Visitors to Italy’s Ancona region get to appreciate the beauty of aged Verdicchio, one of its main white grapes. For publication in the week starting 28 May 2018.
The English Romantic poet John Keats once wrote that “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” concluding that it’s all we need to know. Until recently I did not fully understand what he meant in relation to wine. A visit to Italy’s Ancona region this week helped me appreciate the power of those words.
Any winemaker who makes good wine from her or his patch of land – their terroir – is creating beauty if they allow the truth of the land to be expressed in the wine. That to me is the true meaning of terroir.
They are also creating truth by allowing the beauty of the soil to show via the wine. The Marche region, with Ancona as its capital, has several profound means of expression through wines made from five great grapes – Verdicchio, Pecorino, Passerina, Sangiovese and Montepulciano.
This week we will focus on Verdicchio. Dr Ian D’Agata, author of the seminal book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, believes Verdicchio has the potential to be considered Italy’s greatest native white grape: “That statement may come as a surprise to those who have tried only neutral or watery Verdicchio wines, at times even bottled in improbable amphora-shaped bottles.”
He was referring to about two or three decades ago when quality was low. Since then wines have improved markedly. D’Agata believes the only other white varieties in Italy that can match Verdicchio’s versatility and potential for great wines are Veneto’s Garganega (with which Soave and Recioto di Soave are made) and Campania’s Fiano.
Verdicchio gets its name from its colour. Ripe berries have a very obvious green tinge (the Italian word for green is “verde”) and the word translates as “small green”. Young vintages of the wine are highly acidic with a distinctive green tinge in the glass. After about a decade flavours change but the colour remains consistent. Young wine offers a slight bitter almond tang in the mouth along with a hint of salinity.
The Verdicchio grape has been grown in central Italy since at least the fifteenth century, though some have suggested it was grown between Jesi and Matelica in the Marche region as early as the eighth century, D’Agata wrote.
The Ancona would be considered beautiful anywhere in the world, and May is one of the best months in which to visit. It sits on the east coast of Italy, about three hours by train east of Rome, and offers rolling hills, serene valleys, limestone mountains and superb coastlines with glistening blue seas. The region has a series of villages that would be ideal as sets for films set in the Middle Ages.
Every one of the estates visited from May 23-27 displayed a keen instinct for beauty, and an appreciation of the truth that can be found in Verdicchio.
At Colognola, known as Tenuta Musone in the village of Cingoli, the beauty is represented by a huge bronze sculpture of a stallion by Fernando Botero, the great Columbian sculptor. Said to have cost about one million Euros, the sculpture dominates the entrance to the newly-developed winery. Serena Darini is the daughter of the owner and is passionate about horses. She divides her time between winemaking, horse breeding and show-jumping.
Colognola has 25 hectares of estate vines, the bulk devoted to Verdicchio. The winery’s interior is organised, precise and clean – which is reflected in the wine. Their flagship wine is the Labieno, currently fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged on lees for 24 months in botti (large format old oak barrels).
This wine is picked late, usually in mid October. This column focuses on older vintages because they are a true delight. I tasted a 2007 Labieno, which had spent a few months in old French barriques (225 litres). Winemaker Gabriele Villani has been making wine at Colognola since 2002 and the 2007 was an homage to a unique traditional method. After grapes are crushed and the juice put into stainless steel tanks, Villani adds about 5 per cent whole bunches of Verdicchio grapes.
He should be encouraged to make more of this style of wine. The result is wondrous. After a decade it is gold in the glass, glossy with soft acidity and a range of perfumes and flavours like beeswax, acacia and bitter almonds. It should be served only slightly chilled because it feels like a red in terms of structure and texture. In 2007 this wine was classified as a VQPRD, which translates as “quality wine produced in determined regions”.
The two DOCGs for Verdicchio in the Marche are Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica. The former refers to the castles that protected the land during medieval times. The latter is smaller and less well known. It is centred on the town of Matelica, nestled in the only valley in the region that runs north-south. Matelica wines offer high value in the price:quality equation.
An indication of beauty and truth within the Ancona region is the number of theatres in the towns. These symbolise the value society gave to art and culture a century or more ago. More than 70 theatres were built in the Marche in the eighteenth century. They were the centre of local culture in a pre-television age, and we can imagine the wines that were tasted prior to productions of great Italian operas and plays.
One of the most interesting estates in Matelica is Cantina La Monacesca. It makes about 150,000 bottles from its 33 hectares of vines, grown at about 450 metres above sea level. Highlight of a tasting there was their 1997 Verdicchio, made in stainless steel. This was another superb, even sublime, older wine that shows the potential of Verdicchio for ageing. It exudes aesthetic texture and romance. The estate exports to Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea.
The sheer beauty of the Ancona region needs to be experienced. The rolling hills are dotted with olive trees and fluffy white sheep. The region feels and smells healthy, from the vines through to the pastures and fields that produce the grains that become the superb local pasta. The meat, seafood and cheese are world class, and the coastlines a visual delight.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of at least four DOCs in Ancona. These will be highlighted in future columns. Meanwhile, do yourself a favour and drink some aged Verdicchio. It is unique. The closest similar experience might be tasting aged Semillon from Australia’s Hunter Valley, which also transforms with time from simple pleasure to aesthetic delight.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of Marchet, the marketing arm of the Ancona chamber of commerce, which provided meals and accommodation.