Updated: Apr 13
I’m drinking Orvieto DOC wines, why aren’t we all? Here are my thoughts:
The Umbri and the Etruscans made wine here long before the Greeks landed on Oenotria (the land of the staked vine…aka…the italic peninsula) in the 8th century BC. The wines of Orvieto were praised and prised by nobility and also in wealthy export markets in the Middle Ages. We have documentation of the wines being made in roughly their contemporary style for over 500 years! So, why isn’t the world seeking the wines of Orvieto?
It’s complicated, but the economics of Italy’s agricultural practice of mezzandria (basically sharcropping), which was practiced until officially outlawed in the 1960’s (coincidentally at the same time Italy’s DOC system was born) pushed growers to value quantity over quality (a legacy many Italian wine regions are still struggling to overcome). Since the 1960s in Orvieto big Tuscan wine firms have been feeding the world, tasty but un-inspired (and super cheap) wines, bottled in Tuscany, made from fruit purchased from cooperatives. So pervasive are these easy drinking wines that very few Americans have any idea of the terroir treasures Orvieto has to offer, and have no idea that they should care.
What is there to be interested in? Orvieto DOC produces white wine only (ranging from dry to lusciously sweet), from at least 60% Grechetto & Procanico grapes (the local name for Trebbiano Toscano), and has diverse and unique terroir, including volcanic, marine sedimentary clay, and sandy soils. The region is influenced by two large lakes (the ancient volcanic Bolsena, actually in Eastern Lazio, and the man made lake Corbara, in Umbria which dams the Tevere river in the eastern part of the region). The region is also dissected by two great rivers: the Tevere, and the Paglia. What is the effect of all this water? Orvieto is one of the only places in Italy which is significantly, and consistently affeted by Botrytis Cinera (aka Noble Rot). The wines vary in nuanced style and structure depending on soil proximity to bodies of water, and exposition (Umbria has an extremely varied topography). The wines range from ethereal to deeply grounded, dry to sweet (and everything in between). Not only that but the energy of the area is wonderful! From a wine perspective, small producers cherish and tend to the terroir understanding, and winemaking traditions, but seem to also be totally unafraid/unbound… producing a range of non-traditional wine, which falls out of DOC category, and even some fabulous traditional method sparkling wine as well (although there are a few flexible DOC options for red wines in the geographic area). This means that Orvieto, from the perspective of small producers is very exciting; historically rooted but also quite maverick.
Producers to try:
Decugnano dei Barbi
Terms to know: Muffa Nobile (Noble Rot/Botrytis), Muffato (a wine made from Botrytis affected grapes)
Oh yah, and not to mention that the region of Orvieto is one of the most picturesque areas in all of Central Italy: the forests, the waterways, the winding roads, the ancient Etruscan hilltop town, with its myriad of underground caves and magnificent basilica (which is striped with the two soil types (yellow limestone, and grey basalt) is absolutely enchanting.
If this interests you, keep in touch because I plan to take a group of students (hopefully) next September, 2020.