Known as the Il Cuore Verde d’Italia (the Green Heart of Italy), Umbria is tucked between Tuscany and Le Marche, north of Lazio. As its name implies, it is a forested and mountainous area, crossed by two valleys, the Vallee Umbra and the Val Tiberina. The Apenninnes mountains here reach heights of over 8000 ft and the eastern part of the region is prone to earthquakes, the last significant one in 2016. The region is dotted with charming medieval towns and important religious sites, within easy driving distance from Rome. It is famous throughout Italy for its black truffles, chocolate and the quality of its salumi.
The Umbri, one of the Italic tribes, tended to live in small dwellings and settlements scattered throughout the region, while Gallic tribes occupied the more northerly reaches of present day Umbria. The Tiber River was the border between the lands of the Etruscans and the Umbri and eventually, the Etruscans invaded and drove the Umbri up into the Apenninnes, between 700 and 500 BC, which today correspond to Gubbio, Norcia and Gualdo Tadino. The tribe allied with the Samnites against Rome, but after the battle of Sentinum, the victorious Romans established colonies in Umbria and built the Via Flaminia in 219 BC, leading to the development of the territory and the centers of Spoleto and Perugia. Emperor Augustus, made Umbria Regio VI of the Roman Empire in 7 BC. After the downfall of Rome, the Ostrogoths, Byzantines and Lombards all invaded and battled for control. When Charlemagne defeated the Lombards, he claimed the territory and gave some of it to the Pope. After centuries of the wars between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines – the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire – Umbria was brought into the Papal States as part of the return of the Pope from Avignon to Rome in the 14th century, where it remained until the end of the 18th century. After the years of the French conquest of Italy from 1798 to 1814, the Pope once again assumed control after the fall of Napoleon, until 1860 and the beginning of the Kingdom of Italy. The region suffered heavy damage in the Allied bombings and in the battles as the Germans retreated north through Tuscany and Umbria. It became a part of the Republic of Italy in 1946.
Wine regions of Umbria – Photo by Umbria Wine Tours
Umbria has four major wine zones, each with characteristic soils influenced by the complex geological history of the region. Historically known for its white wines, the red production now slightly outweighs the white. Sangiovese and Trebbiano Toscano are grown throughout the regions, as the soils and climate ae quite similar to its more famous neighbor, Tuscany. The production of olives and grain has traditionally overshadowed that of vine cultivation, leaving Umbria a bit on the sidelines when it comes to the promotion of its wines. In the last 30 years, the region has made great strides in the modernization and quality of its viticulture and in efforts to increase wine tourism. It really has everything necessary to make high quality wines – volcanic soils, maritime influence, good diurnal temperature swings, limestone and clay, altitudinal sweet spots, biodiversity of flora, hot summers and moderate climate. Umbria ranks 14th of the 20 regions in quantity of production, less than 25% of that of Tuscany, and has a mix of mostly indigenous and some international varieties – Bellone, Trebbiano Toscano and Spoletino, Drupeggio, Grechetto, Malvasia, Verdello, Ciliegiolo, Canaiolo, Montepulciano, Gamay, Sagrantino, Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. As Riccordo Cotarella, famed Italian enologist and native son, said ‘good wine comes in small barrel’; 70% of Umbria’s wine is produced as DOC, DOCG or IGTs to identify the area of production and standards of quality. Small barrel, indeed!
From Citta di Castello, north of Perugia, to Terni in the south, most of central Umbria was the Lago Tiberino about 1.5 million years ago. With the upthrust of the Apenninne Mountains, the lake slowly drained leaving behind alluvial and laucstrine soils(river and lake bottom deposits) in the hills and valleys. In the hills north of Orvieto, the area is characterized by soils of clay, sand and gravels, while to the south remains the evidence of the dormant string of the Vulsini volcanoes last active in 164 BC. Lago Bolsena, the largest crater lake in Europe, was created by the last explosive eruption, leaving soils of basalt, pyroclastic flow material and tufo*. Sandstone, clay, and marl are found in the area north of Assisi around Torgiano, ideal for the production of fine red wines. Montefalco has complex alluvial and laucstrine soils, with limestone, sandy clays, schist and sand, also very well-suited to red grapes.
*tufo is a “soft porous volcanic rock formed by ejected material and ash that has solidified and cemented over time”
Montefalco, the balcony of Umbria – Photo by Michele Shah
Around the medieval town of Montefalco, called the ‘balcony of Umbria’, grapes have been grown here since the pre-Roman times. Pliny the Elder wrote of a tannic grape called Itriola, which might have been similar to Sagrantino, however more formal vineyard cultivation was first done by the Benedictine monks during the Middle Ages. The origins are a bit murky, with the possibility of grapes brought by the Greek settlers or monks from France centuries later. As early as the 14th century, wine was of such importance here that the production was regulated by village laws, even governing the start of the harvest. In any case, this is the only place in Italy where Sagrantino, Umbria’s signature red grape, is grown. Its name is thought to have derived from sagra, meaning ‘festa or sacred’ or possibly sacrestia, meaning ‘wine for religious purpose’. Traditionally a sweet wine made in the passito style from dried grapes, the first dry versions were presented in the 1920s. By the 1960s, there were only 5 producers and 10 hectares and the variety was nearing extinction.
According to the winemakers, it is a difficult grape, both in the vineyard and the cellars. It needs a long hot growing season and a lot of ageing to tame its ferocious tannins. In fact, it is the most tannic grape in the world, exceeding that of Aglianico, Nebbiolo and Tannat. Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG requires 37 months of ageing, including 12 months in oak and 4 months in the bottle. Plan on 8-20 years in the cellar; this is not a wine for lightweights! It is made in both dry and sweet versions and is well worth the investment for both. This is a full-bodied powerful wine, made for savoury foods – game stews, roasted and grilled meats, aged cheeses. Intense purple ruby in color, with aromas and flavors of black fruits – cherry, plum and blackberry – with complex notes of leather, forest floor, licorice, spice. High acidity and tannic structure give longevity to this wine. For a more approachable wine, without the wait time in the cellar, Rosso di Montefalco DOC fits the bill. A blend of 60-70% Sangiovese, 10-15% Sagrantino and up to 30% other red varieties like Canaiolo, Merlot and Montepulciano, this is the everyday wine for pasta, pizza, grilled meats and cheeses.
Further to the north in Torgiano, just above Assisi, Giorgio Lungarotti really put Umbria on the map for serious red wines of Italy. Starting in the 1950s, he modernized the viticultural techniques and produced Rubesco, his signature blend of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Canaiolo or Colorino, earning Umbria’s first DOC in 1962. It rivals the best of Tuscany and is capable of ageing 25-30 years. He also produces Vin Santo, Spumante and a white wine, Bianco di Torgiano DOC, a blend of indigenous grapes – Grechetto, Trebbiano Toscano and Vermentino. The Museo del Vino Torgiano, run by his wife, Maria Grazia Lungarotti is housed in the Graziani-Baglioni 17th century summer palace, there are 20 rooms and over 3000 exhibits spanning 5000 years of wine history, art and culture. https://muvit.it/eng
Exhibits at the Museo del Vino di Torgiano Photos by Lungarotti
Built on imposing tufo cliff called le rupe overlooking the Paglia River Valley, Orvieto had been a center of quality wine production since the time of the Etruscans. It was one of their most important cities, Velzna.
Orvieto and Le Rupe Photo by Ciao Umbria
The first forays into the rock 2500 years ago were not for wine caves but for wells in search of water. The Etruscans discovered that when the holes they bored for the wells were expanded, the tunnels were perfect for making wine, using gravity fed system to transport the juice from the surface to the fermentation level and then further down, a level for wine storage. Eventually, there were tunnels that honeycombed the rock below the entire city. (To visit: http://www.orvietounderground.it )
Orvieto Underground – Tunnels carved in tufo under Orvieto Photo by Orvietoguides.it
Since antiquity, the wines were prized – with a golden color, very aromatic, soft and sweet on the palate.
The Popes who summered here favored the wines and the famous Renaissance painters whose frescos adorn the magnificent cathedral often required their payment in the form of the Orvieto wine. This sweet wine remained the style for hundreds of years, until a dry wine began to appear around the middle of the 19th century.
The wines of Orvieto are a white blend. Grechetto and Trebbiano Toscano known locally as Procanico, account for 60%, while other native grapes such as Verdello, Drupeggio and Malvasia Bianca usually account for the balance. However there is a wide style of wines by the producers, as even small amounts of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc may be added. While usually made secco (dry), the regulations allow for abboccato (medium dry), amabile (medium sweet), dolce (sweet) and spumante (sparkling). Orvieto is one of the only places in Italy where the conditions exist to produce muffa nobile, noble rot or botrytis, the same mold that creates the famous French wine, Sauterne – fog in the mornings, followed by sunny, warm and breezy afternoons. Classifications are DOC, Classico and Superiore, depending on vineyard location, regulations for production and ageing requirements. At their best, these are aromatic, with good structure and ageing capacity – creamy texture, notes of herbs, fresh hay, white stone fruits and spices.
The sweet wines are golden in color, with aromas and flavors of ripe stone fruit, honey, candied orange, and saffron, with high acidity to keep the sweetness in check and a mineral note.
Spoleto, the ancient Roman town of Spoletium founded in 241 BC – Photo by Boomer-daily
The Spoleto DOC is a white wine only designation and the most recent in Umbria, from 2011. It was created to protect and promote Trebbiano Spoletino, a native grape variety cultivated only in the vicinity of Spoleto and Montefalco and not related to other Trebbiano varieties. It’s an exciting addition to the Umbrian collection of wines, rediscovered about 20 years ago and only cultivated on about 60 hectares. In its best expressions as Spoleto Trebbiano Spoletino Superiore DOC, it must be at least 85% of this grape, with additional ageing in the bottle. The wine is an intense yellow hay color, aromatic on the nose, a full-bodied white with a persistent finish – aromas and flavors of citrus, mature yellow fruits, white flowers, herbal notes of celery and sage, even some honey and minerality. It can be made in a spumante and passito sweet style.
The Todi DOC is the historic home of Grechetto di Todi, another native grape of Umbria. Considered genetically unique from the one grown in Orvieto, it also likely has its origins from the Greek vines brought here. This is a white wine with a brilliant straw yellow color and golden highlights. The style varies from dry to off-dry with a velvety sensation on the palate, balanced with a characteristic slightly bitter and fruity finish.
Grechetto di Todi vineyards – Photo by Todini
The town of Todi – Photo by Umbria Tourism
As one of the few landlocked regions of Italy, it comes as no surprise that the food culture and history of Umbria is one of the forests and fields of the countryside and hearty dishes of the mountains. One of Italy’s largest producers of black truffles, this variety is found between Norcia and Spoleto, around Perugia and all along the Nera River. Typically found near oak, holm oak, beech and chestnuts trees, they prefer clay and limestone soils – no coincidence that their habitat is in common with that of the grape vine! The scorzone variety, or summer truffle, is found as well but is less prized as the aroma and intensity are less strong. It is foraged from May to December while the black truffle makes its appearance in the fall and early winter.
Tagliolini with black truffles – Photo by Via del Vino
Umbria has a history of sheep herding, so cheese-making is the natural conclusion. Pecorino cheeses are important; with truffles, wrapped in grape leaves, with walnuts, aged and fresh. Pork and wild boar provide the makings of the salumi of Norcia, famous throughout Italy for its variety and quality. Together they make the perfect tagliere for a glass of Umbrian red wine; Prosciutto IGP, salsicce stagionato e salemella.
Artisanal pork products of Umbria – Photos by NorciaFood.it
The olive trees of Umbria have been historically more important to farmers than their grape vines. Although the region provides only 2% of Italy’s production, the quality is high, like its neighbor Tuscany and worth seeking out. There are 5 growing areas, with oil ranging from pale gold to bright green.
Olive oils of Umbria
And like Tuscany, beans have a prominent place in the Umbrian diet. The Fagiolina del Trasimeno have been grown since the days of the Etruscans and don’t require long soaking. Try a bowl with some Umbria olive oil and rosemary – pair with a roast pork or grilled steak and a glass of Montefalco Sagrantino. Similar to its neighbor Lazio, porchetta, takes center stage as the street food of Umbria. Crafted with a wild fennel that grows only here, this herb-stuffed boneless pork roast is made for Rosso di Montefalco and Ciliegiolo.
Fagiolina del Trasimeno – Photo by Grand Consiglio della Forchetta
Porchetta – Photo by ViaDelVino
For more recipes from Umbria, check out:
Finally, no chat about food in Umbria would be complete without mentioning chocolate! Perugia hosts the International Festival of Chocolate every year in October and it is a chocolate-lovers dream – tastings, classes, even spa treatments! Try a chocolate tasting with a glass of regional dessert wine. This year, there’s two events – spring and fall. https://www.eurochocolate.com/perugia2022/felici-in-un-secondo
Euro Chocolate in Perugia
Chocolate class in Perugia – Photo by Baci Perugina
Chocoate truffles at EuroChocolate
Chocolate rounds at EuroChocolate – Photo by Rove
Photo by MonteSubasio.it
Baci by Perugina, world famous chocolate and hazelnut kisses