Italy’s Ace in the Hole: Marche
BY ERIC GUIDO | OCTOBER 05, 2021
I can say without a doubt that Marche has something for everyone. The region is located along the Adriatic coast of Central Italy, with the spine of the Apennines running down its western border. Through the center, we find the same lines of latitude as Montalcino and Montepulciano. Marche borders Emilia-Romagna to the north, Tuscany and Umbria to the west and Lazio and Abruzzo to the south. As you run along the boundaries of Marche, its foods and wines morph depending on the exact region. Montepulciano (the variety, not the town) tapers off around the capital of Ancona and gives way to the aromatic yet also rich and fruitful Verdicchio grape to the north. Along the Apennines, the terrain becomes rockier, the climate is more like neighboring Umbria, and the cuisine leans toward mountain fare, such as porchetta, a spit-roasted pig stuffed with liver, rosemary, garlic and wild fennel. To the south, Abruzzo’s famed Montepulciano grape makes a big impact; however, what Marche can accomplish with the variety is quite different and more characterful than the plush and easygoing red of its southern neighbor. Through the interior and on the coast, we find one of Italy's most naturally beautiful countrysides, with gentle hills that gradually work their way toward the sea and a climate that balances the cooling effect of numerous river valleys. The limestone-rich soils create a terroir that is favorable to both reds and whites. The Adriatic coast provides cuisine from the sea, from roasted whole Mediterranean fish to some of the best crudo you’ll ever experience. As I said, Marche really does have something for everyone.
The Pagliano vineyard of Borgo Paglianetto.
When in Doubt, Go Red
If there’s one thing that I was the happiest about when conceiving this article, it was the opportunity to give the red varieties a fair shake. Usually when speaking about Marche, most readers think of Verdicchio. Although not yet quite realized, the reds have the potential to be so much more than the wine-drinking world gives them credit for. Like a mirror image of the country's western coastline, Marche enjoys a combination of alpine influences from the mountains, the moderating effects of the rivers running down from the Apennines to the sea, and the maritime effects of the Adriatic. As you approach Monte Conero, or Monte d'Ancona, with elevations that reach up to 575 meters while jutting out toward the sea, you find significantly more complex soils, rich in limestone. This is where you’ll also find the Rosso Conero DOC and its principal grape, Montepulciano, in a location where it finds its most characterful, and potentially important, expression. In fact, as you move further north in Italy, Sangiovese quickly takes center stage. Here, however, the two varieties find great blending partners, with Rosso Conero being made up of a minimum of 85% Montepulciano and no more than 15% Sangiovese. Sounds great, right? The problem is two-fold. For one thing, the Rosso Conero DOC is relatively small, at only 350 hectares under vine. However, what’s worse is the over-use of new oak. While producers are slowly catching on to the fact that these days tastes are leaning more toward varietal character, it’s taking them significantly longer to make changes to the winemaking process. Granted, many of these same producers are capable of making oak-refined Rosso Conero that is harmonious and appealing with both medium and long-term cellaring, yet one can’t help but imagine what might be possible if the wood influence wasn’t there.
While we’re on the topic of wood-influenced wines that have a lot of potential, Marche producers love to mix varying amounts of international varieties, with or without Montepulciano, to create their answer to the Super-Tuscan category. There’s a lot to like about the best of them – Umani Ronchi’s Pelago, Santa Barbara’s Merlot Mossone and Le Terrazze’s Chaos come to mind – but unfortunately, there are more that come across as clumsy, over-oaked, flabby or flat. The majority of Marche winemakers should stick to the local varieties of the region.
Conero vineyards of Umani Ronchi.
A more easy-drinking category is the Rosso Piceno DOC, a significantly larger growing area that reaches around Conero and down toward Abruzzo. Here, readers will find wines that can blend 35–70% Montepulciano and 30–50% Sangiovese, as well as much as 15% of other varieties. It’s in this category that many amazing values abound among a sea of mediocre wines. Meanwhile, looking just north of Jesi, in the center of Marche, there’s the Lacrima di Morro d’Alba DOC, a region that shares its name with its prized variety, Lacrima. For consumers who haven't experienced Lacrima, you’re in for a real treat. Imagine a wine with the jovial and juicy character of Beaujolais, except violet-toned in both fruit and florals, and a bit richer, with a sweet, dusty minerality. Lacrima is one of the easiest-drinking and most pleasurable reds coming out of Central Italy, produced in a very clean and fresh style, and sometimes made as a delectable Passito-style wine. When you open a bottle and take in the first whiff, the purple-toned fruits and florals are almost guaranteed to make you smile. This may not be a variety to overthink, but it is one that’s sure to find its way into your weeknight rotation.
Last but not least, and a perfect segue from red varieties to white, are the up-and-coming DOCGs of Offida. Located in the south of Marche, the Offida DOCGs were once lumped into the larger Rosso Piceno DOC, until the producers of the region won their first DOC status in 2001. It’s taken some time, but today the wines of Offida are truly starting to shine. Here we find Offida Rosso, which allows 85–100% Montepulciano with up to 15% of other red grapes, usually Cabernet Sauvignon. Producers such as Poderi San Lazzaro and CIU' CIU' both brought some serious wines to the table for these recent tastings. As for the white varieties, we have Offida Passerina and – another standout – Offida Pecorino, both of which must be at least 85% of the stated variety, with up to 15% made up of other aromatic whites. The latter is the category that has piqued my interest the most, as this is a Pecorino that’s very unlike the ones found in Abruzzo. The wines are rich, packed full of minerals and zesty citrus, yet without the sweet, sometimes flabby character that Pecorino can often develop.
The reds of Le Marche just keep getting better and better.
Which Brings Us to Verdicchio...
To this day, even with all that Marche has to offer, the most important variety and category remains Verdicchio and its two DOC appellations, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica, and the DOCG, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Riserva. Within the Jesi area, we also find the Classico zone, which is the original, historic growing area established for the DOC, and the classification of Superiore, which must be sourced from within the Classico zone and reach at least 12% abv, versus the 11.5% necessary for the Jesi DOC. The best part is that, for fans of Verdicchio, we have three very interesting, often exciting and completely unique vintages in front of us in the form of 2018, 2019 and 2020. It’s been quite a pleasure to taste through these vintages’ unique characteristics. However, before we get to the growing seasons, and for the sake of readers who are just joining our discussion about Verdicchio, here’s a bit on the region and variety.
Verdicchio is indeed one of Italy’s most important white indigenous varieties, sharing that space with the likes of Fiano, Trebbiano Abruzzese and Carricante. However, what Verdicchio provides that even these others don’t always offer is the ability to please, whether young or mature, serious or playful, crisply mineral or rich, heady and fruit-forward. This multitude of styles and drinking windows makes Verdicchio extremely versatile. Verdicchio is notably green in character, as its name implies. Its color is usually straw-yellow tinged with green, showing aromas and flavors that bring lime, Granny Smith apple and melon to mind. Notes of almond are often found, either adding richness to the bouquet or imparting a slight bitter twang through the finish. There’s ample minerality as well, which is a perfect pairing with the wine's high level of acidity. This minerality is often contrasted by a glycerol-like richness within the growing areas of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, while it becomes a defining component from the higher elevations and cooler climates within Verdicchio di Matelica.
The Garofoli vineyards in Montecarotto.
For many years Verdicchio fell out of favor with consumers, as the region began to pump out large quantities through mass-marketing campaigns that painted the variety as an easy quaffer to accompany any plate of fish or crudo. There was also a move toward longer aging in wooden vessels to make the wines seem more important, but that didn’t do much to help Verdicchio. In the end, it was a return to varietal purity and low-impact winemaking that brought Verdicchio back into the public eye, as well as a focus on place from some of the region's leading producers. The town of Montecarotto, with sand and clay soils at elevations averaging 375 meters, is a perfect example. While these vineyards are within the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico area, their character can often remind you more of Verdicchio di Matelica.
It’s difficult to generalize between the two growing areas of Jesi and Matelica, especially when speaking about the top wines of the region, yet one can say that Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi has the capacity to produce richer and more flamboyant wines. The vineyards are spread out along gently sloping hills on either side of the Esino River. They are well-ventilated from the push and pull of mountain and coastal influences. In general, the soils are rich in minerals, mixed with clay and limestone. A large portion of the area is less than 20 miles from the Adriatic coast. The Classico zone is located around the town of Jesi on the northern banks of the Misa River and home to many of the region's top producers. On the other hand, Verdicchio di Matelica is further inland, closer to the border of Umbria and located southwest of Jesi. It’s also one-tenth the size of Castelli di Jesi, which covers 2,762 hectares planted to vines. Elevations are higher here, starting at 400 meters above sea level in the Apennine basin. Typically, the vineyards run east to west throughout the valley and receive cooling mountain influences, which results in a longer-than-average growing season. Winters are colder and summers are warmer, yet the wide day/night temperature variations help to develop a more mineral-driven character in the wines.
As for which region produces wines that mature better over time, the fact is that there are more well-documented examples from Jesi, yet producers such as Collestefano, Borgo Paglianetto and Bisci are making wines in Matelica that will easily excel over medium-term cellaring and often demand a year or two after release to come fully into focus. In the end, both regions have the ability to create world-class wines and a list of top producers who are successfully doing just that, vintage after vintage.
A stunning display of new vintages from Verdicchio.
Speaking of Vintage...
This brings us to the three vintages in front of us. The young, fresh and vibrant 2020s are really something to talk about. However, it’s from 2018 and 2019 that we are now seeing Superiore, single-vineyard and Riserva bottlings being released. These are two vintages from which Marche has shown much different results than many of its neighbors, particularly from the white wines.
In general, the 2018 vintage was warm, with an ample amount of rain but no major heat spikes. The well-ventilated vineyards of Jesi flourished in these conditions and, unlike most of Italy, returned a healthy and bountiful harvest. The Verdicchios from 2018 are structured yet full of energy and mineral tension; it's a lovely mix. However, many of the reds in the region are more light-bodied (don’t misread this as diluted) than usual and will show better sooner, though the balance is there. Meanwhile, 2019 started extremely cold and dry, followed by a mild spring with above-average rainfall. Both budding and flowering were uneven as a result of nearly winter-like temperatures during May. The summer became much warmer, bringing three major heat waves and more rain. The built-up water supply aided the vines through the heat, while the region's breezy climate helped to ward off disease. Early September brought some cooling relief but was followed by warmer weather, which accelerated ripening prior to harvest of the Montepulciano and late-harvest Verdicchio in October and November. Because of the combination of these conditions production was down by as much as 50% by some accounts. In the end, 2019 created sun-kissed whites with lower acidities, along with a more fruit-forward profile that will overdeliver early but probably not evolve through long-term cellaring. The reds show the warmth of the vintage, but also tremendous energy mixed with concentration and sweet tannins, creating a seductive mix that will likely equal out to a medium-length yet broad and open drinking window.
This year's entry-level offerings of Verdicchio come from 2020, a vintage that produced some wonderfully balanced, dramatic yet pretty and filigreed wines. Following a dry winter with above-average temperatures, March brought cooler weather and much-needed rain. This was followed by a balanced spring. The summer months were warm, without any major heat spikes. Together with the well-ventilated climate of the region, the even weather created an extremely healthy environment for the vines and a long growing season. Risk of disease was low, and ripening progressed evenly through harvest. Frankly, the 2020s are a total pleasure, showing a gorgeous blend of radiant fruit, stimulating acids and balanced structure. It will be an exciting vintage to follow.
All of the wines for this article were tasted at our office in New York City through August and September 2021.
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