With the world fixated on and fascinated by Tuscany, it's easy and unfortunate to miss the adjacent region of Umbria, with its equally picturesque landscape of rolling hills, forests, hilltop Medieval villages, Cyprus trees, and cobblestone villas. Tuscany has Florence and Sienna. But Umbria has charms (many epicurean) that Tuscany does not; and it is, literally, the epicenter of central Italy.
Umbria lies between Tuscany (to the west) and the Marches region (to the east.) It looks like it could be out of Game of Thrones...maybe a threesome of location shoots from Seville, Croatia, and Northern Ireland, and yet undeniably Italian. Rolling fields, olive groves & vineyards, feathered-lollipop shaped trees, orange-yellow-green-chartreuse-peach pastels, and requisite stone castles. Perugia is the capital city and home to the famous Perugina chocolate factory, neighbored by the town of Assisi featuring the Basilicata where St. Francis may have started PETA and the Green Movement, and Spoleto is Europe's destination for its famous opera-ballet-art-science Summer Festival (replicated by its American sorority sister-city, Charleston, South Carolina.) Over 100 saints were born in Umbria. It is oozing with the mystery of history.
It also has outstanding food & wine specialties that absolutely differentiate it from its Tuscan neighbor.
1. WHITE WINE: Orvieto is a city in Umbria, but it's also a designated wine region devoted exclusively to white wine productions. When you buy an Orvieto white, you are getting a blend of its regional grapes: Trebbiano, Grechetto, Malvasia, and/or Canaiolo.
The best Orvieto blends come from the "heartland" premier vineyards, and are labeled Classico (denotes some of the best agricultural real estate, hence the best grapes). Other than that, it's hard to know what blend you will get, but it always helps to know the characteristics of each grape:
Trebbiano: a ubiquitous grape with no notable flavors except the classic citrus & green apple Hi-Fi acidity found in many Italian whites. However, it provides the crisp, lean, & clean base of the wine, which is the all-important lip-smack and vibrant tartness. And, to give it a little bit of dignity within this profile, it is highly resistant to grape-growing hazards & diseases, making it a very reliable and well respected work-horse crop.
Grechetto: a thicker skinned grape that provides a more robust, focused juice, and brings a little more "tension" into the blend. Depending on how long they are left on the vines to ripen, it can also impart a slight almond character into the wine.
Very often, when a sweet style of Orvieto is made (labeled as ABBOCATO), Grechetto often takes the lead in the blend!
Malvasia (Bianca): A perfect name for a character in Game of Thrones, and she would be a "shape-shifter" if George R.R. Martin were to write her in. This grape in Umbria is typically white, but Malvasia Nera (dark black skinned version) is an awesome red grape version in many of southern Italy's exciting red blends, especially from Apulia (the heel of Italy.) Malvasia is known for its pronounced bouquet of mixed cut flowers, tropical blossoms, and Greek-inspired lemony-peachy-herbal perfumes. While it can be produced with a variety of residual sweetness, the dry Malvasias are an adventurous journey of exotic sweet botanicals followed by a rainbow of dry acidity. When grown in New World places like California, they can even take on a thicker nectar-like texture. It also should be noted that this is the same grape grown in Portugal and the island of Madeira, where it is known as Malmsey and produces excellent white Ports and Madeira fortified wine.
Canaiolo: rather neutral in flavor, but known for adding structure and giving the wine a bit more sturdiness so it doesn't just float all over the tongue.
At the end of the day, this is one of Umbria's (let alone Italy's) best known whites, and is the antidote to orchard fruited, oaky-woody, caramelized, viscous, or otherwise aged & conditioned whites. It's puckery, light to medium, and...interesting.
2. RED WINE: If Orvieto is Umbria's flagship white, then Sagrantino is its champion red. To understand this red grape, you need to go back and understand Tuscan reds. In Tuscany, as well as many other central & southern parts of Italy, the #1 red grape in terms of planted vineyards, wine production, and omnipresent world popularity is the grape Sangiovese. "Sangio" is a strange little egg; named after 'blood' (think of words like Sanguine or Sangre), it has an inherent iron-rich flavor that (using two degrees of separation) can be compared to gamey raw red meat or beef, which leads to an association of the puddle of blood-juice that seeps out onto the butcher paper as it sits before grilling. Sangiovese tastes like blood, which tastes like meat, which tastes like leather.
In addition to the beef flavor, and the tangy-ness you know when sucking on a deep papercut, and the beef jerky permutations, the grape is known for its prolific tart cherry flavor, and undeniable cheek-sucking acidity. In a nutshell, how Sangiovese (via straw-casked Chianti bottles) became America's original "Wine by the glass" choice in a restaurant (or Apres work) still mystifies me; it is harsh; it is savory; it is sour; it is sharp.
It is also one of the BEST food wines on our planet! The #1 ingredient in Tuscan cooking is the tomato (i.e. tomato sauce.) Tomatoes are incredibly acidic, and with such evidence, irritate your skin when in prolonged contact. Tomato based cuisine begs for, and is complimented by, a wine with equal prowess. When you put high-acid wine next to high-acid food on your palate, they quell each other, and they become a harmony of equals.
Now, the story continues. As Sangiovese (and any other grape for that matter) is grown in all different regions and conditions, over time it may slightly alter in characteristics. It is classic adaptation to the environment, but it also gives you different 'mutations' (think of "styles") of the same genetic varietal. Case in point, within Tuscany is the famous sub-region of Montalcino. Here, the Sangiovese grape has adapted and evolved to grow much thicker skins; this version of the grape is called Sangiovese Grosso, a.k.a Brunello. Brunello from (di) Montalcino is revered and collected as one of the most muscular, structured, beefy, Harley Davidson, butch wines (which is a call to fame in and of itself) that you can age in a wine cellar for decades. Why? Because you MUST have tannins in order to properly age a wine. Tannins are antioxidants, and they protect the wine from rapid oxidation, which can lead to vinegar. Thicker skins have more tannins than thinner skins.
By having high tannins, there is a shield to slow down oxygen (preventing vinegar), but still allowing it to break down the wine's components, at a controlled pace, resulting in the glorious metamorphosis of flavor & texture we simplify into the word "aging."
Sangiovese, in all its versions, either has a prestigious level of tannins already, or it gains more of it through osmosis since tannins are extracted from wood barrels during fermentation and/or barrel aging. In either case, we see many bottlings of Sangiovese that are food bolsters, and may be age-worthy, therefore epicurean-worthy.
However, there are three red wines from Umbria that could punish the wines of Tuscany in a hypothetical WWF bout.
Torgiano Rosso: This is the first of only two DOCG wines in Umbria. What is DOCG? Well, all wines that come from a recognized region of unique growing conditions, correlating grape varietals, and permitted wine-making techniques are labeled as DOC (similar to, and emulating the AOC designations on French wine labels.) "DOCG" is an additional elevated ranking, indicating a "guaranteed" level of the highest quality. They are the penthouse apartments of Italian wine.
Torgianos are similar to Tuscan blends: 50-70% Sangiovese, with a blend of fruitier & softer red & white grapes. But the vineyards are at higher elevations, where colder temperatures lead to more pronounced acidity & more pronounced red flower potpourri aromas. Acidity is king to the food queen. These are your upscale & complex spaghetti/pasta wines. It gets very engaging when you get a "Riserva" level Torgiano, which requires a minimum of 3 years of aging, adding in beefy tannins and the complexity of "marination" flavors such as coffee bean, resin, dark chocolate, & prune.
Montefalco Sagrantino: The second "DOCG" designate, and 4 out of 5 dentists call the "enamel stripping wine gremlin". In this specific DOC portion of the village of Montefalco, the rule of law is that 100% of the wine is made from a grape called Sagrantino. UMPH. This grape has uber-thick skins, homesite to rugged, grippy, & punchy tannic acid. Tannins are found primarily in skins, but also seeds and stems (a.k.a. tree trunks which are cut down to make wine barrels.)
Sagrantino may in fact be the most tannic grape in the world, and as such, it can be aged in a cellar for 30-40 years or more....easily.
If you drink a Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG wine that is young (let's say, less than 10 years old) be prepared for a fish-face: the tannins will strip your palate of all things, including your saliva, resulting in the inward collapse of your cheeks. This sounds unpleasant, if not for the fact that much of the cuisine in Umbria matches beautifully with tannins: high protein & high Umami foods such as beans, hard intense cheeses, roasted game, & bitter greens need tannins to step up on the palate, otherwise, the food will squash & kill the flavor of the wine. (Side note: if you find a bottle that is more than 10 years old, then watch out for a knee-buckling, sock-knocking drinking experience.)
Montefalco Rosso: In the designated area (DOC) of Montefalco, you may get a non-Sagrantino dominant red. With 60-70% Sangiovese, and only a 10-15% allowance of Sagrantino, this is like a Tuscan wine with some extra 'tude. The Sagrantino gives a bit more color, plumpness, grip, and "shag carpet" to the edgy & tangy Sangiovese. Other grapes in the blend may even soften or add more ripe fruit to the final recipe, so these wines can be enjoyed when you see them in a store....no need to throw them down into a cave (or Urban wine fridge) for years.
3. TRUFFLES: Now children, this brings us to the last part of the story. Umbrian cuisine.
Pigeon, dove, wild boar, rabbit, wild cherry, wild mushroom, pork belly, porchetta, hard cheeses, goat cheese, cold pressed olive oil, bacon & cheese bread (Lumachelle), homemade pastas, anise, salami, bruschetta, crostini, garlic, prosciutto, chestnuts, chickpeas, liver, sausage.....blah, blah, blah...ALL FABULOUS. Duh. You're in Central Italy.
But it's the famous truffle that belongs to the not-as-famous Umbria. Truffles are a fungus-related Tuber. People often call them a mushroom, but they are more similar to a potato or Yucca in density and texture. Truffles from Umbria are called "U-Tubers". Kidding---I just made that up.
There are white & black truffles. Black ones that are 1-2 ounces in weight will cost around $30-$70. I'm told a large (rare) three-pounder black truffle has sold for approximately $2000-$2500, while white truffles (hailing primarily from Northwest Italy in the region of Alba) can command $6000-$10,000 per pound. I read somewhere that a European two-pounder sold for $300,000. Truffles grow inside & around live tree roots (specifically beech, birch, hazel, hornbeam, oak, pine, and poplar), so you can't really produce them. You have to find them.
The white truffles are compared more to nutty earthen roasted garlic, and are pungent in initial aroma that quickly fades, while the black truffles are more "stanky" and linger in smells from everything you would ever imagine to be decomposing in an ancient forest floor, from Narnia to Westeros to The Shire. Its odor is magical & glorious. Umbria produces both black & white truffles, and it is an integral ingredient in their cuisine; the wines of the region match perfectly, of course. As mother nature (and wine makers) intended.
Truffle pigs and truffle dogs can detect the aromas from as far as 100 yards away, or as deep as 3 feet underground. It is called "edible gold". It is rumored that the pleasure-based utterance "Ummmmmmmmm" came from a truffle eating Umbrian, and the region's name bore his expression. (I started the rumor.)