A few years ago I spent a day visiting Sagrantino wine producers with Alessandra Mallotti of Discovering Umbria. That taste of a unique varietal in its glorious country setting brought me back to sample some of the region’s organic wines and olive oil.
It hadn’t occurred to me that last year’s earthquakes in Umbria (also Abruzzi and Lazio) would be an obstacle to this experience–and they weren’t. So we were surprised to hear from Alessandra that tourism has taken a blow as travellers avoid what they think might be devastated or dangerous places.
I can vouch for the fact that the zone we were in, roughly between Assisi and Todi, was untouched, and we hear that areas such as Norcia have largely recovered.
Some of the Ronci azienda’s olive trees are ancient, gnarled moraiolo trees with appropriately silver leaves that might be as old as 400 years. They’re tall, requiring ladders for harvesting and well spaced, pointing to an era when the goal was to produce oil just for the family and the padrone, with the spaces between filled with other crops and animals. Others are leccini and frantoio varieties, sitting closer to the ground.
The cluster of olives Simona Ronci pointed to was the size of her fingernail. But she was already thinking about the moment in mid-October when they would be plump and juicy, filling the air with their perfume during the pressing. “The days are still warm then but the nights are cool, and the olives respond by producing more antioxidants,” says Simona. “This is the ideal moment.”
The sooner the olives are pressed after the harvest, minimizing oxidation, the better the quality of the oil. In a race against time, the family’s modern presses work around the clock, pressing olives from other producers during the day and their own olives at night. Two or three hours of sleep might be the norm during this period.
The flavor of the oil hints at the tree(s) of its origin. A blend of moraiolo, leccino and frantoio carries a slight astringency that clears the palate, a hint of green tomato and artichoke, a peppery finish. More delicate, the frantoio on its own. The moraiolo monovarietal is full-bodied, with an artichoke note and piquant finish, and that was the one we shipped home.
Around the time the olives are harvested, the vineyards are a raging colorfest of dark red grapes. During our visit to the Terre Margaritelli cantina, in the Torgiano Sangiovese area near Assisi, the emerging leaves were a bright spring green.
The family started in the lumber business, producing wood products such as railroad ties and now parquet flooring. One generation started making wine on the side and, when the family decided to get serious, they found it a very different world from lumber.
Federico Bibi, hired from outside, is now the wine maker. The operation is organic (“bio”), like the Ronci olive operation, and rigorous inspections take place at least two or three times a year.
Other varietals are grown here but during the tasting we gravitated to 100% Grecchetto and Sangiovese wines. Grecchetto tastes of apple to a friend and reminds me somehow of a limestone cliff. Regardless of your personal associations, it is a delicious white aged three months in white oak from a French forest owned by the azienda.
What’s special about an Umbrian sangiovese? “This is a southernmost terrain for sangiovese,” says Federico. “It’s a ‘generous’ grape that leaves a lot to the skills of the winemaker. Our goal is freshness, a balanced style and drinkability.”
Freccia degli Scacchi, the azienda’s 100% Sangiovese, is aged two years in white oak from a French forest owned by the family, and and then another year once bottled.
We bought Terre Margaritelli wines to enjoy later, but on our last night in Todi, we chose a Sagrantino to savor with Umbrian salumi and cheeses at La Vineria di San Fortunata. I’m already looking forward to tasting more of what this region has to offer, whether at the source and back home in the States.