Tuscany gets all the press when it comes to Italian wine. The super-tuscans and brunellos are some of the most well known, and often the most expensive, Italian wines. Next door, the region of Umbria, however, has a long history of cultivating grapes and producing wine. And here’s the secret, they are often available at far more reasonable prices without sacrificing the quality of the wine. When we were staying recently near Umbria, we decided to take a tour and see what Umbrian wine was all about.
Gusto Wine Tours
We met up with Gusto Wine Tours, which specializes in wine tours around Montefalco. This medieval hill town in central Umbria is well known to Italians for its wine. Because most of the vineyards are relatively small in size, the wines of this region aren’t readily available in the United States. This was one small tidbit of surprising information that we learned throughout the day from our tour guide Mark. By the end of the day, Mark completely changed our ideas about wine. He showed us how good wine is made, how to enjoy it like an Italian and best of all, where to buy it at bargain prices.
Visiting wineries with Mark is like going on a winery tour with a close buddy that happens to know a whole lot about wine. He is passionate about his adopted country and the Umbria region – and it was infectious. And we were going to spend five hours visiting wineries and tasting the cuisine so he could demonstrate exactly why. He did give us one word of caution, suggesting at our first stop that we might make use of the “spit bucket”, because, in his words: “Were going to be drinking A LOT of wine today. If you want to be able to taste anything at the final wineries, you may want to pace yourself.” Great advice, but we only sparingly followed it.
Developing a Passion for the Wines of Umbria
Mark’s story of founding Gusto Wine Tours with his wife Giselle is a story as much about passion as it is a leap of faith. Mark and Giselle are a couple from the UK who sold all their belongings and bought a camper van to live and travel in. They fell in love with Umbria and spent years living here, teaching TOEFL English classes, but never quite making enough to sustain their lifestyle, and having to to make annual return trips to the UK to work.
They were down to the last of their savings without any sort of plan and concerned that their days as Italian expats were about to come to an end. Then, as Mark described it, they had a moment when “the penny dropped.” They were attending a wedding in San Francisco, California, doing what they have come to do when friends visit them in Umbria – visiting local wineries. Even though the wines were good, they felt they didn’t compare in price or quality to wines they had grown to love in Umbria. So why not start giving tours to the small boutique wineries that belong to their Italian friends? But the question was, who would pay for that? As it turns out, wine lovers from around the world have been introduced to Umbrian wines by Mark and Giselle, and the number of enthusiasts are growing.
Umbria Wine: Big variety, big tastes, big flavor
This is Italy. There are 3,000 varieties of grapes in the world, and 2,000 varieties in Italy alone. Umbria produces many of these, and the majority of the wine made from these varieties isn’t exported – it’s sold to the locals. This has resulted in intense competition among local winemakers. The competition is based on quality and flavor of the wine, rather than quantity, due to the small region where the wine is sold. This competition has also kept the prices of great wine in the region quite reasonable.
And it’s also one of the reasons that we hadn’t heard of many of the varieties, particularly the star of the show in this region: Sagrantino di Montefalco. The sagrantino grape has been farmed for hundreds of years in the region around Montefalco, but, until recently, has been relatively unknown.
In fact, Mark told us on the tour, the grape nearly dropped out of existence somewhat recently. As old vines died, many local farmers were replacing the vines with more popular grapes: cabernet, merlot, sangiovese. In the late 1980’s, a local businessman realized that this distinct grape was on the verge of extinction, and gathered a number of local farmers together to preserve the existing vines and replant.
In 2000, Sagrantino wine began winning awards, and bigger producers moved into the area to produce Sagrantino wines. Interestingly, the local farmers accepted the new producers, and helped them to understand how to grow and harvest this particular variety. There are about 1,600 acres of sagrantino vines in the Montefalco region planted for production of 100% sagrantino wine.
The Sagrantino grape is unique. It contains the highest level of tannins than any other grape. The tannins, especially noticeable when we drank some wine directly from the cask, can produce a drying effect on the tongue that isn’t altogether pleasant. Because of this, the wine requires longer aging to develop flavor. This also results in much longer shelf life for the wine (of course, this is rarely an issue for us, but for those who are stocking a wine seller, it’s good to know!)
DOCG, DOC, and IGT Classifications
Ok, here’s the technical part. Go ahead and skip this section if you want, but I found it interesting to learn this part on the tour. DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), and IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipicaare) are wine classifications that regulate how Italian wine is produced. The regulations are very specific – they identify the exact regions that a grape can be grown, and no irrigation or insecticide is allowed to be used during cultivation. Even the crop yield is regulated – if a farmer exceeds the designated yield, the wine cannot be labeled as the classified product. DOCG has the most stringent regulations, and there are only a handful of DOCG wines in Italy: Sagrantino is one these.
Of course, winemakers can still make great wines using sagrantino grapes, just without these specific designations (and without the prices that can accompany the more higher designations).
The entire process is highly regulated. Vineyards are spot checked regularly to make sure they are following all the rules, and that no chemicals are being used. Farmers regularly trim off bunches of grapes to make sure that the yield from each vine is low. The fewer number of grapes equals a better quality wine. Mark made a point that in Montefalco each wine maker is working to get the flavor he is trying to achieve during the growing process, not by adding chemicals or additives in the barrel. And the results were stunning.
Visiting small, family-run Montefalco vineyards
The wineries we visited on our tour were all small, family-run wineries that in most cases had been held by the same family for generations. We’ve been on tours when the “booze bus” of tourists pulls up, disgorging 30-40 tourists who mob the winery and overwhelm the staff. Our experience was the opposite in Montefalco – our small group were often the only visitors at our stops, and the experience was quite intimate. We also received tastings of all the wines available, including the higher end reserves that at a larger winery would be held back from masses of visitors.
We were able to meet the winemakers themselves in many of them, and often met the father or mother of the current winemaker, who have cultivated the land by hand for years. It turns out, in Montefalco, most of the winemakers look like rockstars – with long hair and flashy looks.
What about the food?
In Italy, wine is considered a food. It’s very rare to see someone drinking a glass of wine without a meal or a snack. And the wine makers of Montefalco create their wines with this in mind. Throughout the day we tasted wine in the Italian fashion, pairing it with small plates of regional cuisine. We’d first have a taste of the wine. And then taste it after having a piece of sharp cheese, truffled scrambled eggs or locally made sausage. The acidity of the wine is balanced out by a taste of fatty prosciutto ham or cheese. And this is precisely what the wine makers have in mind when they craft each bottle. And you can bring buy a bottle of a very good, low production wine for $8 a bottle.
Montefalco, we will be back
After the wine tour we stayed the night in the medieval hill town of Montefalco. The old medieval city sits on the top of a hill, with the main square at the very highest point, something we hadn’t seen before. And, wandering the thousand year old narrow back streets made us think of the incredible history of this region and its wine, and how that history has been preserved not just with stone walls. The sagrantino vines covering the hills surrounding the town are another memorial to the history of the people and the wine that inhabits this region.
Full of good Umbrian food and slightly buzzing from our day of wine sampling, we truly understood why Mark and Giselle feel in love with this region. We left with a new appreciation for high quality boutique wine and the passion and dedication it takes to produce it. We also had a few nice bottles stashed in our bags and, best of all, new friends that we hope to visit again, soon.
You can contact Mark and Giselle at Gusto Wine Tours to find out more information about the tours they offer.
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You can find additional related stories about travel in Italy HERE. And if you are planning a trip, visit our Resources section to see our tips (after 2+ years of full-time travel) about ways to make your travel more comfortable and our money saving tips.
A special thank you to Gusto Wine Tours for hosting on this fantastic day of wine and food tasting in Umbria, Italy. As always, our opinions are our own.