Marche Stays the Course Amidst Future Uncertainty

BY ERIC GUIDO | MAY 02, 2024

Both growth and evolution are imperative for the success and survival of any species, civilization, individuals and, of course, wine regions. Time goes by without the two of them, and trends, tastes and social scenes change, yet the wine and the people who create it remain the same. Many wine regions have fallen victim to this in the past, yet the successful ones have managed to reinvent and revitalize themselves. As it is now, Marche may be at risk of becoming the former.

Marche produces one of Italy's greatest white wines in the form of Verdicchio. It’s a wine that thrills tasters in its youth yet also has the capacity to mature and gain further complexity and depth in the bottle. It can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of Italy and, in some cases, the best from around the world. However, I’ve witnessed a tremendous surge in competition for Verdicchio in recent years. I’ve watched Soave reemerge from the ashes, Fiano rejuvenate its reputation and Orvieto make a comeback. The popularity of Trebbiano Abruzzese has exploded. Lugana has gained in popularity, and speculation over the potential of Carricante grows with every passing day. So, where does this leave Verdicchio? Unfortunately, it makes Verdicchio a smaller fish in a bigger pond.

Looking out across the hills of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi.

When I visit or interview winemakers to gain extra insights, I also ask about exciting new regional projects. I commonly walk away with at least a handful of new names to track down. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive any this time in Marche. Verdicchio witnessed a surge of new blood in the early 2000s, which has developed into some of today’s top names, yet little has changed since. Modern-day Marche winemakers like to discuss a new sense of place with the rise of single-vineyard wines. Most can agree that the biggest problem in the region is their own unwillingness to work together. Winemaker Tommaso Chiacchiarini Sartarelli of the Sartarelli Winery said to me, “We producers do not work as a team at all as it happens in many other successful regions, and this penalizes us a lot in the international markets and also in the national one.” Ironically, I received nearly identical quotes from several top producers, making me question why this issue can’t be resolved. I can’t remember the last time an organized Marche- or Verdicchio-themed tasting came up in my itinerary. Beyond relying on the work of publications such as Vinous, education and putting the wines in the hands of consumers are ways to push a region forward. As my interviews revealed, unity, better communication and global reach to new consumers would be a serious step in the right direction. The question is, who’s going to take the lead? 

Verdicchio still represents tremendous value in the market. That stems from its ability to wear many guises. Verdicchio can be an easy-drinking, young wine treasured for its piercing acidity mixed with vividly ripe fruit. Or it can be a later-harvest or single-vineyard wine where the grapes mature slower, communicating more depth and power. Most producers will have a late-harvest (but not sweet) Riserva, often elevated by a healthy onset of noble rot. It can also produce a Metodo Classico (Champagne style) wine, where Verdicchio’s naturally high acidity shines. 

The Sartarelli family maintains an experimental nursery of vines.

Beyond these categories, one of Verdicchio's best qualities is its ability to communicate terroir, adding further diversity. The Jesi growing zone spreads out from an outcropping of the Apennine mountains and then gently slopes down toward the Adriatic Sea. This provides growers with contrasting climate influences of Mediterranean warmth and cooling effects from the higher elevations. Meanwhile, Matelica is located on the other side of those summits, sitting in a valley with high grounds to the east and west. This geographical situation changes things significantly, giving Matelica a continental climate with elevations above 370 meters, drastic diurnal shifts and a season lasting seven to ten days longer. As a result, one can expect the wines of Jesi to possess more richness and fruit, while those from Matelica will communicate a sense of verticality and power. Both can age just as well over time, yet I find the former more appealing in its youth and provides a broader drinking window. 

Verdicchio has an advantage when it comes to climate change due to its naturally late harvest. Marche has witnessed warming trends like the rest of the world, with drastic weather experienced throughout most of the year. Precipitations are becoming scarcer, particularly in the summer months; yet when they come, they come in mass, drenching the landscape and causing erosion. The soils throughout the region provide good moisture retention, yet irrigation is nearly impossible due to a lack of fresh water to pull from. Luckily, due to Verdicchio’s later ripening, the grapes can recover from the warm and dry conditions of the summer through the cooler and rainier months of September and October. It isn’t rare to find producers picking in late October or even into November. This was especially important over the last three vintages, which have been excessively warm and dry, yet the wines maintain a balance that other regions have struggled with. On the flip side, Gabriele Brugnoni, Export Manager of the Bisci winery in Matelica, had a very different perspective, explaining his feeling that global warming has so far been a benefit, as it has pushed harvests earlier, which avoids the humid periods of September and October. More than anything, this demonstrates the vast difference between the Jesi and Matelica growing areas.

Verdicchio on the vine.

Beyond Verdicchio

Marche is about more than just white wine. There is considerable variability in the reds. Shopping for Marche reds is more about knowing the winery to look for versus the region or classification. The Rosso Conero and the more extensive Rosso Piceno DOCs remain littered with wines that are over-stylized, over-oaked, rustic to a fault and often packaged in bottles that weigh enough to strain your wrist while pouring. That said, some fantastic producers make world-class wines within these categories, yet finding them is often a problem. 

The two main red varieties in the region are Sangiovese and Montepulciano, often blended together. Both should be able to succeed here. For instance, the Rosso Piceno DOC, located on the border of Abruzzo’s Colline Teramane growing area, is a hotspot for top-level Montepulciano. Yet, we don’t find the same level of complexity and depth from the majority of producers here. The wines can often offer value, yet most are quaffable and forgettable. I’ve witnessed what the Rosso Conero DOC and Riserva DOCG can accomplish through the wines of Garofoli, Umani Ronchi and Le Terrazze. The Adriatic Sea and Conero’s clay-limestone-rich soils heavily influence the growing area, creating a location with a very distinct terroir. I would love to see more successful wines from Conero, yet beyond the producers mentioned above, few others can move the needle. If anything, the category of Marche Rosso IGT offered up some exciting reds in my recent tastings, which signals the declining importance of the Conero and Piceno DOCs.

Lacrima di Morro d'Alba remains something of an outlier. Lacrima is a unique grape that, once you taste it, can easily be recognized for its distinct floral character, with vivid violet, rose, lavender and blackberry notes. Many wineries seek to create wines made for easy drinking, which often overdeliver and can be paired with a wide selection of foods, from red to white meats and even rich fish dishes. Think of it as the Beaujolais of Marche. With that said, Lacrima can also take on a more serious persona, such as in the old-vine selections from Lucchetti.

Garofoli's barrel aging room.

Water Is The New Gold

A reality across the globe: water is becoming the new gold. Some Italian producers ask me how winemakers and vineyard managers in other areas of the world, like Washington State and Paso Robles, are tackling this crisis and how similar strategies may be applied in the years to come. In general, most of Italy’s wineries are also bound by the laws of their region, permitting watering only during times of emergency. In Marche, however, many producers do not have access to fresh water even if they could irrigate. The land lacks significant rivers or bodies of water that could provide irrigation. This made things especially difficult in a year like 2022, yet this vintage had its silver lining. 

The 2022 Verdicchios are round, supple and perfumed, impressing with their opulent textures and ripe fruit and balanced by stimulating acidity. The small number of reds I have tasted are intense and fruit-forward, lacking complexity yet appearing as racy and easily palatable. The season in Jesi started mild, persisting through the winter with average rainfall, which continued through early spring, while Matelica received less precipitation and colder conditions. For producers in Matelica, this began the drought cycle that marked the vintage. Budbreak was plentiful, slightly early to on time through most of the region. In May, warm weather descended and lasted; some producers recall summer-like temperatures throughout May and June with little to zero rainfall. Vineyards at higher elevations and in Matelica benefitted from cooler nighttime temperatures, yet drought remained the more serious issue. July didn’t bring any relief, nor did most of August, up until the very end, when heavy rainstorms moved into the region. This began a cooling period throughout Marche with periodic rains through September. In most cases, harvest started a week earlier than average, and many producers reported a larger quantity than in previous years. For the later-ripening Verdicchio, the year's conditions allowed vines to recuperate partially from the warm and dry conditions, but ultimately, the vintage had left its mark.  

I find more balance in the entry-level 2022s than I did from the 2021s last year. That said, during this report, I tasted several of the more important and single-vineyard 2021s that display lovely harmony. Both are excessively warm and dry vintages, yet in 2021, relief didn’t come until the middle of September, making it easier on producers who purposely pick later in the season.

The wines for this article were tasted throughout February and March of 2024 in our offices in New York City. 

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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