I really love Catavino – it’s such an informative and innovative source of information on Spanish & Portuguese wines. The food of the region is key, but it’s just as vital to know about the great wines available too. This is the place to find out!
Jose Pizzaro http://www.josepizarro.com

We Interrupt This Iberian Program to Bring You: Catavino Explores the Lush, Rolling Hills of Umbria

Prior to last weekend, my concept of Italy was based on a precarious mix of films. I envisioned romantic scenery, with undulating hills and scattered bursts of brightly colored wild flowers, as experienced by Diane Lane in “Under the Tuscan Sun“. Soprano-esque natives would greet me with gold adorned fingers, bushy gray streaked pompadours and the occasional twitch of their shoulders wrapped tightly in black polyester shirts with the obligatory, “Hey, how you doin’?”. And finally, a perfectly soft and round grandmother smelling of grassy sweet olive oil and rustic Mediterranean herbs would serve me plates of handcrafted pasta. In short, my vision was an odd mix of cliches, interconnected by a deep and heart wrenching nostalgia experienced by friends and family alike who had stepped on Italy’s rich soils.

Oddly enough, my preconceived notions weren’t that far from the truth. Sans Tony Soprano, the scenery and food culture were almost spot on! However, though Grandma did exist, and spoke lavishly of her handmade pasta, I never did have the opportunity to taste her secret recipe.

Catavino landed on Italian soil last weekend, as we were invited to speak at an event organized by Media 140 at the Perugia International Journalism Festival - a massive and incredibly well organized 5 day conference now in its 5th year. Our particular event was set in a 13th century hall called, the Sala dei Notari, where the Perugian noble elite met under vibrant frescos depicting biblical scenes and Aesop’s fables. For our first experience in Italy, the setting was not only impressive, but downright humbling. And this doesn’t even speak of Perugia itself, a strikingly beautiful hilltop town of Etruscan origin that overlooks the lush and rolling hills of Umbria. Nor does it comment upon our hotel, the Brufani Palace, which provided us a jaw dropping perspective of Perugia, and its quaint rooftop gardens complete with gracefully positioned cats, far from the reach of their canine neighbors.

Of the 20 political region in Italy, Umbria is the only Italian region which is both landlocked and with no common border with other countries. Nestled up to Tuscany to the west, the Marche to the east and Lazio to the south, you couldn’t pick a more remote location for a conference. However, despite its rather remote position from any major airport, it was perfectly situated to give participants an authentic sense of both culture and place.

Where the true magic came for both Ryan and I was our trip to the Umbrian countryside on Sunday where we visited the sacred town of Assisi, the Cantina Novelli winery located in Montefalco, and the Melchiorri Olive Oil Estate in Madonna di Lugo near Spoleto.

I won’t speak too much of Assisi other than to say, visit it! If you’re a lover of art, passionate about beauty, obsessed with quaint medieval towns and desire a sense of awe, then you must experience Assisi for yourself. For someone who is neither religious, nor who appreciates gory religious scenes, as depicted in churches across Iberia, Assisi provides a completely different experience. Renowned as being the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi, who founded the Franciscan religious order in the town in the 13th century, as well as the founder of the Poor Clares, Assisi exudes tranquility, peace and meditation. It’s a place of quiet thought, of cozy medieval shops and steep, windy roads. And if I had the opportunity to pack up my bags today and move for a stretch of time, I would gladly plant myself in Assisi where I could overlook the vineyards; smell the rich aromas of rosemary, thyme, marjoram, basil and mustard; taste freshly baked brioche and handmade pasta; and sip upon regional wines!

However, our memorable trip to the countryside would not have been possible if it weren’t for Giulia Luccioli, the Export and International Marketing Manager for the Cantina Novelli winery, who we met at our talk on Saturday. Kindly offering to be our guide for the following day, she and her son patiently drove us through the Umbrian countryside, giving us the occasional historical and cultural lesson whenever needed – which was frequent, and I’m sure tedious. She also gave us our first and only tour of an Italian winery.

Cantina Novelli is a family run winery nestled within the hills of Montefalco. The vineyards, approximately 56 hectares strong are primarily located in the heart of the DOCG zone, Montefalco, and comprised of Trebbiano Spoletino, Grechetto and Pecorino for white varieties and Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo, Sangiovese and Sagrantino for reds. The mission of the winery is to recover and promote native varietals of their region, becoming an ambassador for their cultural heritage through various projects. One of these projects, as explained by Giulia, is to recover and actively promote Trebbiano Spoletino with the support of Professor Attilio Scienza of the University of Milan. “It’s a quality grape that deserves recognition, and we need the support from the community in order to promote it internationally.”

What’s interesting to note, is that the ubiquitous white grape Grechetto varied tremendously for Ryan and I depending on where it was grown and who was producing it. Having tasted several versions over the course of the three days in Umbria, we found it to show incredible barnyard characteristics, emphasized by aromas of wet horse or hay, to lush ripe peach and citrus aromas. It was a grape that both intrigued and confused us. As Ryan accurately stated during the Umbrian wine tasting that evening, “I’m not sure if I’m amused by its peculiarity, or whether I actually enjoy its rustic personality.”

For me, the same held true for the famed regional red grape, Sagrantino. Like the Portuguese grape Baga, Sagrantino is capable of sucking any ounce of moisture from your palate with its larger than life tannins. Though capable of being tamed into an elegant and succulent wine, able to withstand the richest and fattiest of foods, it’s not for weakhearted. However, this very same grape can also be made into a killer rosado sparkling wine that is fabulous and worth looking into. Check out our impressions of Cantina Novelli’s wines here.

The olive oils of Umbria are equally as enticing and quality driven. Our adventure in the world of Italian olive oil took place at the Melchiorri Olive Oil Estate, where Rosanna Milone, a representative for the regional government of Umbria, became our second trusted guide of the day. She helped translate the history of the Melchiorri family who has been making olive oil for decades in the traditional method, and where 90% of their complete production is elaborated into extra virgin oil. Evidently, this is quite a feat!

We enjoyed 3 of their olive oils and a handful of their olive pastes; and to be honest, they were all incredible. Though both Ryan and I had a strong affinity for their black truffle paste which literally made us swoon; we also enjoyed the DOP Umbria I’Intenditore which showed a slightly bitter yet vibrantly grassy flavor.

We also happened to arrive on the day of their olive oil festival, which included a government licensed group of volunteers called, La Bufera, able to be contracted to play traditional Umbrian music. A sassy group of musicians, they never failed to delight with their handcrafted instruments, and the occasional tumble into the shrubs when overly moved by their music. And though we didn’t witness any dancing by my favorite grandmother of the Melchiorri family, nor from her 2 sisters or their 94 year old mother – a family I’m convinced is perfectly preserved by their olive oil – we were able to see a few toes tapping and some hips swaying to the very odd beat.

Now, before I buy a plane ticket back to Italy, I better wrap up this article with a final comment on the food. FANTASTIC! Similar to Spain and Portugal, people appeared to take immense pride for their regional ingredients and cuisines; however, Italians seem to take it a step farther. In part, I think it’s because of the vast regional diversity, where each city seems to not only have a distinct culture, but a fierce pride for their culinary traditions. We tasted fantastic black truffles in both salsas and pasta; sharp and insanely intense Pecorino Toscano cheese (DOP); the slightly pinkish colored Prociutto di Norcia (IGP), which is a salted and naturally aged meat from the rump of mature hogs; the Salamini Italiani Alla Cacciatora (DOP), made from cured pork and must not exceed more than 2.4 inches in diameter and 8 inches in length, with a maximum weight of 11.6 oz; one of my personal favorites, Lenticchia di Castelluccio di Norcia (IGP), are delicious lentils made in various forms; and finally, Gamberoni al Lardo di Colonnata, which is a silky sweet lardon. Each of the regional foods I mentioned above have their own distinct region of origins.

In short, our trip was amazing, and if I haven’t enticed you to take a vacation to Umbria in this short novel, then I throw up my hands in defeat, all while hiding my broad smile knowing that there will be more for me when I return :)

If you’ve been to Umbria, what were the foods, wines and places not to be missed?

Cheers,

Gabriella Opaz

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  • http://www.judith-harris.com judith harris

    What not to be missed? Next time, take in Gubbio as well as Assisi, and the Marches, the region next door to Umbria, big wine producers these days. Serious wine acquaintances here are analyzing the spumanti and pro seccos, by the way.

    Great to meet you two at the International Journalism Conference. I've enjoyed your take on Italian wines in your blog today. Carry on – and come back real soon. Greetings from an old Roman hand. Judith Harris

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/gabriellaopaz gabriellaopaz

      Judith, it was a pleasure to meet you there as well! And hopefully, we have more time to chat next time our paths cross, whether it's in Gubbio or another region entirely :)

  • http://www.winetravelguides.com Wink Lorch

    Gabriella – a fantastic post on your first visit to a dream country for lovers of culture, wine, food and beautiful countryside. You encapsulated all of that so, so well. This is a country that is bound to draw you to return again and again.

    As for lovely Umbria, well it is sometimes described as 'the next' or 'the other' Tuscany, and then there's Le Marche just behind also gasping for that accolade. The downside can be the extraordinary popularity of some of the key sites and you were really lucky to be able to visit in April and to take in Assisi when you did. As summer draws on, the crowds can be horrendous – hence when we were in Perugia and wanted to pay a visit to Assisi, we soon gave up the quest and explored some gorgeous neighbouring countryside and villages instead.

    Before I witter on any more, congratulations again and I hope you get invited back to Italy very soon!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/gabriellaopaz gabriellaopaz

    Wink, you're very kind to leave such a glowing comment. And you're right, Italy is truly a gem, a country that literally sweats rich and vibrant culture. There are so many places to explore in this world, and so many wines and foods to discover, that I can only hope our adventures are only beginning ;)

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/giulialucc giulialucc

      Here is some info on Bevagna:
      Bevagna – a charmning medieval town most known for its UNESCO sponsored event THE MARKET OF THE “GAITE”. The colours of Bevagna among workshops and age-old trades a unique event which takes place in June
      The daily life of the Middle Ages is the theme of the Market of the Gaite (Mercato
      delle Gaite),. The taverns, open during the festivities, give the visitors the opportunities of tasting Umbria’s delicious cuisine in an informal but characteristic setting. The painstaking historical research and the enthusiasm of the Bevagnese have enabled the market to recreate the intense atmosphere of the world of the cratsman with its sounds and images recalling the bygone era. In the small workshops of the hemp worker, the potter, the dyer and the smith skilled craftsmen create products employing exclusively the art and techniques of the Middle Ages. Walking along the streets of the centre you are magically transported to another era.

  • http://www.ilpalazzone.com Laura

    Don't forget Spello and Bevagna next time!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/gabriellaopaz gabriellaopaz

    We heard of Spello, but not Bevagna. In your opinion, what makes either or both of these locations worth visiting?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/giulialucc giulialucc

    Hi Gabriella and Ryan..Thank you for your kind article. It was my pleasure to show you around Umbria and I had great time meeting you. Hope you can come back soon :)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/giulialucc giulialucc

    Hi Gabriella & Ryan..Thank you for your kind article. It was a great pleasure for me to show you Umbria and meet you. Hope you can come back soon.:)..a presto..

  • Luciano Caricato

    Dear Gabriella and dear Ryan,
    I hope next time you can go into the spirit of Umbria deeper.
    You, probabilly do not know that the Umbrian People are the oldest autocton people of Italy.
    If you consider that before the roman time this people lived in a region called the "Big Umbria"
    (from the North Romagna Coast to the South of Campania , from the East Marche Coast to the
    Tuscany and Roma littoral) and the linguage was spoken every where in the central Italy and one of the three ethnic group founding Roma was Umbrian…. You see that you have to come back
    again!!
    I hope to see you soon again.
    Luciano (the old instrument story teller)

  • http://www.colleuncinano.com Antonella Campanella

    Dear Gabriella and Ryan,
    we met you in Umbria Wine Festival where you gave me your business card but we didn't have time to know us.
    I am Antonella Campanella and I'm working for Winery Colle Uncinano in Spoleto.
    I am glad to invite you in my Agriturismo Il Molino Antico (www.ilmolinoantico.com) next time you will visit Umbria.
    Spoleto is one of the most beautiful city in Umbria and his products are very good (like my wines :-)) ).
    With the present one, thank you for your attenction and I offer you my more Kind Regards,

    Antonella Campanella

  • http://www.njmonthly.com Susan Guerra

    Hi Gabriella- I am obviously way behind on my Catavino reading. My son lives in Perugia so I know what you mean about how cool that town is. Too bad I didn't know you were going. He is a bartender in a little bar right off the main piazza near the fountain and the church with the steps where everyone hangs out. I would have told him to buy you and Ryan a drink on me.

    Sue

  • http://twitter.com/Jonthewine @Jonthewine

    I'm another one lagging (even further) behind! Great post – I've come over all nostalgic! We first went to Umbria 3 years ago and although all of our Italian travels have been great, Umbria is definitely our favourite to date – hoping to go back later this year. We did nip across to Toscana once or twice last time which just convinced us even more that we had picked the right destination (we hate crowds!). We did also venture east and would recommend the Marche. We loved Montefalco and Gubbio particularly but still feel that we have only scratched the surface. We didn't try too many whites while we were there, mostly the ubiquitous Orvieto but really enjoyed some of the local reds, particularly from Arnaldo Caprai and Colpetrone.

    Regards – Jon