Italy’s most underestimated grape?
Whenever we go on a family holiday, I encourage my daughters to join me in a winery visit. Given their age, 10 & 5, obviously not to enrich their palates but to get a sense of place and feel the enthusiasm and proudness with which owners often speak about their land and products. For this reason, I always try to hook up with small-scale family owned wineries.
Last summer, the centre of Italy was our destination, so plenty of options to choose from. Tuscany would have been the obvious choice as Italy’s cultural heart and Sangiovese heartland, but the thought of queueing tourists on the autostrada Chiantigiana made us decide to turn left and head for le Marche. This region in the eastern side of Italy is still rather unknown, probably because of its famous neighbours Tuscany and Umbria. The Marche region has beautiful beaches, endless rolling hills and loads of history. It’s one of those holiday dilemma’s: once you find a lovely spot you would like to share it with the world, but at the same time wanting to keep it to yourself to leave it unspoilt.
The whole of Marche is an almost continuous vineyard, stuck on slopes between the Apeninne mountains and the Adriatic Sea. Although a substantial amount of red wine is made from Montepulciano and Sangiovese, Marche is predominantly a white wine region. The Verdicchio grape reigns here, perhaps better known as Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, the DOC area close to the coast and capital Ancona. There is another, much smaller DOC area called Verdicchio di Matelica, named after the town Matelica, situated more inland at the Apeninnes foothills.
Verdicchio used to be fermented on its skins and came in typical amphora-shaped bottles, full bodied but lacking any elegance. Due to increased vineyard and production knowledge and temperature control techniques, modern Verdicchio has improved but most examples still end up as mediocre, cheap house wine in Italian restaurants around the world. No surprise, with co-operatives and merchants responsible for over 90% of production. Only a handful of small producers, but the ones out there make really good stuff proving Verdiccchio to be one of Italy’s great white grapes.
At Bonci, Verdicchio’s versatility was a real eye-opener
We called ahead with one of those smaller producers, Azienda Agricola Vallerosa Bonci, to make an appointment. Giuseppe Bonci is the patron of a fourth-generation winemaking family that owns about 30 ha of which 26 is dedicated to winemaking. Little did we know we were in for a treat. Giuseppe himself was already waiting with his wife when we drove up to the winery entrance. I guess as grandparents, their family role took over as they enthusiastically greeted our children, leaving us as bystanders to a warm welcome. Instead of going inside, he took us straight to San Michele, one of their vineyards just east of the lovely town of Cupramontana.
Focus on quality
At the height of Verdichio production in the early 1980s, the Bonci’s were producing over one and a half million bottles, litre bottles that is! His parents wanted Giuseppe to become an electro-technician, but somehow he had always felt he was destined to become vintner. When his father died in 1981, Giuseppe took over and radically changed the estate strategy, focussing on quality instead of quantity. Standing between the vines in one of his most prized vineyards, talking emotionally about his family and wine had us mesmerized. Even our children, who do not speak a word Italian were hanging on his every word. Passion is such a misused word lately, but here’s one passionate man when it comes to cultivating vines and winemaking.
Wide range of styles
Back at the winery, Giuseppe took us through the versatility of Verdicchio. The frizzante and spumante sparkling wines were not really worth the detour but the metodo clasico was quite impressive, combining freshness with complexity. At Bonci, they divide their still wines in classics and cru’s. The classics are good examples of lemon scented Verdicchio with the typical almond aftertaste, but it is the cru category that really shows what this grape is capable of in the hands of a gifted winemaker. The wines are named after the vineyards, characterised by low yields and vinified in steel, cement and even barriques. Lovely wines, no showboating of power but delicately building up a wealth of flavours, ending in an unexpected long finish. I’m still not convinced about Verdicchio’s affinity with oak though. Perhaps inspired by his storytelling in the vineyard, the favourite was San Michele, from a southerly exposed vineyard at 400m above sea level, providing the necessary diurnal range to keep the grapes fresh while ripening.
Still pondering over why these wines hardly hit restaurant tables in our neck of the woods, Giuseppe was already going for the kill: Rojano, a passito, made from late harvested grapes and aged a couple of months in barriques. Intriguingly luscious but still enough acidity to counter the sweetness. Where wine is made in Italy, grappa is sure to pop up at the table at the end of a meal. Same at Bonci. Though not a match for some of the Piemonte examples I’ve tasted before, the Barrè grappa made from Verdicchio grapes surely was an excellent way to digest the accompanying platter of local cheeses and cured meat.
If there is one thing that stood out at Bonci’s tasting, it is Verdicchio’s versatility. Together with other conscientious producers like Colonnara, Villa Bucchi and Umani Ronchi, Giuseppe has taken the grape beyond the level of vin de soif, producing beautiful wines that deserve a gastronomic match at dinner tables around the world. Driving back to our agriturismo, our youngest asked when we would go back to grandpa. Truly an charismatic man.