The small, mountainous region has never quite had the cachet or glamour of some of its neighboring regions like Tuscany. It is also quite small in terms of its total production. According to the Rome, Italy-based Italian Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), it ranks 12th in terms of total wine production among Italian regions, making it one of the country’s lower-volume producers.
However, Umbria’s food-friendly and well-priced wines made from indigenous grapes are popping up on retail and restaurant lists around the country. The region is most famous for its hearty reds made from native Sangiovese and Sagrantino grapes and classic whites such as the noted Orvieto. Tourism and overflow from neighboring Tuscany have also helped to fuel Umbrian wines’ popularity abroad and at home. Larger producers like Antinori, Lungarotti and Caprai tend to be best known on the U.S. market and most frequently featured on shelves and lists around the country.
“There is a parallel between Tuscany and Umbria with regard to the wines and the regions,” notes Gary Fisch, owner of three-location Wayne, New Jersey-based Gary’s Wine & Marketplace. He carries just under a dozen Umbrian wines, which range in price from $7.99 for a basic Sangiovese-based blend to $89.99 for the Paolo Bea Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG. Fisch notes that these wines are often a hand-sell, although an uptick in tourism is driving interest in his Umbrian selection.
The popularity of the region and its wines has also caused Derek Wilson, general manager of Italian restaurant Marco Cucina Romana in Boston, to feature more of them on his list. He currently carries 15, which are priced from $9 to $12.50 a glass and $28 to $80 a bottle. He adds that Umbria is an “ideal region for proper Italian food and wine.”
Pairing and Ageing
The intense and unique flavors of these wines allow operators to pair them with a wide range of foods, from typical Italian dishes to many others. “Arnaldo Caprai, who is one of my favorite producers, makes an amazing Montefalco Rosso that pairs perfectly with an assorted salumi and cured meats,” notes Wilson.
Since many of these wines are not as well known as those from other regions, “server recommendations always help,” notes Angie Eckelkamp, Dallas-based marketing manager of 45-location Maggiano’s, which is part of Brinker International Restaurants. She carries one Umbrian wine, Ruffino Orvieto Classico, a white blend that is priced at $8.50 a glass and $34 a bottle. She suggests teaming it up with “seafood pasta like our Crab and Shrimp Tropheo, Shrimp Scampi and our Jumpo Lump Crab Cakes.”
The region’s big reds complete with the flavors of hearty dishes. “Sagrantino is probably best with some aged cheese,” adds Greg St. Clair, Italian wine buyer at three-location, Redwood City, California.-based retailer K&L Wines. He goes on to note that Sangiovese-based wines would do well with pork or some pasta dishes.” K&L carries 13 different Umbrian wines, priced from $11.99 to $89.99 a bottle.
Complex Umbrian reds like Montefalco are also great for aging, according to Wilson. Sagrantino, for Fisch, is a “dark skinned, tannic, brambly, full-bodied wine that can age longer than [many] other Umbrian reds.”
Almost all the operators agreed that the focus remains on the region’s heavy-hitting red wines and as Umbria gains exposure on- and off-premise all the region’s wines may continue to grow in popularity. “Umbria is head forward in creating benchmark wine and food,” concludes Wilson.