The eastern coast of Italy is less well-known than regions on the other side of the country. So this tasting with a star producer represented a fantastic voyage of discovery for Collective members.
Umani Ronchi’s CEO Michele Bernetti admits that the Marche and Abruzzo are somewhat ‘mysterious’ to most people. But fortunately his winery are excellent guides. Not only are they a member of the respected Grandi Marchi di Vini – essentially, Italy’s finest family run wine companies, including the likes of Sassicaia, Antinori and Tasca d’Almerita – they make wine in three different appellations east of the Appennines. No-one knows this area better.
The family started in the wine business in Verdicchio in 1957, later opening a cellar near the coast, in the Conero DO, before branching out into the Abruzzo, 130km further south, in 2001. The vast majority of what they do involves the native grapes Verdicchio and Montepulciano, though in this tasting they also showed us a Pecorino and a ‘super Marche’ red blend.
Over their (almost) 70 years of production, they’ve developed a very environmentally friendly approach.
‘It’s very fashionable to mention sustainability now,’ says Michele. ‘But we’ve been committed to that for a long time.’ All of their 200 hectares of vineyards are farmed organically and certified as such.
Their philosophy (besides sustainability) is simple: ‘grandi vini ma non grossi vini’ – great wines but not big wines.
Our members got to look at wines from all three areas to see just what this meant.
The Abruzzo is a large area – Italy’s fourth biggest wine region – most of it is concentrated on Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. But white wine is coming back, particularly driven by a resurgence of local varieties. In the past this would probably have meant the high-yielding Trebbiano, but when the team at Umani Ronchi replanted they decided to concentrate on Pecorino which they thought was more interesting.
‘It’s a very ancient variety and very typical of this part of Italy,’ says Michele. ‘It’s been cultivated here for centuries. It’s authentic, indigenous and really gives some quality with a great personality.’
Centovie Pecorino 2019, IGT Colli Aprunti
In terms of blind tasting, Michele says Pecorino can be hard to pick on the nose. There’s some pear and white flowers, but like many Italian white varieties it’s not a particularly aromatic variety compared to, say Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Bianco.
‘You find the character on the palate,’ says Michele. ‘I don’t like to say minerality, but there’s a definite saltiness and acidity. There’s good body and freshness and it’s capable of ageing.’
The Centovie sees no oak, but is settled for 12 months in concrete tanks and 5 months in bottle before release. A wine with a certain chalkiness it’s pretty versatile and needn’t be limited to fish and seafood but, says Michele, can work well with white meats too – and food with more character generally.
Centovie Organic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2015
Montepulciano is the variety that the Abruzzo is best known for. Typically, they are quite deep in colour and polyphenols and fairly rich in style.
But Umani Ronchi have introduced a variety of winemaking techniques – from not over-ripening the grapes and reducing pump-overs to introducing a little whole-bunch into the ferment – to dial this style down a bit and make something more elegant. Generally sandy soils help in this regard too.
Centovie is a 100% organic estate and though the wine is aged 14 months in French oak only 25% of it is new, with the remainder second and third use.
‘It needs some time to soften the wine, but we don’t want too much oak character,’ says Michele, pointing out that the wine still has enough concentration to age for 10-15 years.
Collective Member Daniel Cordero Reis found it ‘intense, warm and fruity with spicy aromas.’
Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi
This is where Umani Ronchi started and is home to over half of their vineyards – 110 hectares – all organically cultivated. Their vineyards are split between the ‘left bank’ (north of the Misa river) and the right bank opposite, with our members today tasting an example of each.
Verdicchio has changed significantly from the 1970s when it was making big volumes of largely uninspiring wine, to now producing some of Italy’s best whites. It’s a movement that this winery has been at the forefront of driving.
Vecchie Vigne Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore 2019
Umani Ronchi were engaged in renewing old, less productive vineyards, when they noticed that the vines in the upper part of this 1960s vineyard gave consistently better quality fruit. So rather than replant them, they renovated them. And this wine is the result.
It’s a very pure expression of Verdicchio – fermented in stainless steel and aged in concrete tanks for a year, with no malo and no oak. It’s not unlike unoaked Chablis and, with the latter in short supply for the next two years, could provide a useful alternative.
‘Growers now realise they have a variety that can provide very classy wines,’ says Michele, suggesting that consumers are now often looking for wines such as this, with less obvious aromatic intensity and more character on the palate.
Plenio Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi Classico Riserva 2019
First made in 1995 this oaked expression is a deliberately richer, more full-bodied style of Verdicchio (Plenio means ‘full’) which was very much the fashion of the mid-90s. However, over the last 25 years, Umani Ronchi has dialled down the oak use to just 30-40%, with no new oak – just two or three-year-old barrels.
‘Because Verdicchio is not very aromatic, you have to be careful in the oak you use,’ explains Michele. ‘You can’t use a sweet oak that adds those vanilla characters. You need a more grilled character, which works better with the freshness and minerality of Verdicchio. That way the oak brings complexity but it doesn’t make it heavy and you don’t lose the indigenous character.’
The wine comes from a vineyard that’s 400m above sea level, with gives bigger day/night differences. This allows them to leave the grapes on the vine longer without losing acidity, giving a style that’s richer, but still balanced.
All of which means you can push the food matching a bit, from fish and white meats right up to spaghetti Bolognese.
This wine region is named after the mountain (and national park) on the promontory south of Ancona. At 600m high, it shields the vineyards from the cool northerly and easterly breezes and is the reason that it’s possible to grow Montepulciano here. Even so, it’s the most northerly region for the grape in Italy.
Cùmaro Rosso Conero Riserva 2017
The proximity to the sea has a big influence on the character of this wine. Firstly, the intensity of the light helps the polyphenols to ripen, and secondly it moderates the climate. The coast is famous for windsurfing – and the constant wind explains why the ripening is slower and more gentle.
It’s a hilly area of limestone and clay soils and stylistically the Montepulcianos are different as a result: more fruity and elegant in structure, and less powerful and spicy than those from the Abruzzo. A more refined expression.
Pelago 2017, Marche Rosso IGT
Our final wine of the day was first created for Umani Ronchi in the 1990s by Giacomo Tachis – the Italian wine guru famous for inventing Sassicaia, Tignanello et al. Having planted Cabernet and Merlot, with the intention of making a Bordeaux blend, Tachis convinced the family to blend it with Montepulciano to make a kind of ‘Super Marche’.
Typically the latter makes up around half of the blend, with 40-45% Cabernet and a splash of Merlot.
2017 was a warm year, but the maritime climate helped mitigate against that and (along with 2013 and 2015) is one of Michele’s favourite recent vintages.
‘It’s always been about elegance and finesse,’ says Michele. ‘It’s never been a wine looking for a big structure.’