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Umbria: Italy's Forgotten Region (Until Now)
By Michael Apstein
Nov 8, 2016
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Ask consumers to name their favorite Italian wine regions and you’re sure to hear Tuscany and Piedmont.  Italian white wine enthusiasts no doubt would add Friuli and Trentino to the list.  And Campania would certainly be on most people’s short list.  Umbria?  Not really.  Most people, even wine aficionados, can’t even locate the region on a map.  (It’s the landlocked region between Lazio in the south and Tuscany to its north.)  Though significant earthquakes have rattled Umbria recently, even the Italian media refers to it as,“Central Italy.”  

There were good reasons, until now, for Umbria’s wine obscurity.  For one, it has lacked a “signature” wine.  Tuscany has several, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Piedmont has Barolo and Barbaresco.  Sure, Umbria has a DOCG, Sagrantino di Montefalco, but this tannic red needs decades to come around and has never gained a widespread following.  Umbria has also lacked, until now, a “locomotive,” a producer whose wines capture the wine world’s attention. Again, turning to Tuscany, we find Antinori and Frescobaldi.  In Piedmont, Gaja’s name stands out. 

After tasting a wide range of wines from Castello delle Regine it’s clear to me that Umbria now has both a signature wine--maybe more than one--and a locomotive.

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Paolo Nodari, a prominent Milanese lawyer who loves horses, was searching with his wife, Livia Colantonio, for a country retreat where he could ride and hunt.  It turns out that the area of southern Umbria just across the border from Lazio was well known for hunting and riding, so they looked for property there.  They found a decrepit hilltop castle dating from the 15th century.  Only two families had owned the property prior to the Nodari/Colantonio purchase in the mid 1990s.  It had remained in the original family until about 1900, when the family from whom Paolo and Livio purchased it, acquired it.  They in turn kept it until abandoning it shortly after World War II.  From photographs, it looked as though it had been bombed years ago with crumbling walls taken over by vegetation.  (A true “fixer-upper.”  Colantonio says, “Now that I know how much work, and time and money this place takes, I understand why they abandoned it.”)

Along with the castle came about 35 acres of vineyards planted to old clones of Sangiovese and Merlot, whose vines were roughly 50 to 55 years old, though records showed they had both been planted on the property for at least 250 years.  The new owners called on their friend, Franco Bernabei, one of Italy’s most respected wine consultants, for advice as soon as they discovered the old vines.  They had always liked Bernabei’s classic style of wines as opposed to the more modern or international style that had become so popular.  Colantonio recounts that Bernabei was skeptical about consulting because, after all, it was Umbria, but consented because they were friends.  Bernabei’s eyes lit up, according to her, when he saw the old vines.  He remarked to her that it was no surprise that the Merlot had done so well in this locale because the soil, clay and sand, was similar to that in Pomerol.  He was equally intrigued by the Sangiovese and, after tasting the wines, I see why.

From the winery, it’s easy to see the property’s historically strategic importance, overlooking both the Valle delle Regine (Valley of the Queens), named for the noble families who passed through it on their way to Rome, and the Tevere River (aka Tiber) as it flowed to Rome and the coast.  The winery itself, like the wines, is understated and functional--not an architectural trophy to an owner’s ego. Indeed, it is covered with vines, which makes it blend into the surrounding countryside when viewed from the valley.  In keeping the sustainability of the entire property--everything they use comes from their 1,000 acres--Colantonio points out that the vegetation covering the walls keeps the winery cool, reducing energy requirements.  Clean and functional, the stainless steel fermenting tanks vary in size to accommodate grapes from individual plots in the vineyards.  This precise parcelization allows them to fine-tune viticultural and winemaking practices depending on the particular parcel and variety.

*       *       *

Across the board, the wines from Castello delle Regine are simply stunning.  They produce three distinct dry Sangiovese-based wines, all of which I heartily recommend, based on the age of the vines.  From 18 to 20 year old vines, which Colantonio categorizes as “very young,” Castello delle Regine produces Poggio delle Regine from a blend of Sangiovese (85%) filled out with Merlot and Syrah.  The 2014, fresh, fruity and juicy, still shows its character with the barest hint of balancing bitterness in the finish.   At about $12 a bottle, it is the perfect “pizza wine” (88 points).

A step up in complexity, and a similarly excellent value, is Castello delle Regine’s 2013 Rosso di Podernovo.  A blend of Sangiovese (85%) from 25-30 year old vines with Montepulciano and Merlot, it conveys an alluring “not just fruit” character balanced by freshness.  It has extraordinary complexity for its $15 bargain price.  Showing its stature, it finishes with a touch of bitterness, perfect to accompany a robust pasta dish, not the sweetness of a fruit bomb.  As with all of Castello delle Regine’s wines, it over delivers for the price.  It goes into the “buy it by the case” category (91points).

Castello delle Regine’s top wine, to my mind, is their show-stopping Selezione del Fondatore ($45), made exclusively from 50 to 55-year old Sangiovese vines.  To be fair, others, with some justification, would put Castello delle Regine’s Merlot ($45) at the top of the heap.  I can also understand why some might even tag Princeps ($24) despite the lower price of their Cabernet Sauvignon blend, as the Castello’s flagship. But more about those wines and the Castello’s whites in another column.

A vertical tasting of Selezione del Fondatore from 2004 to their current U.S. release of 2007--yes, you read that correctly--their current release is a nine year old wine--demonstrated the wine’s grandeur.  (Colantonio insists that it is the winery’s responsibility to release the wine when it is ready to drink and not the customer’s responsibility to age it since the winery has ideal conditions for aging.)  All of the vintages had a captivating dark minerality and an appealing earthiness buttressed by juicy acidity and balanced by an appealing hint of bitterness in the finish.  They were exciting wines to taste--the kind that make you say, “Wow.”  Not cookie-cutter wines, they all clearly reflected their respective vintages. 

The expected (from the vintage) tannic structure apparent in the 2004 Selezione (94 points) melted away hours later when served with dinner, indicating it still needed more bottle age before coming into its own.  The 2005 (95 points), on the other hand, from a less prestigious vintage, showed a perfect harmony of maturity and fruitiness.  It reminded me, once again, how important it is to judge the wine, not the vintage.  The 2006 Selezione (96 points), despite more fleshiness, tasted more than a year younger than the 2005, reflecting the glory of that vintage.  Its balance and how it unfolded over the next several hours indicated that it will be a spectacular wine in a few more years.  The 2007 (97 points), is a captivating young wine.  Fleshier still, it is paradoxically tightly wound and explosive with layers of flavors and extraordinary length. (Though I’m forced for put a number on to express my opinion, my notes indicate WB, for “would buy.”) 

Keep your eye on Umbria and this locomotive.

*       *       *

[Castello delle Regine wines are imported by Golden Ram Imports/Bluest Sky Group]

 E-mail me your thoughts about Umbria in general or Castello delle Regine in specific at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

November 9, 2016