One of Italy’s only landlocked and smallest regions, Umbria often gets overlooked for neighboring Tuscany. The area was best known for many years for its light and simple whites from Orvieto. But producers are now getting more ambitious and using the region’s hilly terrain and local varietal to produce some aromatic whites such as grechetto and intense and hearty reds like Sagrantino di Montefalco and Rosso di Montefalco.
“The quality of Umbrian wines has grown considerably over the past 20 years, thanks to entrepreneurs like Caprai, Antonelli, Tabarrini, Bea, Antano, Palazzone, Antinori, etc.,” says Giuseppe Rosati, wine director at New York’s Felidia Italian restaurant. He carries wine eight to 10 Umbrian whites and 20 reds on his wine list. The wines range in price from $40 for Caprai’s Grecante Grechetto to $210 for Antinori’s Cervaro della Sala Antinori for whites and up to $235 for Caprai’s Sagrantino di Montefalco 25 Anni.
Umbria’s great wines may still be a bit under the radar, but they “can go head to head with the best Tuscan and Piemontese reds, and in some cases, can cost just as much,” says Dan Amatuzzi, beverage director of Eataly, a multi-restaurant and store complex in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. He carries about 20 wines from Umbria, both whites and reds; the average by-the-glass price is $16 while bottles average $60. These prices are no doubt competitive with those of the better-known wines of Italy’s other top wine-producing regions.
For Amatuzzi, Umbria’s whites “exhibit fresh and mineral characters, mostly from grechetto or grechetto-based wines that are similar to white wines from neighboring regions to the north.” Whites like greghetto, “are great for stews, cheeses, and cured meats,” he adds. “They’ve got this refreshing appeal and fresh acidic component.”
Umbria’s reds can be similar to those of Tuscany, because the mountainous terrior is similar and also because sangiovese is used in large part to produce Umbria’s everyday wine, Rosso di Montefalco. “The reds are more like red wines from Tuscany and [neighboring] Le Marche [where] sangiovese is most prevalent,” Amatuzzi says.
While Rosso di Montefalco and Sagrantino di Montefalco—both named after the town of Montefalco—are the region’s top reds, some producers are also making unconventional blends. Adanti’s Arquata Rosso dell’Umbria is a delicious and unusual blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and barbera.
Sagrantino di Montefalco’s tend to be big, structured wines that are capable of and benefit from aging–often for close to a decade. “Wines produced from this grape are usually tannic, powerful and aggressive,” says Amatuzzi. “Sagrantino wines are best enjoyed after a few years of cellaring, when they showcase some of the more secondary earthy and complex flavors with silky tannins and plush acidity, very divine stuff.”
In terms of pairings, “The reds, especially from Montefalco, are great for proteins and heavier tomato-sauced based pastas, they can really help break down the elements of a dish while adding their own flavors,” says Eataly’s Amatuzzi. Rosati adds that Umbria’s reds pair with an amazing range of foods, such as sagrantino with New York steak or Pastrami or Rosso di Montefalco for a barbeque, or with sausage or ribs.
Umbrian wines still need a bit of hand-selling by restaurant operators, but that shouldn’t be a deterrent. The role of a sommelier “is also to educate the people to try new grapes, indigenous and varietals: everybody is able to sale Barolo or Brunello,” says Rosati.