Umbria & Wine – An Overview
The region of Umbria is located right in the centre of Italy, the landscape comprises hills, valleys and mountains as well as Lake Trasimeno. Most of the wine growing areas follow the Tiber and other river valleys or are found around the Lake. Since the 1990’s the region’s wines have increased considerably in quality, and, although, by no means as famous (or easily found) as wines from neighbouring Tuscany, their reputation is growing steadily. The climate in this landlocked region is continental, hot summers and cold winters with plenty of ventilation for the vines and rainfall throughout the year (but predominately in the autumn and winter).
You may have come across Orvieto Classico DOC, the famous white wine grown on volcanic soil in the south of the region around the town of the same name. Other wines that you may have noticed outside of Italy are the reds Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG and Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG. There are several other DOC wines produced in the region as well as a number of excellent IGTs. If you’re not sure what the terms DOCG, DOC and IGT mean, don’t worry, read my post on Italian Wine Classification and hopefully all will become clear!
Umbrian Wines & Vines
Around 90,100,000 litres of wine are made in Umbria each year, from roughly half red and half white grapes, 45% DOP (DOCG and DOC) and 44% IGP (IGT).
53% of the wines are red or rosé, the main red grapes are sangiovese, merlot, sagrantino, cabernet sauvignon and montepulciano. The main white grapes are trebbiano and grechetto.
Grape Varieties Grown In Umbria
Red Grapes (percentages are of all grapes grown in Umbria):
Sagrantino (8%) is found mainly around the town of Montefalco from where it originates, and is known for making tannic, full bodied wines. There are hardly any wines with Sagrantino in it from outside Umbria. It is used to make Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG (as a varietal) and blended to make Rosso di Montefalco DOC.
Sangiovese is the most widely grown grape in Umbria contributing to 20% of the total. Sometimes blended (often with cabernet sauvignon and merlot) or made as a varietal, it is most famously used in Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG where it is blended with Canaiolo and other varieties.
Ciliegiolo (2%) is grown all over Umbria but has become associated with the town of Narni which produces a varietal wine with this grape. The wine is delicate, fruity and light in tannin.
Canaiolo Nero (1%) is a local grape, usually added to blends for alcohol, body, softness, fruity aromas and a slight bitterness in the finish.
Montepulciano (2%, note this is a grape and is not the town in Tuscany also famous for wine) is grown all over Umbria but particularly around Terni.
Gamay (1%, confusingly, this is not the Gamay grape used in Beaujolais Nouveaux but is actually Grenache, also known as Garnacha or Cannonau if you drink Spanish and Sardinian wine.) This grape is grown around Lake Trasimeno where it is suited to the climate, sometimes called Gamay del Trasimeno.
Merlot (11%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (5%) are the main red international varieties, these are often blended with Sangiovese (frequently used in Umbrian IGTs) and sometimes released as Bordeaux style (Cabernet and Merlot) wines.
White Grapes (percentages are of all grapes grown in Umbria)
Grechetto (11%) is found all over Umbria, in the past it was often used to make rustic wines intended for local consumption, however, with the use of modern winemaking techniques, the quality of wines from this grape is rising steadily and there are now some excellent examples available. The two main varieties are Grechetto di Todi and Grechetto di Orvieto (used with Trebbiano and other varieties to make Orvieto Classico wines).
Trebbiano (15%). The main varieties grown in Umbria are Toscano, Giallo (yellow) and increasingly Spoletino (Spoleto is an Umbrian town). Trebbiano is a high yielding vine and in the past was often grown for this reason, however, if the crop is kept under control with good vine management it can produce wines with a good acidity, structure, citrus and vegetable aromas, sometimes reminiscent of a sauvignon blanc.
Malvasia Bianca (4%) grows mainly in the north of Umbria, where, if you can find a bottle, it produces a delicate wine with good acidity and aromatics. My local vineyard, I Girasoli di Sant’Andrea, blends it with grechetto and a grape from northern Italy, friulano, to make an excellent, reasonably priced white.
Il Verdello (2%) often blended with grechetto and trebbiano toscano to add intensity and freshness.
Chardonnay (3%) and Sauvignon Blanc (1%) are also widely grown in Umbria. sauvignon blanc is used in the famous “muffato” (moldy) dessert wines from Orvieto which are made from grapes dried out by the botrytis mold, also known as noble rot.
Wine Growing Areas In Umbria
There are six principle wine growing areas within the region of Umbria, these are Perugia-Assisi, Torgiano, Lake Trasimeno, Montefalco-Todi-Colli Martani, Terni and Orvieto. I should add that the Upper Tiber Valley, where we are based, is an up and coming wine area where you can find some superb wines at very reasonable prices.
The Upper Tiber Valley is the most northerly wine growing area in Umbria. The vineyards are scattered around the hills of the Tiber and adjoining valleys. Most producers seem to ignore the Colli Altotiberini (Upper Tiber Hills) DOC because no one has heard of it, and instead put out some excellent value for money wines (mainly reds) that usually feature sangiovese under an IGT label. This is the area where most of our rental villas are located, if you come here, don’t expect to drive through endless vineyards but do be prepared to discover some good local wine at a very reasonable price.
Trasimeno, Perugia, Assisi and Torgiano: these four wine regions stretch across the centre of Umbria, Trasimeno borders Montepulciano in the west and, in the east, the Assisi region finishes on the western slopes of the Appennine foothills.
Lake Trasimeno wine area borders Montepulciano in Tuscany, Colli Perugini to the east and Colli Altotiberini to the north. Wines from the Lake area do not command the same price as those from Montepulciano, but, on the western side of the Lake, the vineyards from the two regions are often adjacent. I have drunk many excellent wines from small producers in the Trasimeno area and will be definitely be writing more posts about vineyard visits here in the future. The climate and soils around Trasimeno are suited to growing sangiovese, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and ciliegiolo. Also look out for Gamay Trasimeno DOC, in reality the grape called gamay trasimeno is identical to grenache. White wines are made with grechetto, trebbiano toscano, pinot grigio and bianco and there is also a small amount of chardonnay produced.
Colli Perugini The area covered by Colli Perugini DOC (Perugian hills) is south of Perugia and is bordered by the right bank of the Tiber. To the west the zone borders the Lake Trasimeno DOC. The Assisi DOC Sangiovese and trebbiano toscano are the main varieties grown here. Typically, red blends are sangiovese with the local variety ciliegiolo or merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
Torgiano A small (250 hectare) wine area to the south east of Perugia that produces wines of great structure with high alcohol content and minerality. The area has its own DOCG, Torgiano Rosso Riserva, (note that only the riserva is DOCG, if a wine is labelled simply “Torgiano Rosso” it will be the less prestigious DOC. Maybe you’re starting to feel confused, I didn’t say this would be easy! Until recently there was only one vineyard that made Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG, Lungarotti, who basically had a DOCG created for their wine. They have now been joined in production of the DOCG by their neighbours, Terre Margaritelli. The Torgiano reds are blends of (mainly) sangiovese with ciliegolo and montepulciano grapes. Torgiano Rossa Riserva DOCG is the same blend (supposedly the white grape trebbiano is also permitted, but I would be surprised if either of the two producers add it) and is aged for three years giving it more structure and intense, complex aromas of dried flowers, chocolate and Mediterranean herbs.
Assisi As in the rest of central Umbria, the main grape is sangiovese, often blended with cabernet sauvignon and merlot to make Assisi Rosso IGT. The Assisi Rosso blends that I have tried are reliably good and great value for money. White wines are usually made with grechetto and trebbiano toscano.
Montefalco The Montefalco area is directly south of Torgiano and to the east of Colli Perugini, it is just to the south west of Asissi The countryside around Montefalco and the small towns of Montefalco, Bastardo, Bevagna, Castel Ritaldi, Giano dell’Umbria and Gualdo Cattaneo comprise the Montefalco wine growing area which is famous for the uniquely Umbrian grape, sagrantino.
Sagrantino is a thick skinned late ripening variety that (due to its thick skin) is rich in polyphenols and high in sugar (due to late ripening). It is possibly the world’s most tannic grape and needs careful ageing in oak to mellow out. Traditionally made as a “passito” sweet wine, sagrantino’s thick skin means that the grape is ideally suited to being dried indoors after harvest. The drying process has the effect of concentrating the sugars and when the grapes are pressed a small amount of juice is obtained. Most of the wineries making sagrantino make a limited amount of Sagrantino Passito DOCG (usually sold in half bottles) but these days the grape is most commonly used to make a dry wine, Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG (also called Sagrantino Montefalco DOCG). Be warned, this is not a wine for the faint hearted, it is not made for sipping gently on its own, it requires a hearty meal to balance the tannins.
Sagrantino di Montefalco is a deep ruby red, it has to be aged for 34 months before release and 12 months of this should be in the bottle. The nose is usually of dark fruit, sweet spice, tobacco and balsamic notes.
Colli Martani, Todi and Spoleto The Colli Martani district includes both the Montefalco and Todi wine areas as well as some of the Spoleto wine area too. As a result, many of the wineries in these areas will put out a white wine made with grechetto under the Colli Martani DOC. There is also a Colli Martani Sangiovese DOC but I don’t think that I have ever tried a bottle.
The town of Todi has its own variety of grechetto, Grechetto di Todi, this makes a wine high in alcohol and acidity with a nose of tropical fruit, yellow flowers. As with all wines made with the grechetto grape, it usually has a delicate aftertaste of almonds.
The town of Spoleto is best known for the trebbiano variety called Trebbiano Spoletino. This increasingly popular grapes make wines with intense fruit aromas and flavours. I definitely recommend trying some when you come to Umbria.
Orvieto and Lago di Corbara The Lago di Corbara wine area is almost all within the Orvieto Classico region. The Corbara Lake was created by a dam across the Tiber. Here you will find grapes such as aleatico, cesanese and colorino grapes as well as pinot noir and merlot. The lake created ideal conditions for making sweet wines from grapes that dehydrated on the vine by botrytis mold, for this to occur you need regular foggy mornings and sunny afternoons.
The Orvieto wine growing area actually crosses into the region of Lazio in the south and borders the Lago Trasimeno region in the north. It is famous for Orvieto Classico DOC white wines with good structure and minerality thanks to the area’s volcanic soils. Trebbiano toscano and grechetto are the principle grapes but verdello, canaiolo bianco, malvasia and chardonnay can also go into the blend. Traditionally the wine was slightly sweet (aboccato) but these days 95% of production is dry wine.
If you like dessert wines do look out for Orvieto Muffa Nobile, produced around Lago di Corbara by allowing the Botrytis cinerea (noble rot) mold to dehydrate the grapes (see above).
Terni The Colli Amerini (Amelian hills) DOC covers the extreme southern point of Umbria, the local grape variety, ciliegolo, is used in the red wine here but also look out for wines made with malvasia toscana. Sangiovese is also widely grown here and is used in many IGT wines from the area.