Jeroboams Education is a new series on our blog providing you with the lowdown on the most iconic wine producing regions of the world. Led by our super buying team, Peter Mitchell MW and Maggie MacPherson will introduce you to the key facts and a little history of all the regions you recognise but perhaps don’t know too well. To help really further your education, why not drink along? Browse our Central Italy selection.

Introduction

Central Italy is the heartland of Sangiovese and includes the regions of Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Abruzzo and Lazio.  With Tuscany covered in a separate document, we will be concentrating here on the last four of these.

Next door to Tuscany, the small land locked region of Umbria is still little-known outside of Italy yet deserves far greater recognition. It is an achingly beautiful province, with some of the country’s finest food and some hugely characterful wines, epitomised by the mighty Sagrantino grape. Orvieto, for much of the last 40 years something of a vinous joke, is now making some seriously good wine as the high quality Grechetto grape is re-planted there, replacing the ill-advised Trebbiano that replaced it in the 60’s.

Over the Apennines, for years there was little wine of quality, with poor cooperatives dominating production.  More recently, Abruzzo and the Marche have seen great improvements and in the white Verdicchio and Pecorino and the red Montepulciano, they have grapes of real character capable of producing intense and high-quality wines.

Lazio’s wine production remains large but mostly of little interest. Along the coast some passable and a handful of exceptional Bordeaux varietal wines are made, whilst Frascati and Est!Est!Est! have some international recognition. Both however, with a few exceptions, produce bland wine from over cropped Trebbiano and Malvasia Candia and although some producers are now making something more interesting, the majority is destined for an undemanding Roman market.

History

Wine has been made along the Adriatic coast and in Umbria for well over 2,000 years, however for the vast majority of this time it was of little importance outside of its local market. Lazio, as the home of Rome, was of more importance with wines from the Colli Albani to the south of the city being highly regarded and widely consumed by the 2nd century. This was perhaps the high point for the reputation of wines from Lazio.

In the middle ages, this part of Italy was less important, but wine production continued both for domestic consumption and export, notably wine from the Marche which was exported through Venice by the powerful merchants there.  The second half of the 20th century has seen international demand wax and then wane for Frascati and Orvieto and decent international recognition for Montepulcaino d’Abruzzo, but it would be fair to say that few wines from central Italy enjoy great international repute and can command high export prices. As with the rest of Italy, until recently few wines were estate bottled and sold, the majority being made at co-operatives and sold by merchants and, at least in this part of Italy, estate bottling is still very much in the minority.

Grape Varieties

Sangiovese is widely planted in Umbria and the Marche and is covered in depth in the Tuscany article. There are also notable plantings of Cabernet and Merlot in all of the regions. Lazio has international varieties widely planted and produces a few exceptional and a lot of ordinary wines from them.  The most important indigenous varieties are listed below.

Bombino Bianco

Also known as Ottonese in Lazio, where it is the better variety found in Frascati and Marino, Bombino Bianco is a potentially high yielding variety that usually produces quite neutral wine. If yields are kept down and winemaking careful, it can make wines with some character, with tropical fruit and citrus notes. It is generally accepted, but as yet not conclusively proven, that Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is the same variety as Bombino Bianco.

Pecorino

Believed to originate in the Apennine mountains in the Marche, Pecorino was virtually extinct by the 1970s, but has enjoyed a boom in popularity in the last 20 years and there are now over 1,100 hectares planted, nearly all in Abruzzo and Marche. It is capable of making characterful cheap wine, often with ripe tropical notes and characteristic acidity, but when cultivated for quality wine it is a high class variety, showing minerality, apple and pear fruit, herbal notes and sometimes a savoury waxy touch, always with high body and acidity.

Verdicchio Bianco

Grown widely in the north of Italy and widely assumed to be Venetian in origin (where it is known as Trebbiano di Soave, Verdicchio is nonetheless most famous for the eponymous wine it makes in the Marche. Its wines should have marked acidity, with a lemony note and display fine body and some minerality. Many of the better examples show notes of almond on the finish and can improve in bottle for up to a decade.

Grechetto di Orvieto

A characterful and high-quality grape grown in Umbria. Grechetto wines have flavours of white fruits, citrus and often a hint of phenolics on the finish. Acidity is generally high. It should be noted that Grechetto di Todi, also grown in Umbria and once thought to be a clone of Grechetto di Orvieto, has now been shown to be Pignoletto. Either can be used in wines labelled Grechetto and in many cases, producers are not even aware which they have planted.

Bellone

This is a speciality of the hills to the south of Rome and makes wines with delicate fruit flavours and noticeable bitterness, meaning most is used in blends. Some varietal wine does exist, as do a few dessert examples.

Trebbiano di Spoletino

As little as 600 vines of Spoletino existed by the late 90s, most over 100 years old, however cuttings from these wer propagated and it is now well established in southern Umbria. Unrelated to Trebbiano Toscana, it shares DNA with Trebbiano d’Abruzzese (Bombino), suggesting a parent offspring relationship. It is a high-quality grape that produces wines of deep colour and full body, that have fine aromatics of white peach and tropical fruits, all with good acidity. It should become more widely planted, although it is unfortunate it carries the derided Trebbiano name.

Sagrantino

This is a historic variety from Umbria that has remained globally obscure (although a few examples now exist from California and Australia), perhaps owing to its mighty charge of colour and tannins. In the past it was mostly used to make sweet passito wines, however in the last 30 years it has become the source of one of the world’s most powerful dry red wines. Full of dark fruits, earthy notes and with high tannins and acidity, top examples improve in bottle for decades.

Montepulciano

This variety is planted throughout central Italy and is often used in blends with Sangiovese. Prized for its colour, extract and high yields, its most famous manifestation is in Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a varietal wine that can be fine value, if a touch rustic. In capable hands and with yields controlled, it can make very high-class wine that has plenty of sweet black fruits and robust tannins.

Cesanese

Named after the village of Cesano in the Castelli Romani, this is a difficult grape to grow and can struggle to ripen in less warm sites, but has real potential to be Lazio’s finest wine. There are two clones, of which Cesanese di Affile is by far the better and it can produce a highly aromatic dry red, full of mulberry fruit and velvety tannins.

The Regions of Central Italy

Umbria

The only landlocked region away from those in the Alps, Umbria is also one of the smallest in both area and population.  The climate is similar to neighbouring Tuscany with hot and dry summers and cold winters and whilst the Apennines tower to the east, the vineyards are mostly located on rolling hillsides around the Tiber Valley between 150-600m altitude. There are an unnecessary 13 DOCs, most of which have very similar rules involving Sangiovese with international varieties for reds and the bland Trebbiano Toscana with Grechetto or Chardonnay for whites. Umbria would be better served with a catch all DOC for these. Umbria does have, in Sagrantino, its own speciality.  A grape of prodigious extract with powerful flavours and bucket loads of tannin, when well-handled and aged, it can produce wines of real majesty. A couple of the DOCs and the two DOCGs produce superior wines and are detailed below.


Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG

Key info: Vineyard area: 357 Ha; Varieties permitted: Sagrantino; Production in cases (2018): 109,200.

The Sagrantino grape has been grown here for over 4 centuries, but by the 1970s it was mostly used for making sweet passito styled wines. Marco Caprai, convinced of its potential, embarked on a project in the late 1980s to make fine dry wines from the variety and was soon joined by another historic estate, Antonelli San Marco. Both of these producers, along with a handful of others, have proved that it is a variety capable of greatness, but it is very difficult to vinify well and sadly too much is dry and rustic.  It was promoted to DOCG status in the 1990s and the best examples are clearly worth it. Like traditionally styled Nebbiolos, it is a variety that really benefits from over a decade in bottle.


Montefalco DOC

Key info: Vineyard area: 435 Ha; Varieties permitted: For Red, Sangiovese (60-80%), Sagrantino (10-20%), OANRG up to 30%; For White, Grechetto (min 85% as a varietal wine). Trebbiano Spoletino (min 50%) for Bianco; Production in cases (2018): 248,900.

This DOC is mostly used for red Sangiovese based wines that have more backbone and colour than many Tuscan examples, owing to the inclusion of Sagrantino. A small amount of Riserva is also made at some properties, with extended barrel and bottle ageing.  These can be superb and offer very fine value. Montefalco Grechetto is the best white variety in Umbria and here makes wines of richness and great structure.


Torgiano DOC/Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG

Key info: Vineyard area: 44 Ha/5.5 Ha Riserva; Varieties permitted: For Red, Sangiovese Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Nero; For White, Trebbiano Toscana, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Welschriesling; Production in cases (2018): 56,560/5,230 Riserva.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s this was Umbria’s only wine of note, nearly all made by the Lungarotti family and based almost entirely on Sangiovese. Sadly the DOC rules were changed to allow international varieties, but it remains important because of one producer, Lungarotti, who still make some world class wine, especially the Riserva.


Spoleto DOC

Key info: Vineyard area: 28 Ha; Varieties permitted: Trebbiano Speletino (min 85% as a varietal), 50% as Bianco) + OANWG; Production in cases (2018): 10,500.

Although production of this DOC is small, it is one of the highest quality and most interesting whites of the region. Trebbbiano Spoletino is very different to Trebbiano Toscana and has real depth of flavour, fine acidity and an affinity for oak.  The first varietal wines only appeared 20 years ago, but they are becoming more common. The variety has shown a real affinity for skin contact orange wines.


Orvieto DOC (partly in Lazio)

Key info: Vineyard area: 1,148 Ha; Varieties permitted: Grechetto (min 60%), Trebbiano Toscana; Production in cases (2018): 914,700.

Quantitatively by far the most important DOC of Umbria, sadly not qualitatively. Orvieto enjoyed a fine reputation for much of the 20th century, produced in sweet (amiabile), medium dry (abboccato) and dry (secco) styles, along with rare botrytised wines, from predominantly Grechetto grown on tufa soils. Like so many regions throughout Italy, a push for greater productivity saw the production zone expanded, yields increased and the introduction of the bland Trebbiano Toscana, greatly harming the reputation of the wine.  The last 20 years have seen new rules limiting the amount of Trebbiano and cutting yields and thus an increase in wines, mostly from the original ‘classico’ zone, being made mostly or even wholly from Grechetto.  There are now some seriously good Orvietos on the market, however the international reputation is still poor.

Lazio

Lazio produces a lot of wine, not much of it memorable.  This is frustrating in that the potential is there, with a near perfect climate, plenty of volcanic soils ideal for vine growing and gently rolling countryside providing fine aspects. Well regarded at many points through history, the 20th century saw a drive to quantity over quality, with a large, undemanding and thirsty, local market, providing little incentive for quality.  Markets began to dry up in the 1980s as the dire quality started to become internationally apparent, but the solution of consultants – to try planting chardonnay, sauvignon and Syrah, proved a blind alley as none made good, or good value wines. The 21st century is seeing signs of a new generation rediscovering the high-quality indigenous varieties, such as Bellone for whites and Bombino for reds and, perhaps, Lazio is ready to take its place on the world stage again.

There are 27 DOCs and 3 DOCGs in Lazio.  The more important ones are listed below.


Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone DOC

Key info: Vineyard area: 331 Ha; Varieties permitted: Trebbiano Toscana (50-65%), Trebbiano Giallo (5-40%), Malvasia (10-20%); Production in cases (2018): 294,400.

Near to lake Bolsena, this bland, anodyne wine can be dry, medium, sweet or spumante. Commonly seen in Rome, it has some limited exports, probably partly because of its unusual name.


Frascati  DOC  / Frascati Superiore DOCG/ Cannelino di Frascati DOCG

Key info: Vineyard area: 472 Ha/136 Ha (Superiore)/13 Ha (Cannelino); Varieties permitted: Malvasia Candia/Malvasia Lazio (min 70%), Trebbiano Toscana, Bellone, Bombino, Bianco, Greco (max 30%); Production in cases (2018): 551,500/65,220 (Superiore)/5,270 (Cannelino).

One of the most recognized of Italian wines, Frascati at best is a lightly apple scented fresh dry white for early consumption.  Superiore has lower yields and can have more weight, whilst Cannelino is a rare sweet wine.


Cesanese del Piglio DOCG

Key info: Vineyard area: 131 Ha; Varieties permitted: Cesanese; Production in cases (2018): 48,440.

Around 40km east of Rome, this small DOCG makes some superb and interesting wines from Lazio’s own grape, Cesanese. Two subtypes are found, with Cesanese d’Affili the most common here. It is a hard grape to grow and vinify and until recently, many wines were a bit green and reductive, however new skill and investment has shown how good a variety this can be.  Dense and penetrating with bright cherry fruit, fine soft tannins and natural breeding, rarely exported, these are wines well worth seeking out.


Castelli Romani DOC

Key info: Vineyard area: 1,400 Ha; Varieties permitted: For Red, Cesanese, Merlot, Montepulciano, Nero Buono, &/or Sangiovese (min 85%), OANRG; For White, Malvasia Candia/Malvasia Lazio &/or Trebbiano Toscana (min 70%), OANWG; Production in cases (2018): 1.01 Million.

Very pretty area to the south of Rome, however the wines remain simple and straightforward.  This is an area of great potential, however until DOC laws change along with local attitudes, it continues to churn out lakes of insipid dry white.  Reds are generally simple and fruity, but those from Cesanese can be genuinely fine.


Marino DOC  

Key info: Vineyard area: 411 Ha; Varieties permitted: Malvasia Candia (min 50% for Bianco), Verdicchio, Bellone, Bombino, Bianco, Greco; Production in cases (2018): 406,700.

Another of the DOCs of the Castelli Romani, this one allows varietal wines as well as blended ‘Bianco’. Whilst similar to Frascati, Marino wines tend to have more body and better texture.

Marche

Occupying a long stretch of Adriatic coast with the Apennines as a backdrop, The Marche is more variable than one might imagine, with a continental climate of hot summers and cool winters in its northern reaches, to a warm Mediterranean climate in the south. Being on the ‘wrong’ side of the Apennines from the country’s commercial axis of Milan-Bologna-Florence-Rome-Naples has meant the region has often been left behind when it comes to investment and opportunity and although Verdicchio is internationally known, few of its other wines are, despite the obvious quality potential for Sangiovese and Montepulciano here. There are 15 DOCs and 4 DOCGs in the region as well as an IGP Marche for the whole area. Sangiovese features in 6 DOCs (those in the cooler north), whilst Montepulciano dominates in the south. The most important are covered below.


Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC / Riserva DOCG

Key info: Vineyard area: 1,226 Ha (plus 89 Ha DOCG); Varieties permitted: Verdicchio (min 85%); Production in cases (2018): 1.67 Million (plus 18,440 as DOCG).

Located in the north of the region just 30km from the sea, Verdicchio has been made in these hills for at least 600 years. There is a small Classico subzone, but the majority of this, the largest DOC in Marche, is basic DOC. Nearly two-thirds is made at co-operatives and almost all of the rest made by merchant bottlers – individual domain wines are very rare. Average quality is, however, good and the variety itself has real character, with citrus and mineral flavours, fine acidity and a touch of phenolic grip. Jesi was long thought of as inferior to Matelica, but quality differences are now much smaller thanks to improved viticulture. Work is also being done to identify the best sites and market them as single vineyard wines. The Riserva DOCG was created in 2011 for wines aged 18 months before release. Although nearly all is drunk young, good Verdicchio can improve in bottle for up to a decade.


Verdicchio di Matelica DOC / Riserva DOCG

Key info: Vineyard area: 120 Ha (plus 20 Ha as DOCG); Varieties permitted: Verdicchio (min 85%); Production in cases (2018): 155,600 (plus 9,340 as DOCG).

Much smaller and further inland, Matelica is also at higher altitude and the vineyards are sited on hillsides that catch the best sun. Historically considered superior to Jesi, this is less true now, although wines from Matelica do tend to have greater depth and body to them, along with greater acidity and minerality.  With age, they take on Riesling-like kerosene and toast notes.


Rosso Cònero DOC / Cònero DOCG

Key info: Vineyard area: 180 Ha/130 Ha; Varieties permitted: Montepulciano (85% minimum) +OANRG; Production in cases (2018): 104,300/35,000.

Centred around Ancona, Cònero produces the finest examples of Montepulciano in the Marche and perhaps, in DOCG form, in Italy. With characteristic colour and extract, these rich and powerful examples from here also have a beautiful freshness. These are wines that deserve to be seen more on export markets.


Rosso Piceno DOC

Key info: Vineyard area: 836 Ha; Varieties permitted: Montepulciano, Sangiovese (min 15%); Production in cases (2018): 556,700.

With anything from 85% Montepulciano to 100% Sangiovese wines in this DOC styles between producers can be very different, so generalisations are hard.  There are some superb oak aged wines made here, but also many that lack ripeness, depth and elegance.


Colli Pesarese DOC

Key info: Vineyard area: 90 Ha; Varieties permitted: For Red, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Nero, Sangiovese; For White, Biancame, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Trebbiano, Verdicchio, Welschriesling; Production in cases (2018): 53,440.

A wide range is made here from single varietal red and white wines, through blends to spumante. The most interesting are perfumed and elegant Sangioveses.


Offida DOCG

Key info: Vineyard area: 368 Ha; Varieties permitted: For Red, Montepulciano; For White, Passerina, Pecorino; Production in cases (2018): 198,900.

Promoted to DOCG in 2011, Offida is making some decent reds from Monteulciano and some potentially outstanding varietal whites from either Pecorino or Passserina (a small amount of dessert Passerina is also made under a parallel DOC). This is an up and coming DOCG to watch.

Abruzzo

A mountainous region with a long Adriatic coastline, Abruzzo is one of the poorer parts of Italy, but has potential to make some really fine wines, with a warm Mediterranean climate, hillside sites and a fine indigenous variety in Montepulciano.  In recent history it has concentrated on quantity over quality and the region was covered by a single DOC, Abruzzo. Much of the wine also headed north to go into anonymous blends.  Whilst 75% of all wine here is made in 40 (often not very good) co-operatives, recent developments have seen more quality focussed estate bottlers, subzones created with stricter production rules and there are also a handful of tiny DOCs with more of a quality focus.  Most wines in the Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC are actually made from Trebbiano Toscana and are, unsurprisingly bland, but wines made from true Trebbiano d’Abruzzese can be considerably better and age worthy.  There is no way of telling from the label which has been used. Increasing amounts of interesting Pecorino are also now being made under various IGTs inland from Ancona.


Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC

Key info: Vineyard area: 9,617 Ha; Varieties permitted: Montepulciano (min 85%); Production in cases (2018): 8.9 Million.

One of the most exported wines of Italy, found in restaurants around the world, it is full of dark fruits, but much is quite rustic.  When well made, it has great extract, but also elegance and freshness. Whilst the majority is still completely forgettable, an increasing number of fine examples are appearing, and they can be superb value for money. There are five theoretically better subzones that can appear on a label – Alto Tirino, Casauria, Teate, Terre dei Peligni and Terre dei Vistini – though they are no guarantee of quality.


Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo DOC

Key info: Vineyard area: 970 Ha; Varieties permitted: Montepulciano (min 85%); Production in cases (2018): 743,300.

Formerly part of the Montepulcaino DOC, this was created in 2010 for wines made with less skin contact, giving vibrant cherry fruit flavours, a paler colour and light tannins. Four communes at higher altitudes are included in the DOC. The wines can have a certain charm and often benefit from light chilling.


Colline Teramane Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOCG

Key info: Vineyard area: 159 Ha; Varieties permitted: Montepulciano (min 90%), Sangiovese (max 10%); Production in cases (2018): 57,440.

The first subzone to be promoted to DOCG, the Colline Teramane is a set of hills on the edge of the Grand Sasso national park in the north of Abruzzo. Whilst some fine wines are made here, the justification for the DOCG seems lacking and the jury is out on whether it has any relevance.


Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC

Key info: Vineyard area: 2,184 Ha; Varieties permitted: Trebbiano (Toscana or d’Abruzzese) (min 85%), Bombino Bianco; Production in cases (2018): 1.53 Million.

Covering the same boundaries as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, most Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is of no character, but the handful of examples carefully made from the better Abruzzese can be textural, rich and compelling.

Market

Outside of Tuscany, only Abruzzo of the central Italian provinces is a significant volume producer, averaging 33.5 million cases per year, around 6% of the national total. Just under 60% of this is red and 40% is DOP or IGT, leaving the majority as table wine. The only significant DOCs are Montepulcaino and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, which cover most of the land suitable or viticulture. Lazio makes a considerable quantity of wine, around 16 million cases in a typical year, with nearly 80% being DOP or IGT.  However, despite this appearance of quality, much of this is anodyne Frascati and Colli Martani, once great exports, now thankfully mostly confined to the trattoria of Rome.

The Marche produces around 10 million cases with just over half being DOP/IGT. Verdicchio from Jesi or Matelica enjoy good exports.  The majority of production is in the hands of co-operatives and merchant bottlers. For consumers pf quality wine, Umbria is the most interesting, if the one with the smallest production. Just ¾ of a million cases are made here, but 93% of this carries a quality designation. The majority of Umbrian wine is consumed in the province, but exports to the rest of Italy and abroad have been steadily growing.

Recent Vintages

2010: A fine vintage. Top wines still improving.

2011: Hot year. Powerful but often inelegant reds. Whites were weak and past their best now.

2012: Hot vintage that produced fine reds with good ageing potential.  Whites mostly ordinary.

2013: A very good vintage with rich and ripe wines.  Good for whites.

2014: Very wet vintage that produced surprisingly good white wines with nice aromatics.  Many of the reds are a bit dilute.

2015: As with all of Italy it was hot here and whilst there are some great red wines, some have heavy tannins and lack freshness.  Many of the whites lacked aromatic intensity.

2016: An excellent year with powerful and balanced reds and some fine whites. Very fine Verdicchios.

2017: Hot and dry year led to some fine and concentrated reds. Whites more mixed, with rich textures but often lacking in aromatic precision.

2018: A more classic vintage with nice aromatics and fresher wines. Excellent for top Verdicchio.