cool evenings and clear, clean air when the sun shines.

Emilia – Romagna

Italy’s wine production is 1,600 million gallons a year and the prolific grapes from the rich alluvial soil of the Po Valley account for 250 million gallons of that total. However in my opinion the Emilia- Romagna region produces quaffing rather than quality wine. Only 12 percent of the regional total is of DOC quality, most of this being the famous Lambrusco grape giving the fizzy wine of the same name.

Modern Lambrusco is frothy, fruity, typically red and is to be drunk young and fresh. The other Lambrusco styles are dry, off-dry, amabile (slightly sweet), white, pink and low alcohol. The UK and the USA take 95 percent of the Lambrusco exports with 36 million bottles going to the USA each year from a single co-operative called Cantine Riunite de Reggio nell’Emilia. It is still possible to find authentic Lambrusco – where the spritz comes from secondary fermentation in the bottle – but it is becoming increasingly rare.

If you are on holiday in Rimini or San Marino, there is a youthful red worth drinking called Sangiovese di Romagna, but in general the region is more famous for its food than its wines.

‘Chiantishire’

On the other hand Tuscany has a long and noble wine tradition. Florence (the capital of European banking in medieval times) has records detailing which wines were produced, by whom, in what quantity and at what price. In 1338 Florence’s population was 90,000 and the weekly wine consumption was, on average, one gallon per head! Wine was exported to London, Paris and Flanders via Pisa and Marseilles. By 1385 the two noble houses of the Marchesi Antinori and Frescobaldi (the Frescobaldi family were bankers to the kings of England in the 12th and 13th centuries) had formed a guild establishing strict codes of practice to protect the quality of wine: the arte dei vinattieri. Today the two Marchesi still lead a consortium to protect wine standards in Tuscany.

Tuscany may not be the centre of Italy’s economic or political life now, but it is certainly at the centre of its quality DOC and DOCG wine production. The most well-known Tuscan wine is Chianti, produced in the areas around Florence and Siena. Chianti sales exceed all other wines and with exports of 25 million gallons per annum, it is still Italy’s largest DOC group. In general, it provides very fruity, medium-bodied, dry reds – great to drink in summer or winter with a wide variety of foods.

Today’s Chianti has between five and seven approved grapes and more than 20 DOCs, but this was not always the case. There were originally 13 approved grapes and seven DOC zones resulting in such a variation in quality that better producers tried to achieve independent DOCs relating to their own village or estate. If they failed, they were obliged to label their wine Vino da Tavola (table wine). Chianti is still one of the few wines in the world where white grapes can be included in the blend. Add to that the fact that up to 15 percent of the wine can be added from sources outside the region and ten percent can be made from non-Italian grapes, and it is little wonder that serious producers abandoned the official DOC system and established their own, higher, standards.

Super – Tuscans!

The reputation of centuries was lost in the period 1950 –1980 due to the popularity of indifferent quality wine in raffia–covered fiaschi. They made good table lamps but poor wine! In 1984 a DOCG was introduced with higher standards, but measurements were again in percentages of appropriate grapes and confusion continued.

Today the great winemakers have their own even more exacting criteria and the success of producers Antinori, Frescobladi, Biondi-Santi and Banfi has resulted in ‘Super-Tuscan’ table wine. They are all labelled vino da tavola but fetch inflated prices because of their fabulous quality. They illustrate just how great the wine from this region can be. (Wine using only the zone name tends to be of a poorer standard.)

Perhaps the king of Super-Tuscans is Sassicaia. It was the first to break the Chianti DOC rules in the 1970s by using 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. It was recently granted its own DOC thus acknowledging the reputation it has brought to the tiny town of Bolgheri near the Tuscan coast. However, the price of fame is high – agricultural land prices have increased from £1,350 to £100,000 per hectare over the same period and a single bottle, if you can find it, will cost you at least £100.

Le Marche

Overlooking the Adriatic is the Marches region and dominating the wines is Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. This is a delicate dry white, perfect with fish caught locally from the villages on the coast. The tiny district around the hilltops of Castelli di Jesi produces the best Verdicchio grape. Whilst outstanding reds are very difficult to find at present, both Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno are seriously good quality wines produced from the Tuscan grapes Sangiovese and Montepulciano.

Umbria

From Umbria comes the famous white wine from Orvieto, based on the Trebbiano grape. Wine from this grape can be immensely dull, bland and acidic, and Orvieto wines lost their reputation through the 1960s to the1980s with poor, dry whites. Today the quality has improved as the yields have reduced and Bigi’s Torricella is well worth a try. Since the 1980s, medium and sweet Orvietos have also been produced.
Antinori produces a stunning chardonnay at Castello della Sala, and Lungarotti’s Rubesco Riserva Torgiano, using Sangiovese, is a stunning red.

Lazio

On the road to Italy’s capital, Rome, the heat is noticeably stronger, the Apennines much lower and good vineyards much rarer. Latium or Lazio is the fifth largest wine producer in Italy but very little red is produced - surprising considering the climate is very well suited to red production. Recently Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes have been introduced which may increase the quantity of red in the future.

I can’t recommend any red wines, but can suggest a white which has an amusing history. On the borders of Umbria and Lazio a tiny DOC area produces a wine from Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes, called EST! EST!! EST!!! Every journey a Pope made from Rome with a substantial entourage, needed an outrider to organise stops for refreshment and sleep. He would chalk comments on doors recommending lunch, dinner or bed. On arrival in the village of Montefiascone, he found a dry white wine he really liked. On the first door, he chalked EST! (It is – good). At the second door he tasted the wine and also liked it – EST!! – and the final tasting of the wine was deserving of EST!!!

Just south of Rome the Alban Hills produces a delightful fresh dry white – Frascati. My favourite is Colli di Catoni – delicate, bone dry and served well chilled as a wonderful aperitif.

In Rome itself it doesn’t matter if we can’t find any local wines as every level of restaurant has a good selection of all Italian wines. Family-run trattorie in the back streets are veritable treasure houses of interesting wines!

And so ends our stroll through Il Centro. With the largest selection of quality wines available it has captured the hearts and minds of thousands for two millennia. It is also one of the most complicated regions to understand, and it changes almost daily.

CIAO! We meet next in the south of Italy - Il Sud - where more dramatic changes in the Italian wine industry have taken place than anywhere else in the country, and yet tradition is still apparent in the style of their wines.

To read the other artiles in this series please visit:

1. Vino in Veritas - Italian Wines
2.Vino in Veritas II - Piedmont and Northwest Italy
3.Vino in Veritas III - Il Centro
4.Vino in Verita IV - Il sud - the south and islands