This, the first in a multi-part series recapping a week of discovery in Rome and Orvieto, focuses on wine. (Hey, they don't call this site Winethropology for nothing.) Other installments will detail food, shopping, and lodging - basics you will eventually want to know about anyway. But in vino veritas, so that's where we'll start.
So, you ask, how was the wine?
Well, that's not as simple a question to answer as it has been for visits to other Italian winegrowing regions. You see, traveling to Italy has never disappointed. And this trip was no exception. There were, however, surprises, some of which can be chalked up to being in the capital city, but others which might speak to increased globalization of the Italian wine market.
First things first, though. Italian wine in general remains underrated in the US. Sure, the big boys (Brunello, Barolo, etc.) enjoy well-deserved reputations stateside, as do a handful of other popular bottlings. But there is a lifetime of drinking enjoyment to be had in the much more reasonably priced bottles of "simple" IGT wines. And, thanks to mature import/distribution channels, even smaller producers have shelf space here in the US. Tuscany is pretty much spoken for and therefore overpriced, but lesser-heralded regions (Lazio, Emilia Romana, Le Marche, etc.) all produce lively wines of character and value. Some specific recommendations follow, but experimentation, more than anything, is what reveals those special finds. For what it's worth, my personal wine buying in the last year has shifted decidedly towards Italy for sourcing good values. (Click here for a rundown of specific wines.)
Localism. Seeking out as much locally produced wine was priority number one on
this trip. Rome is in the state of Lazio, so wines from Lazio (and even
the province of Rome itself) were prime targets. Same goes for Orvieto
and surrounding Umbria during our side trip to the countryside. When you walk into an enoteca in Piedmont, the shelves are stocked almost exclusively with products from the town you are in. Want a Barbera from Diano, but you're in Monforte? Sorry, you've got to get in your car and drive to Diano. Localism is alive and well in Piedmont. Not so much in Rome or Orvieto. Only the government-run regional wine shops in Rome (which are excellent, by the way) have a decent selection of wine from Lazio. In some respects you can write that off as part of being in a big city. But in the Umbrian town of Orvieto, population 20,000, I would have expected to find nothing but Grachettos and Sagratinos and many of the other regionally-produced gems. Again, not so. In fact, Tuscan wines out numbered Umbrian wines by a wide margin - not just at tourist enotecas, but at the grocery stores, too. This was disappointing given how blessed these regions are.
Prices. Used to be that you'd travel to overseas and find an extravaganza of high end wine at a fraction of what we see it for here in the US. Blame the weak dollar, globalism, or whatever, but the prices on the shelves in and around Rome are not that different from what you'd find in New York or San Francisco. There are exceptions to this and there is an overall discount, but it's not compelling enough to check a shipping case full of wine to bring back...unless, of course, it's full of really good wine you just can't get here.
Epiphany. You know the wine that changed everything for you - the wine that opened your eyes and turned you from apathetic to in love...your epiphany wine? Traveling to wine growing regions around the world whets the appetite for another epiphany. I'm sorry to report that, despite extensive efforts and a handful of finds, this trip did not yield any born-again wine experiences. Not sure that counts as anything noteworthy, but there it is nonetheless.
Varieties. Lazio has a lot of diversity to offer. Syrahs, Petit Verdots, Canaiolos...you name it. It's not a region dominated by any single variety the way Tuscany is by Sangiovese. That makes it a fun place for discovery. Orvieto, on the other hand, is best known for its namesake white, composed mostly of Grechetto and Trebbiano. And for reds, Umbria is perhaps best known for Sagratino, a monster of a grape that produces big, almost harsh reds that can be tough to keep up with.
Selection. I had to have perused the shelves of at least a dozen wine shops over the course of the week. Surprisingly, a lot was familiar: Falesco, Banfi, Caparzo, Fontodi, Viticcio...these are labels commonplace at most half-decent retailers in the US. Between the wealth of wines available to us and prices we can buy these wines for, we have it pretty good here in the US.
Given these summaries, you might think it was a disappointment of a trip. Not at all. Italy remains an intriguing place to visit, full of compelling history, incredible sights, and lovely, welcoming people. Moreover, there were a handful of wines that sparkled as reviewed below.
However (and as frustrating as I know this is to those readers who long for specific direction), the best buying advice I can give you is to look for wines from Lazio and Orvieto (you'll see it on the label) and do some experimenting. Chances are you won't spend more than $15-20 a bottle. And chances are you'll make some new friends with these wines.
Ca' Viti Orvieto Classico Superiore $14 Radiant vitality in a
glass. Easily the most exciting white of the trip and perhaps of the
summer. A million tiny rays of sunshine channeled by purity. Drinking it poolside overlooking Orvieto and its surrounding vineyards didn't hurt, either.
Lungarotti Rubesco Riserva Umbria $40 Bastianich and Lynch speak highly of this wine in their tome Vino Italiano, and for good reason. Made from the traditional Chanti blend of Sangiovese and Canaiolo, this ageworthy, graceful wine wows with polish and profundity without being overwhelming.
Sesto 21 Syrah Lazio $18 Nothing complicated here, just beautiful, soft, and full Syrah. Pure and simple. A joy to drink and a sad thing to see disappear. A terrific example of one of the many lovely reds the region can produce.
Oh, and a special shout out to American Airlines for a surprisingly terrific selection of wines on our flights. Favorites?
2011 Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc South Africa $16 Crisp, zesty and refreshing. Everything Sauvignon Blanc should be, plus a clean, dry finish follows up a delightful fruit slap.
2008 Schug Pinot Noir Carneros $25 Warming, round, and comforting. My kind of Pinot. Stood up to a filet and turbulence nicely.