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Umbria’s shadowy landscape was making itself clear to me, the more I read about the region, and tasted, the more secure I was becoming in recognizing native varietals like Grechetto, Procanico, Sagrantino, and Verdello that make up wines unique to a key region in central Italy. Yet, I still hadn’t tasted a Sagrantino—the price point was too steep for casual consumption and almost all the Italian tastings I have attended focused on Super Tuscan or Piemontese wines (Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, etc.) because they capture a larger share of the market. My Umbrian curiosity would culminate in a menu built around a wine I had only read about, staging a late night dinner to highlight the prized red wine from Umbria.

I had a few people over for a dinner that would feature the recipes of Latium (Lazio)—the home of the Latins. The region of Lazio shares some overlap with Umbria, at Orvieto, and I felt that would be the perfect segue into Lazio’s red wines. The region is southwest of Umbria and is better known for white wine production that blends Malvasia and Trebbiano. The recipes that were partnering with our wines were simple and savory; pork loin and polenta with marinated zucchini. I had a couple bottles ready for the dinner: 2006 Tabarrini Colle Grimaldesco Montefalco Sagrantino and a 2005 Castel de Paolis Campo Vecchio Rosso from Lazio.

A manageable crowd arrived late for a European dinner (later than 8:00!), beginning the prep work around 8:45 pm. We worked almost immediately, cleaning, chopping and of course drinking as we prepared the dishes. I had a bottle of 2009 Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc to get us ready for the dinner. At that time, I also uncorked the other bottles to allow for some breathing and to check for corked wines. The domestic Cab Franc was ripe, trading that Chinon greenness of ferns and bell pepper for a bucket of new world fruit. It was delicious and worked well with the soft cheese I had put out on the table.

The pork loin and polenta required participation from all of us, as well as the bulk of the ingredients. We opened a bottle of Orvieto for the sauce that would tie together lardo, vegetables and herbs. In various stages we layered flavors, adding more to the base (tomatoes and chicken stock) while the pork loin stewed. The polenta and zucchini took much less time, and about 10:40 pm we had the meal plated.

We started with the Castel de Paolis, which opened up nicely. The red had dusty fruits with savory characteristics that were enhanced by the foods. The acidity also helped balance the tomatoes in the sauce.

We switched over to the Sagrantino Montefalco halfway through the meal. The moment I had been waiting for had finally arrived and it was time to see if the wine could survive my high expectations. The Sagrantino was deeply garnet in my stemware, equipped with a moderately powerful nose of darker fruits, licorice, meat and herbs. It was complex and earthy; we could extract a passel of nuance from the nose. On the palate it had high tannins that a lot of people at the table were not fond of until they took a bite. It was also balanced by great acidity (medium plus) that helped it align with dinner. I was most surprised by the alcohol content (15% abv) that did not register while I drank it.

Our plates were cleaned and glasses emptied. The dinner was a success, everyone raved about the polenta and pork loin and how the foods were in harmony with the Central Italian wines. The Sagrantino might not have been at its ideal point of maturity (though I didn’t have a reference point before I read about my producer), but the flavors were complex and lasting. I felt pretty good about my introduction to Sagrantino and better yet, about sharing the positive experience with friends.

I knew relatively little about Umbria before I hatched my wine enrichment plan. Other than its geography, placing the region squarely in the center like a buckle around the boot, the fact that it included the much-prized white wine producing city of Orvieto, and the principal red grapes being Sangiovese and Sagrantino among other international vines…there was still a fair amount to learn. Fearing that I would not be able to find enough wines from Umbria to make it through the month, I decided to expand my search, including red wines of central Italy—Lazio and Marche too. What better way to learn about central Italy than pairing the wines with foods hailing from the same regions? This is my firsthand account of central Italian red wines via Los Angeles wine shops and local farmers markets.

Delving into my wine books, memorizing the short passages about Umbria, it looked to be overshadowed by Tuscany. I traced out some short notes about Montefalco and Orvieto, cementing my knowledge about the DOC and DOCGs. Trebbiano, or Procanico (the local name for the Trebbiano grape), dominates the white wine production in this scenic and historic region. Truffles constitute a huge part of the food scene, but as a wine buyer, and not an importer, I would most likely leave that off the menu I had planned for uncovering some of the great Umbrian wines.

My first glimpse into Umbria this year would be through a seven-fifty of 2009 Falesco Merlot. Falesco, as I found out, was made famous by a brother-team of oenologists (Riccardo and Renzo Cotarella) that have done a lot for the recent revival in winemaking in Umbria. I had friends over and counted on this wine to be an easy introduction to a less common region of Italy, pairing it with appetizers. The bottle received a glowing review from the Wine Advocate, stamping my thirteen-dollar purchase with a 92 point score that made me confident in my selection.

I uncorked the bottle of 2009 Merlot for the arrivals, honing my newly acquired sommelier skills. The Merlot released an earth-based fragrance, loaded with spices, minerals and darker fruits that had me sniffing eagerly to extract all the nuances from the complicated nose. The wine was clean on the palate but fairly simple. Its flavors of berries and plums barely lasted on the taste buds leaving behind impressive structural components—awkward. The body of the wine bred in the partly volcanic and sedimentary soils was medium and the acidity was slightly higher (medium plus). The wine was balanced but disappointing, considering the score and the finish. It blared loudly in the beginning only to be bested by its disappearing act in the finish. The Falesco Merlot might have done better if paired with heartier foods rather than the spicier salami (calabrese) and olives but that remains to be seen.

In the course of the evening we drank through three bottles of wine, with the Falesco Merlot ranking last for me. Despite the less-than-stupendous showing I still remain positive about the prospects of Umbria. The land of St. Francis (as in St. Francis of Assisi) will undoubtedly show better, especially when paired with some ragù d’agnello (lamb ragù) or anatra muta a porchetta (stuffed roast duck). We are only going up from here.

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