The Best New Wines from Central Italy

Central Italy estates outside of Tuscany must often feel that they're stuck between a rock and a hard place.  While wine lovers the world over know and clamor for the great wines of Northern Italy (Barolo, Barbaresco, Amarone, Franciacorta sparklers, Friuli and Alto Adige whites, to name just a few), of Tuscany (various Chiantis, Brunello di Montalcino, Bolgheri, Supertuscans in general), and even those of Southern Italy, which are generally viewed as new and exciting (nero d'Avola, aglianico, nerello mascalese, fiano), those of Central Italy bring up the rear on most wish lists.  This is a real shame because Central Italy can be a treasure trove of great wines and top values too.

In fact, Central Italy has three aces up its wine sleeve:  it's where you'll find one of Italy's three best dry white wines (verdicchio), one of the most interesting of all recently rediscovered native grapes (pecorino), and a slew of user-friendly, inexpensive, delicious reds, the sheer number of which neither northern nor southern Italy can match.  Add to all that one of Italy's best rosato (rosé) wines, an impressive wave of young, energetic men and women now starting to run and modernize their family estates, Lambrusco (which when done right has virtually no direct competition in the wine world), and more ancient and native grapes than the locals know what to do with, and you realize producers from this part of Italy have no reason to feel like poor cousins.

Central Italy covers the regions of Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Marche, Lazio, Umbria, Abruzzo and Molise, but in the IWC we cover Tuscany in a series of separate articles devoted to Brunello, Chianti, Vino Nobile and the Tuscan coast, owing to the sheer volume of different wines produced and their importance in world markets.  Thus, the focus of this article is the plethora of great and interesting wines made in Central Italy and the myriad grape varieties used to make them.  No need for ABC clubs (those wine drinkers who get together and have Anything But Chardonnay or Cabernet wines) in this neck of the Italian woods, as there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Central Italian grape types and wine styles.

Want something light and bubbly to match with pizza, pasta, hamburgers or grilled sausages?  One of the many lambrusco wines of Emilia Romagna (keep in mind there are many different lambrusco varieties, and hence not all lambrusco wines taste the same) is just what the doctor ordered.  Need a quick, serious, ageworthy wine fix?  Look no farther than one of the Marche's amazing verdicchio riserva wines.  Need a failsafe Sunday BBQ wine?  Reach for a bottle (or two, or three) of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.  Are rosés your thing and the warm days of summer beckoning already?  Add a Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo to join that Montepulciano d'Abruzzo in your shopping cart.  Desperately in need of impressing a first date who loves wine, knows something about it and wonders just how much you know?  Surprise her or him with a well-made pecorino from Abruzzo, a passerina from the Marche, a bellone from Lazio.  Tired of gewurz and riesling but going out tonight for Thai, Chinese or high-end cuisine laced with Oriental spices?  Central Italy has aromatic grapes and wines too:  malvasia di candia aromatica (Emilia Romagna) and moscato di Terracina (Lazio) will be a welcome surprise and immediately make converts.  And the list goes on.

Unfortunately, all these positives are partly offset by some potential pitfalls, the main one being the highly variable quality of many wines, with excellent wines standing on shelves next to neutral and unexciting ones.  Knowing a little about the wine estate is of critical importance:  more so, in fact, than in other areas of Italy.  Due to the need to achieve visibility and credibility for relatively unknown wines, many estates have in the past taken the consulting winemaker route with the goal of making wines that appeal to international palates.  This isn't a bad thing in itself, for these consultants have done wonders for Italian wines and we all owe them a vote of thanks; in some cases, however, wines that were supposed to speak of a specific place and grape didn't. 

Unfortunately, this tendency was exacerbated over the years by irresponsible and less than knowledgeable wine critics (mainly Italian ones) who awarded high praise to wines that would leave you scratching your head.  Even today, you may be confronted by black-as-ink Sangiovese di Romagna wines (an impossible hue for monovarietal sangiovese) or pecorino wines that smell and taste of chardonnay.  I urge you to leave those wines on store shelves, no matter how highly praised they may be.  That said, there are some interesting cabernet- and merlot-based wines made, which thanks to wild differences in terroir can represent interesting twists on old favorites.

So consumers with a taste for adventure will have a field day with Central Italian wines, and the fact that most of these wines are quite inexpensive can only add to their considerable charm.  What follows in this International Wine Cellar issue is the first comprehensive review of the wines of Central Italy since the last one I wrote three years ago.  For this reason, in a number of cases I have reviewed more than one vintage of a given wine, as for the most part they are still available in retail stores.