A few weeks ago I was on a wonderful trip to the Marche region of Italy. This lovely region is in central Italy on the Adriatic coast and the capital is the bustling port city of Ancona. The name of the place, Le Marche, has always intrigued me. It’s pronounced Mar-Kay – and comes from the plural of the word March, which is an archaic term for a borderland. Orginally there was the March of Ancona, the March of Camerino and the March of Fermo, together they were described as Marca or Marche. So when they were put together to form a single region that is the name it was given – Marche or the marches.
The region has interested me for quite a long time, but life has prevented me from actually getting there before, so I was quite excited to see the place for myself. Of course I was primarily there for the wine and I was very pleased to be there too, because I had the feeling it was going to be an exciting place.
I wasn’t wrong. The Marche is an exciting wine region. In fact it seemed to me that the whole place is a bit of a sleeping giant that is only just beginning to get really ambitious and to realise just what a good wine region it can be. The wines might not be as well known as those from Tuscany, but I rather think they should be.
For quite a while now I had been convinced that the wines were worth reappraising. That is because all the books still describe the most famous wine from here – Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi – as it was 30 years or so ago, light acidic and bland, but in truth they aren’t actually like that – not anymore.
The countryside is very beautiful and very varied too and well worth a visit if you would like a more unusual corner of Italy to explore. Inland the landscape is very attractive and gentle – not unlike Tuscany – with appealing hilltop towns and villages standing guard over the valleys.
The coastline too is attractive, with a rugged and wild quality as the beaches are usually at the bottom of coastal cliffs, while the seaside towns are delightful places to stroll around – I was there in May, but I was warned that they are very busy in the summer.
Of course I was there for the wine and there is a lot of wine going on in the Marche. It is a region where a lot of PDOs / appellations / DOCs – call them what you want – overlap each other and cover much of the same territory. I know this as I have just drawn a wine map of the region and it took some working out as it is very complicated.
From an export point of view the 2 most visible wines are both white and made from the Verdicchio (pronounced Ver-dick-ee-oh) grape variety. Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is the most famous and enjoys the biggest production, so is the wine that you will come across more than any other. The other leading white wine is Verdicchio di Matelica, which only produces a tenth of the amount of the other Verdichio, so tends to be more artisan production.
Verdicchio is a grape that has really captured my imagination in recent years. It is somewhat written off by most wine books, certainly the ones that I have, but deserves to be taken much more seriously. From my experience, even cheap versions of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi have more about them than most books and wine courses let on. I am sure this is because the wines, like so many, have improved out of all recognition over the last 15 years or so. They are no longer pale, lemony and thin, but have some texture and weight to them and the cheaper versions can often be very inexpensive and pretty good quality too – click here for an example.
The finer bottles of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdiccio di Matelica are very different though. I found them to be quite beguiling with taut, crisp acidity and minerality, with mouthfeel and texture showing good weight of fruit, although they are fresh rather than fruity, and complexity. They were seriously exciting wines and the best ones that I tasted are as good as a good Chablis and very much in that style. What’s more, again like a good Chablis, fine examples of Verdicchio are not just fresh, crisp wines, they can be aged to develop more complexity and character. Ian D’Agata, in his book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, states his belief that ‘Verdicchio is arguably Italy’s greatest native white grape variety’ – which is high praise indeed as there is some serious competition from the likes of Fiano and Greco. Verdicchio is also used to make Lugana near Lake Garda, another excellent Italian white wine.
Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is a Denominazione di Origine Controllata / DOC for white wines only. They have to be made from at least 85% Verdicchio grapes with the rest being most likely Malvasia or Trebbiano, although most that I have tasted are 100% Verdicchio.
Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico, shown in deep yellow on my map, comes from the historic area of production and has to be made with lower yields than the wines labelled purely as Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi.
Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Superiore wines are also made using lower yields and can be made anywhere in the region, while Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore are made from lower yields in the Classico zone.
Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Spumante are sparkling wines from the region and can be very good indeed, as can the dessert wines made from dried grapes, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Passito.
The pinnacle of production is Castelli di Jesi Verdicchio Riserva. These wines have enjoyed the superior classification of Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita / DOCG since 2010. They are produced in the Classico zone with lower yields and have to be aged for at least 18 months before release – this does not have to be in oak, but some are oak aged.
The soils here seem to be a mix of sandy, chalky, stony and limestone which together with the sea breezes and cold north easterly winds from the Balkans makes for wines with fresh acidity and a note of minerality, which sort of defines the finer wines here.
Inland there is another Verdicchio area. Verdicchio di Matelica DOC is a much smaller zone of production and is away from the coastal influence, so has a continental climate that is cooled by the winds coming down the valley from the north. In order to refresh the grapes further, they are planted high up at 500 metres above sea level. Again sweet, Passito, versions are made, as are sparkling, Spumante. Verdicchio di Matelica Riserva DOCG is made using lower yields and with longer ageing.
For me the standout producers and wines from Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi were the following:
Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone
My first visit got off to a very good start at Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone. The estate is a few kilometres south west of Jesi, roughly where the ‘e’ in dei is on my map. It’s owned by the charming Darini family and the winemaker is the very humble, but clearly gifted Gabrielle Villani, who kept saying that he just wanted to make better and better wine.
I really liked this bright, fresh and focussed wine. The colour was bright – it was sealed with a screw cap – honey tinged straw, while the aromas offered rich lemon zest, floral notes and straw. There was no malolactic, so the acidity was vibrant and forthright. It is aged for a few months in tank before release and it has lovely natural balance between nicely textured palate and the freshness. A terrific wine with an incredibly long finish – 88/100 points.
Interestingly when I asked Gabrielle why it was so very different from the bland and dull Verdicchios of my youth he explained that they now do not use Trebbiano – this was 100% Verdicchio, as were most of the others I tried, they use much lower fermentation temperatures in stainless steel tanks, so keep the wine fresh, they age the wine for less time, they site the vineyards more cleverly for freshness, they plant with lower density, use lower yields and harvest later. So that combination of things reduces the yields and increases the concentration of the grapes, so adding flavour, while the fermentation techniques and the site selection adds freshness and balance. The result is a wine that bears no relation to the Verdicchios of the past.
Much as I liked the Via Condotto, and I did, this really made me sit up. It is also 100% Verdicchio, but picked later, to let the sugars build, then a rigorous selection of the fruit makes it more concentrated to start with and then it was aged for 12 months on the less. The lees are the yeast sediment left over from fermentation and give the wine more complexity and can give it a richer texture too.
This had a deeper colour from all that ageing, a lemon curd, creamy and herbal aroma, while the palate was textured and succulent, with peach, apricot, honey and even nougat flavours, while the acidity and saline minerality really gave freshness and balance. This is a serious wine, rich and tangy with a stony mineral finish – 91/100 points.
Gabrielle also makes 2 excellent quality sparkling Verdicchio wines that I enjoyed very much indeed:
This is 100% Verdicchio grapes made sparkling by the Traditional Method, as used for Champagne. The wine was aged on the lees for 9 months.
The colour is quite golden while the aromas give a biscuity note as well as ripe each and apples. The palate was surprisingly rich, but balanced with lively, fresh acidity – 89/100 points.
This is also 100% Verdicchio grapes made sparkling by the Traditional Method, but this richer wine wine was aged on the lees for 24 months.
This is a very serious sparkling wine with a rich colour and has a powerfull, leesy, biscuity, flaky pastry sort of aroma with nuts, caramel, cooked apples and cooked peach. The palate is soft and rich with a rounded mouthfeel balanced by refreshing acidity. The wine is rich and complex and tasting it blind I would never have imagined it was from a region so unknown for sparkling wines – 91/100 points.
Some of the Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone wines are available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk.
Società Agricola La Staffa di Baldi Riccardo
This beautiful little estate is near Staffolo, so not far from Cantina Cológnola and is universally known as La Staffa. The Baldi family started it in 1994, because of the rising reputation of the local wines, but it is now run by the charming, energetic and remarkably assured Riccardo Baldi. Riccardo is only in his twenties but clearly understands this piece of land and how to make wines from it. The estate is now 7 hectares with some vines going back to the 1970s and Riccardo farms biodynamically with no use of chemical herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers. It is a wonderful place, very peaceful and utterly lovely. Standing there it felt very much like being in Chablis, but a Chablis vineyard that had somehow been plonked down in the Mediterranean – which is very much how the wines feel too.
Interestingly the wines all have a salty, mineral quality. All the water used in the vineyard comes from a well on the site and I got to taste that water and it was salty.
If you have never tried a Verdicchio, or have not had one for a while, Riccardo’s wines may well be the best place to start as they are exemplary.
100% Verdichio from 12 year old vines fermented in a mixture of stainless steel and cement tanks with a spontaneous fermentation using the wild yeast, 12.5% abv.
The colour is very pale and pure, slightly silver.
The nose gives salty peach skin aromas and the palate is juicy, there is a lovely sweetness of ripe fruit there making it surprisingly surprisingly succulent.
However it feels very fresh with a long salty, pretzel like finish with lively citrus acidity and a mineral quality. The acidity is on the high side, but not too dominating. This is a beautiful wine, pure and lively, but with some weight too. I loved this wine – 89/100 points.
Rincrocca is the name of a hill next to the winery. This wine is 100% Verdichio from 45 year old vines fermented in cement tanks with a spontaneous fermentation using the wild yeast. It was aged in concrete tanks on the lees for 12 months – 14% abv.
Very rich amber honey colour shows the development.
The nose is salty and mineral with apple compote and some mushrooms that again show the development.
The palate is full, rich, honeyed and creamy with mealy texture – but bone dry. The salty purity of the young wine returns on the long, long finish and there is plenty of fruit, peach, peach skin, apple and even some rich citrus like tangerine. Oh I loved this wine, it is quite magnificent like a really good Premier Cru Chablis – 93/100 points.
I was also fortunate enough to taste this:
As you might expect this was not quite so developed, but it was superb. The colour was honeyed, the nose gave complex herbal, camomile, sage, sea salt, sweet dried apricots, toffee and orange zest notes.
The palate was fabulous, round and succulent with ripe peach, peach skin, dessert apples, herbs, honey, caramel and then smoke and salt. The finish was incredible, it just went on and on like a prog rock drum solo – 94/100 points.
These were magnificent white wines that can hold their heads up in any company.
Casa Vinicola Gioacchino Garofoli Spa
Frankly I feel a bit mean putting Garafoli here as they make wonderful red wines too, but it was the whites and sparkling that especially captured my heart. They are a big producer for the region as they farm 50 hectares and they make many of the different wine styles found in Marche.
They were founded in 1901 and are still owned and managed by the Garofoli family. My tasting here was led by the charming Daria Garofoli who is charge of exports and she claims that they were the first commercial producers of Marche wines. I can well believe that as for most of Italy – apart from Tuscany and some Piemonte wines – selling bottled wine is almost entirely a post WWII enterprise in most of Europe.
Today they have a winery in the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi zone that makes those white wines and a winery in Cònero that makes everything else.
Daria explained that until well into the 1970 yields remained high and the wines were quite ordinary from here, often with other very bland grapes blended in with the Verdicchio. In those days, and to some degree it continues formally of the more everyday wines, the wines were bottled in a special amphora shaped bottle. Garafoli were one of the very first to bottle wines here and to export their wines. They were also among the first to realise the great potential for quality here, by more carefully siting vineyards, lowering yields and focussing on the mineral quality that Verdicchio can bring.
This is a premium selection of 100% Verdicchio grapes that are picked slightly overripe. The wine is aged in stainless steel tanks for 15 months on the lees.
As you might imagine, the colour is a little deep with a peach skin hue. The aroma is wonderfully lifted with creamy, leesy notes competing with fresh citrus, salty sea shore notes, a stony tang and some peach and peach skin. The palate has a lovely succulence and a creamy, mealy feel. There is a salty, mineral quality, rich citrus and a wonderful intensity that balances the lithe freshness and vice versa. A great white wine – 93/100 points.
This is a premium selection of 100% Verdicchio grapes that are picked slightly overripe. The wine is aged in stainless steel tanks for 15 months on the lees.
Another stunning white wine with an amazing balance between the fresh and the linear and the richer and weightier. There is more salinity here and creamer, curdy texture with rich lemon and almost a touch of beeswax – 93/100 points.
This is a premium selection of 100% Verdicchio grapes that are picked slightly underripe. The wine is made fizzy by the traditional method and is aged on the lees for 48 months.
This was either really, really good, or I really really wanted some fizz at the end of a long day. We were tasting this at a beautiful, if rainswept beach and it was a great experience. The wine had a lovely peachy, apricot, citrus and biscuity aroma, while the palate was silky and refined – 90/100 points.
Some of the Garofoli wines are available in the UK from Tannico.
So, there you are, a little snap shot of some of the white wines and sparkling wines that stood out for me on the trip. There were a few more producers of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, but I think that is quite enough for now, so I will return to the subject.
You never really hear anyone extolling the virtues of Verdicchio, but I think they should, because as you can see the wines can be very high quality indeed. So, the next time you want a sappy, saline, mineral, dry white wine with real complexity and character, try a Verdeicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. I think you’ll like it.