In Spring 2015 I ran seven tours to Umbria and Southern Tuscany. We last visited Tuscany in 2005, but rather than repeat that tour I was keen to go over the regional border into Umbria to discover more about the wines of Montefalco and Torgiano.
Umbria is half way between Rome and Florence. Its most famous town is Assisi, which was regularly in our sights as we visited vineyards. The countryside is less dramatic than Tuscany, but many of us thought it was more ‘real’. It was refreshing to see the crops growing in the fields, rather than a patchwork of vineyards and olive groves. And personally I think the food is better – at virtually all of our tastings we were presented with exquisite salamis, pates and cheese – in fact the key challenge of the tours was to leave enough room for our next meal!
People arriving on the Wednesday at Rome airport gathered together and I provided a coach to Perugia, our base. Others who had already been holidaying in the region joined us there. Perugia is a university town, with the old centre perched on a hillside (as indeed are all old towns in this part of Italy), and helpful escalators, funicular railways and monorails assisting exploration. Our hotel, the Fortuna, was right in the centre, and was charming. No two rooms were the same, and while some had rather smaller bathrooms than others, every room was comfortable, and many had windows and balconies presenting views of the mountains in the distance. All the staff were friendly and helpful, the breakfast was ample, and we made good use of the two roof terraces as the evening temperatures rose.
Perugia is full of places to eat, and I was spoilt for choice for our two group dinners. On the night we arrived we went to Caffe di Perugia, and embarked on the first of many gastronomic challenges – how to find room for a series of courses that are all fabulous. We expended some energy trying to pronounce what we were eating: sfogliatina (puff pastry with rocket and brie) for a starter (with an Orvieto Classico Superiore), Stinco (ham hock) for main (with a 2005 Sangiovese). Risotto and pasta intervened between the unpronouncables, and we (or at least most of us) finished with an oozing warm chocolate tart.
From our very first tour in April, we had the most glorious weather, and with the exception of one tour, were bathed in sunshine. Being lucky enough to repeat the tour seven times I had the benefit of seeing the vines develop, but on every visit (even the one tour when we had rain) we got out into the vineyards and examined the different approaches to training the vines, managing the vegetation under the vines, and the impact of different soil types. Several of the producers we visited were organic, or in conversion to organic, and we heard first hand about the challenges of keeping the vines healthy without the help of chemical inputs.
A Day in Montefalco discovering Sagrantino
On each tour our first day was spent mainly in the Montefalco area. Less than 25km from Perugia, a half hour drive in the coach, this is the home of the Sagrantino grape. Little known outside Italy, Sagrantino is a small-berried, thick skinned variety that in novice hands might make rather astringent tannic wines. Luckily we were with experts.
At Cantine Dionigi, we were hosted by Roberto and Carolina Dionigi. Roberto is the owner and winemaker, and has created a wonderful winery with views across his vineyards to Assisi and a underground tasting room. In the vineyards we were able to examine the difference between different vines – in addition to Sagrantino, Dionigi also grow Grecchetto, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Moscato. Guided by Carolina, Roberto’s English-speaking wife we started to learn about the impact of weather in different years in the vineyards, and at the tasting our understanding increased further. The highlight was a vertical tasting of their Sagrantino di Montefalco (100% Sagrantino). We tasted from the 2007, 2004, 2003, 2002 and 2001 vintages. All were deep, powerful wines with strong tannins. The ‘younger’ vintages had good fruit and were very approachable, while the 2001 had lost some fruit on the palate but was very elegant and a pleasure to drink. However it was the 2003 and 2002 that provided the most interesting contrast, and taught us most about the Sagrantino grape. 2002 had been a cold and wet year, and was judged at the time to be a poor vintage, whereas 2003 had been a hot and drought-struck year, producing extremely concentrated wines. To our surprise the 2002 came out far better – the fruit was still lively, and there was a lovely maturity about the wine. The 2003 by comparison was faded and had lost all fruit and most of its structure – the hot dry year had resulted in a short growing season, and in layman’s terms, tired vines – so the grapes didn’t have the right amount, or balance, of sugars, tannins, phenols and other elements, to make a great wine.
It might seem strange to be celebrating the fact we drank a wine that was ‘gone’, but that taught us more about how wines evolve than any book or magazine article might. Indeed, we learnt even more as Roberto also provided us with two vintages of his Rosso di Montefalco, which is 70% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino and 15% Merlot. The 2003 Rosso was drinking beautifully, with soft approachable fruit – evidence that Sangiovese withstands heat and drought far better than Sagrantino.
Watch Carolina describe Sagrantino and the other wines of Montefalco
In addition to our Rossos and Sagrantinos we also tasted some lovely Grechettos and two Passito wines (made by drying the grapes to a raisin like state before vinification, to achieve great concentration of sugars, and vinify sweet) – a Grecchetto (possibly the only one in the world) and a Sagrantino.
Watch Carolina explain how Passito wine is made
On every tour, it was really hard to leave Dionigi, and given the generous amounts of antipasti they had provided, hard to imagine lunch but with the help of a 20 minute power nap on the coach we always arrived at Cantina Raina in good form. Francesco Maraina, our host, provided the tours with a series of magnificent meals accompanied by his elegant wines – including Trebbiano Spoletino, Rosso de Montefalco, Sagrantino di Montefalco and a Sagrantino Passito (which went beautifully with his cheesecake).
Watch Francesco describe the meal for Tour 6 in the video below
On most tours I resisted the temptation to arrange another visit after lunch. By the time we left Raina it was four o’clock in the afternoon, and people were ready to call it a day. However, it was surprising how many of us, on each tour, ventured out into Perugia for some dinner, and even more surprising how many people returned to the hotel via one of the ice cream shops!
A day in Southern Tuscany
Our middle day of visits was spent in Southern Tuscany, a couple of hour’s coach drive away. On every tour we visited Poggio San Polo in Montalcino – one of the most architecturally stunning wineries I have ever visited. Not for flamboyance, but for the determination to use local materials and thoughtful design to create a winery that maintains ideal temperature and humidity throughout the year.
San Polo is an organic vineyard, blessed by its high elevation with fresh breezes which reduce the risk of fungal infections, and a stony soil that forces the vines to push roots deep down in search of moisture – which adds to the complexity of the flavour of the wine.
Visiting the vineyard with Giulia Grecchele, the local rep from Allegrini, a famous Veronese winery which had recently bought San Polo, or Nicola Boasi, the winemaker, we were confronted with a scene that could have come from Doctor Who: a pair of what looked like fog horns on the crest of the hill. These were actually solar chimneys, expelling warm air from the cellar beneath our feet. Within the cellar huge care had been taken to prevent condensation – no wall touched a barrel or tank, and the air was cooled using water from an underground stream.
Watch Giulia describe the story of the cellar at San Polo in the video below
In the cellar we tasted two wines from barrel, both Sangiovese. The 2012 presented great fruit intensity and tannic structure, while the 2013 (another cooler year) was less intense but more open. Both wines were destined to be made into Brunello di Montalcino, the flagship wine of the area, and 2012 will be a vintage to watch.
In the tasting room we tasted a Brunello from 2009 and also a 2013 Rubio IGT (regional appellation) which had Merlot and Cabernet Franc added to the Sangiovese , lending it some dark fruit aromas, and a Rosso di Montalcino (100% Sangiovese but less oak maturation than Brunello), which all groups found very approachable and elegant, and truth be told, more affordable for everyday drinking!
Different groups did different things after San Polo, as I experimented with restaurants and visits, it can be hard to get the balance right between covering an area comprehensively, and remembering that this is a holiday. Based on feedback I think that a future tour to Umbria would focus on just Umbrian wines, and we will return to Montalcino, Montepulciano and Cortona in a future Tuscany tour.
It was impressive, nonetheless, how many of us ventured out another night in search of cafes and restaurants, while others were happy to nurse a glass (or two) in the lounge or on the roof terrace.
A day in Torgiano
Our final day on all the tours was back in Umbria, another half hour drive this time south to the Torgiano region.
Our first visit was to Giovanni Cenci. Giovanni, who seems incredibly young, has taken on the role of vineyard manager, winemaker, cellar master, tour host, book-keeper and salesman for his family’s vineyard (which for his father and grandfather was a part time interest).
Passionate about wine from a young age, Giovanni trained in oenology and spent two years working in Bordeaux. Since his return he has built up production and now supplies many local restaurants with his wines made from Sangiovese, Merlot, Greccheto, Pinot Grigio and Trebbiano.
Incredibly generous with his time and his wine, and delighted to share his passion for winemaking and sustainability, Giovanni swept us around his vineyards, answered all our questions and is the first person I have ever met whose passion extends to replacing the old concrete posts supporting his vines with materials that are recyclable and therefore sustainable.
Watch Giovanni telling us about sustainability in the vineyard
Our knowledge about grape varieties continued to grow. Giovanni also told us that every year he harvests all of his Pinot Griogio in one night, with the help of forty friends wearing head torches. Pinot Grigio is more generally grown in Northern Italy, and it does not respond well to intense heat, so keeping it cool during harvest is essential. It also seemed to be a good excuse for a party when picking and sorting was over!
It is always a bit worrying when I take a group from a fabulous vineyard visit into the tasting – will the wines be as good as the visit so far? At Cantine Cenci they certainly were – lovely, well made wines, expressing their grape varieties beautifully, and good value for money (only one retailing for more than €10 per bottle. Giovanni doesn’t export (he can sell all his wines locally), so I suspect that more of his wine made it back to the UK in people’s hold baggage than any other producer we visited (I always arrange for the majority of the wines we taste on tour to be available for purchase for a short period when we return).
Our final visit was to Terre Margaritelli. Frederico Bibi was our host, and had a fanastic story to tell. He was running a food and wine business, making olive oil, when he was asked by the Margaritelli family to join them in a venture to grow wine on an old table grape estate. The family’s business was based on building materials for railways (originally timber, subsequently concrete – pace Giovanni), so they had no wine expertise and allowed Frederico to develop the estate according to his vision. Frederico is the best exponent of slow food I have ever met. He is not a dreamer, he has a sound business head, but he has set out to grow this business gradually with the focus being on quality at all times. He followed organic principles from the start but didn’t want to pigeon hole his wines into a small organic market, so he has only recently sought accreditation.
Watch Frederico talk about organic accreditation
The fact the estate is organic is particularly impressive given its size – many organic vineyards rely on being small to facilitate the intense amount of human effort required. Terre Margaritelli, with 60 hectares of vines, is one of the biggest contiguous vineyards in Italy. The hillsides the grapes grow on capture breezes all year round, reducing the risk of dampness and mildew. The soil is enriched by growing fava beans and wild flowers between the vines. The vines are interspersed with other vegetation, and there is an abundance of different species of plants and animals living alongside the vines, so much so that two hawks have taken residence and reduced the risk of bird attack as the grapes ripen. Luckily they didn’t seem interested in the swifts that regularly hurtled past us on their way to their roosts under the eaves.
Frederico also used his scientific approach, and the links of the Margaritelli family to forestry, to source the perfect oak for his barrels.
Watch Frederico talk about sourcing the perfect oak
Every group was enthralled by Frederico’s passion for his sustainable wine making, and his willingness to share the ups and downs of organic viticulture. His American wife Jennifer is a chef, and for each tour group she produced a fabulous lunch, with a centrepiece of a pork belly stuffed with fennel, rosemary and other herbs, complementing some lovely wines: the Costellato Bianco (Trebbiano, Fiano and Chardonnay), and a 100% Grecchetto Greco di Renabianca), two Rosso di Torgianos (Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Canajolo, a local grape variety), the 100% Sangiovese DOCG Freccia degli Scacchi, with two years in oak barrique. To our surprise a top food and wine match was a merlot with a cherry and custard tart. Beautiful ripe fruit, light-bodied and the softest tannins, an surprising and lovely pairing of a dry wine with a pudding.
We had a few hours on our return to stroll around Perugia, walk off some of our lunch, and do some last minute shopping. Then we gathered for one final meal – at La Taverna, a popular local restaurant just minutes from the hotel. With so many memories and stories to discuss, every group made our final meal a celebration of the tastes of Umbria and Southern Tuscany, the wines we had drunk, the food we had eaten and most importantly the people we had met.
Those of us returning home took the coach back to Rome airport on Sunday morning. Many people have told me it was their favourite tour – which given Umbria’s relative obscurity is high praise. In four days and nights of tasting I think every person on these tours experienced the warmth and generosity of the Umbrian people, the diversity and quality of the wine and food. Most of us I am sure vow to return.
“We would just like to say what a wonderful trip it was. Location perfect and the vineyards we visited really superb. Wines and food exceptionally good and the amount of tastings done, just the right balance (not to mention the weather!) Thank you for all your effort in making the tour such a memorable one.” –Lynne & Geoff Wilcox, Goring
“Thank you again for a fantastic wine tour. The Friday and Saturday were particularly memorable for their excellent wines, locations and personalities.” – Hilary Thompson, Ealing
“We really can’t compliment you highly enough. It was an excellent tour and completely surpassed our expectations. Perugia was lovely and the hotel was well-located. We thought your selection of wineries was inspired – really interesting in terms of their different approaches etc. The food was amazing – and the final lunch on the terrace at Terre Margaritelli was really quite memorable.” – Jon Berman, Reading