Umbria has long been renowned for white wine, thanks mainly to the historical prominence of Orvieto. But evidence is now irrefutable that the scenic hills of the “green heart of Italy” have an aptitude for a multitude of varieties, white and red, native and foreign. The region’s two DOCG wines, Montefalco Sagrantino and Torgiano Rosso Riserva, are red.
Orvieto was once the most celebrated of Italian whites as a semisweet or abboccato wine, praised by the popes, princes and painters who sojourned in the hill town north of Rome with its splendid Cathedral and sweeping views over the Umbrian landscape. But as tastes changed Orvieto was modified from a soft, golden wine into a pale, pure, crisp creature of modern enology.
In Umbria, modern Orvieto is a commercial success as one of Italy’s best-selling DOC whites with a solid following abroad. Recently some producers have achieved more character in the wine through lower grape yields, more meticulous selection, and by letting the grape skins remain in contact with the juice for a while before fermentation. Orvieto’s abboccato and amabile versions have begun to make a comeback as dessert wines.
Although Procanico (a local species of Trebbiano) and Malvasia prevail in Orvieto, growers in the zone have been working successfully with such outside varieties as Chardonnay, Sauvignon and the Pinots, as well as the admirable local Grechetto. Red wine from the area is covered by the DOCs of Rosso Orvietano and Lago di Corbara.
The first Umbrian red to achieve prominence was Torgiano Rosso riserva, which gained special status as DOCG (though the Torgiano DOC appellation covers a range of other wines). A modern classic based on Sangiovese, Torgiano Rosso riserva has been known to age to unique splendor for two decades or more.
The Umbrian wine that has made the greatest recent impact is Sagrantino di Montefalco. Sagrantino, an ancient variety grown only around the hill town of Montefalco, is an intriguing native that makes both dry and sweet wines of unmistakable grandeur. It, too, has been granted a special DOCG, separate from the DOC Montefalco for lighter red and white wines.
Among the many outside varieties planted in Umbria, Merlot and Barbera have been prominent for more than a century. More recently, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay have shown promise in varietal wines and in blends. Even Pinot Nero has given indications of more than the usual class here.
Umbria has numerous curiosities among its vines and wines, though few of the local rarities ever leave the region. Vin Santo, pressed from semidried Grechetto or Malvasia grapes, is usually sweet and most prized by Umbrians as a wine for any occasion.
Umbria’s 11 DOCs are led in popularity by the white of Orvieto, historically sweet or abboccato, but now usually dry. Less renowned but even more coveted by cognoscenti are two reds, the venerable Torgiano Rosso Riserva and the voluptuous Sagrantino di Montefalco, both of which have been promoted to DOCG.