Umbria is the only region of Italy without a coastal or international border. Just south of Tuscany, and less trampled, this ‘green heart’ of Italy has a deep wine history. The hills here are wild; powderpuff pinks and russet roofs enveloped in periwinkle fog. The early autumn smells of bracken and damp leaves. The musky scent of wood burning lingers in the air like spent firework trails. Little villages dissolve as soon as they appear as we race by on the train, our eyes glued to the windows.
To the south of Umbria’s capital Perugia lies Torgiano, a sleepy town of yellow-flecked stone slabs and crumbling Medieval walls, and the heartland of a noble Sangiovese DOCG. Tobacco fields and vineyards are stitched together and thrown like a patchwork quilt stretching between the Chiascio and Tiber rivers.
Our journey today brings us to the Margaritelli family, custodians of arable land here since 1870, and growing vines since the 1950s. Federico Bibi, our guide for the day, has been working with the family for many years, concerning himself with everything from visitors, sales, marketing and the day to day.
“If you can believe it, I met the family in the Guggenheim in New York!” he reminisces, “That night, I don’t know if it was the art or the wine, but I walked away convinced that I had to be involved with this project somehow!”
The project of the Margaritelli family is historic; an endeavor of time and care, and a holistic and rounded approach. The land, now 60 hectares, was passed down from generation and generation. In 2000, Giuseppe Margaritelli took his father’s small retirement project and made it into a fully functioning winery. With vision and passion, he sought to immediately replant the vineyard in a way that was organic from start to finish.
We glance up the bright white path lined with olive trees, its pale hue revealing something of the soil. An ancient alluvial riverbed of layered and compacted coral flanked by neat rows of tended vines. We sense the randomness of evolution, the symbiosis of man and nature.
The tranquility of the hill-brow is a momentary pause, Federico explains. This year’s harvest of the native white grape Grechetto was predictably taxing. The grapes must be handled gently as they tend to group in little bunches, their tendrils wrapping tightly around trunks. Deft harvesting is required to gather the clusters intact, to keep safe the juice within.
Walking up through the fields towards the cantina, Federico indulges us with the family’s rare affinity with oak and cooperage. In 1962, the Margaritelli family built a sawmill in France so they could procure their oak straight from world-renowned forests. In a move that sets them apart, the family, alongside prestigious French organizations including the Cooperage Union, went through the painstaking process of testing hundreds of wood samples for barrels and recording the effect on their wines.
“What a procedure, but it worked!” exclaims Federico, “They realised that the Bertrange Forest in Burgundy had the ideal balance of spiciness to bring structure to Sangiovese and Grechetto.”
Here in the cantina, we see the influence of Margaritelli winemaker, Stefano Rossini, who has too become a vital part of the whole. He began to work in the cantina as part of his thesis, but found total affinity with the ethos and his aptitude for winemaking and love for the Umbrian hills grew exponentially.
“We love the history with the wood,” says Federico, “However we keep our commitment to sustainability, to recycle and reuse and remain organic, but not at the cost of sustainability. A stainless steel tank is more manmade but it requires less water to clean. Which is more important for the environment?”
We study the cantina, in this perfect pause for thought, as tasting glasses are poured with the three wines that make up the portfolio. We head outside with our glasses to enjoy them in their rightful setting in the fresh Umbrian air.
The Greco di Renabiaca IGT proves immediately that it is worth the trouble its harvest takes. It is fresh and pure, a light balsamic note from the Bertrange oak and the faintest honeyed note from bottle age.
‘Roccascossa’ is the champion of stainless steel. An unusual blend of Sangiovese with Cabernet Franc that perhaps alludes to the Margaritelli’s French connection. Subtle, with a refined note of green peppercorn at the finish of the nose, and utterly quaffable.
The deeper, bolder red comes from the ‘Freccia degli Scacchi’, the legendary Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG that emerges after 3 years in barrel. It is one of the first established DOCGs and a modern classic of 100% Sangiovese, a rounded ruby red glass of violets and baking spices.
Terre Margaritelli is making quality wines, with organic credentials and a history of sustainability. Humble and proud, the people that surround them have become part of their story. As we toast our glasses once more to the gifts of Torgiano, we feel the great draw of the land. If we didn’t have to head back into the city, we know it would only take another glass or two to become completely infatuated with this plentiful land and commit like Federico to this holistic project.