Marche: Land of rolling hills and pristine whites

The Marche region between Italy’s Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea north-east of Rome is known for the quality of its whites.

Marche is a beautiful region of Italy, with miles of untamed coastline, cute villages, historic Renaissance towns like Urbino where the painter Raphael was born, and picturesque scenery. Crisp and fresh wines made from Verdicchio, the star white grape of Le Marche, partner perfectly with local seafood. These wines are beginning to receive global attention.

The region wears a beautiful coat of subdued winter hues in December. The hilly landscape is dotted with medieval villages and the calcareous soils are excellent for growing Verdicchio and the rare white Pecorino, plus the classic red varieties Sangiovese and Montepulciano. This column will focus on whites with another column considering the reds of the region.

Verdicchio can be made into a range of sparkling and still wines and these are among Italy’s finest wines. The grape’s name comes from the Italian verde (green) and refers to the slight hue that wines made from the grape can display. Its naturally high acidity makes it a good base for sparkling wines. These are produced using the Champagne method and the tank style of fermentation. Ampelographers, the people who study grape history, believe Verdicchio is probably indigenous to the Marche, though there appears to be a genetic connection with the Trebbiano and Greco varieties.

Quality has steadily improved in recent years because producers have realised the grape’s potential for aged wines. Le Marche has two main types of Verdicchio: Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica. The former is better known.

Locals estimate that perhaps 40 per cent of vineyards in the region have embraced organic or biodynamic forms of viticulture. One of the rising stars is Riccardo Baldi, 25, who created his first vintage in 2009. His seven hectares are biodynamic. A refusal to use pesticides or herbicides means that sometimes the harvest is not good. Baldi only made one wine in 2014 because the grapes were not good enough for his premium Rincrocca range. All his wines have an energy that makes them stand out.

Baldi ferments his whites in concrete tanks and then ages them five to 12 months on the lees. His 2014 Verdicchio has a funky, profound nose with a mineral or salty mouthfeel and profound texturality. It hangs around in one’s mouth for ages. La Staffa translates at stirrup, the symbol of the local town of La Staffa. Well-made Verdicchio offers a slight bitter almond tang in the mouth along with a salty taste.

“Verdicchio is a beautiful grape for ageing,” Baldi said at a tasting at his vineyard, noting that waiting five or six years before opening allows the wine to develop a range of characteristics. He said 2010 was a “perfect vintage”. “It was my second vintage as a winemaker but in a way it was my first vintage because I did not understand the greatness of that year.”

Baldi provided a vertical tasting of his Rincrocca from 2009 to 2013, the wine named for the hill where the grapes grow on the estate. These are beautiful wines that sing of the sea. He makes between 5,000 and 7,000 bottles a year depending on the vintage.

Other excellent makers of Verdicchio with an organic approach include Tenuta di Tavignano’s Misco range, the Plenio and Vecchie Vigne (old vines) by Umani Ronchi, Moncaro la Casetta, and most of the wines of the Consorzio Terroir Marche. The last is a group of small winemakers dedicated to organic principles who published a statement of their principles: “We want to have a new relationship with the land. Farmers must stand as defenders of land. In this sense agriculture takes on a fundamental role of safeguarding the environment.”

The 2014 Perlugo made by the Pievalta winery shows what is possible with Verdicchio in its sparkling format. This was zesty on the palate with loads of lemon sherbert acidity. The 2013 Perlugo is even more sophisticated with flavours of dried apricots and pears.

Moncaro’s Tordiruta Passito shows another facet of what can be done with Verdicchio. This grape is usually harvested in October but for this wine the grapes remain on the vines until December. Grapes are then dried on reed mats for three months where they undergo botrytis or “noble rot”. The wine is aged in 10-year-old barriques for a year, then bottle aged for at least another year. It is gold copper in colour with loads of flavours of candied fruit, dried apricots and dates. The 2008 won a trophy from the IWSC last year.

The Pecorino grape is said to be native to Marche and some producers are making fine whites since it came back into popularity. The grape has no connection with the cheese of the same name, though historians suggest the grape’s name comes from pecora, the word for sheep, because wandering sheep used to eat grapes.

Pantaleone winery makes a beautiful wine called Onirocep, the letters of the grape variety reversed. This organic estate has won awards for its Pecorino, with profound aromas of yellow fruits, spices like ginger and white pepper, and a characteristic nutty texture.

CiuCiu Winery, another organic estate, produces a sparkling from Pecorino known as Merlettaie. The name refers to the local tradition of lacemaking. It offers loads of flowers and spices like hawthorn and acacia with soft buttery nuttiness.

Another lovely white from Marche is made from Passerina, a rare local variety. The grape ripens late and is named for the sparrows (passero) that eat ripe grapes. CiuCiu’s 2015 Evoe is named after the song that Greek gods sang during bacchanale, a wine festival. Its zingy acidity makes it an ideal companion for salty and fatty foods like the salamis of the region, as well as the tangy olive oil. The Centanni Winery’s 2014 Passerina offers lemon curd creaminess. A wine meant for early drinking, it is fresh and crisp and pairs with fried fish. This organic estate uses recycled bottles.

Words: 1010

RICCARDO BALDI AT LA STAFFA

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Marchet, the Ancona chamber of commerce.

Categories: food, Italy, Not home, wine

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