On the Marche
“I will not leave my children at home.”
I was at the 2011 “A Tasting Of Wines From Italy” event in Toronto, and Angela Velenosi was explaining to me (in a way I’m sure only she could) why her table had way more wines than the show “rules” permitted. She said this quite matter-of-factly, as if the notion of leaving any of her wines back at the Velenosi winery was tantamount to abuse. I complimented her on her child-rearing skills as I left to scout the room. Sure, I was there to taste some fine vino, but I also wanted to meet up with Velenosi and a few other new friends I’d made during a tour of Italy’s Le Marche a month or so previous. Before the trip I admittedly knew very little about the region and (outside of the ubiquitous Verdicchio in the amphora-shaped bottle) its wines. And if a self-proclaimed “wine guy” like me didn’t know much about the place, what about far less geeky wine-loving Canadians? Seeing people like Velenosi, Alighiero Fausti from Tenuta De Angelis, Massimiliano Bartolomei from Società Agricola Ciù Ciù and, a few days previous, the effervescent Marilena Cocci Grifoni from Tenuta Cocci Grifoni, brought back memories of a week of sun, sand, surf, fantastic food, impressive wines and terrific hospitality so vivid I felt momentarily transported back. And if all those things appeal to you, too, then mark a trip to Le Marche down on your bucket list.
Abutting the teal Adriatic and kissed by Emilia-Romagna to the north, Tuscany and Umbria to the west, and Abruzzo and Lazio due south and southwest, respectively, Le Marche’s mountains, hills and valleys spread over an area of approximately 9,700 kilometres divided into five provinces. I was fortunate to spend my time in the southernmost province of Ascoli Picenos. From my seaside hotel room I would watch palm trees swaying in the constant, cooling breeze (though it was nearing the end of September, the temperature was still summer-like), lulled by the rhythm of the sea, a glass of Passerina Spumante (sparkling) in one hand and a plate of Olive all’Ascolana (stuffed, fried olives) by my side as the sun set.
By day, I had the pleasure of visiting historic towns, sampling local cuisine and wine and introducing myself to some amazing people. I was surprised by plenty of what I saw and tasted. But perhaps what surprised me the most was why so few people (apparently) knew of this region’s often-exceptional wines. Wines that we will hopefully be seeing more of in Canada. And with the help of the Consorzio Vini Picenos, we just might.
I chatted with Bartolomei in the office of the Consorzio (he is the president of the organization) in the historic town of Offida. He is extremely passionate about the region, its history and the quality of its wines, but admitted that up till now, not much had been done to promote them. While part of the mandate of the 38-member strong Consorzio, which was established in 2002, is to ensure wine quality levels remain high, it also is determined to sing their praises to the rest of Italy and beyond.
Now, I said that I “chatted” with Bartolomei. Truth be told, I chatted with him via a third party. The Marche is less touristy than, say, Tuscany, and subsequently you have a harder time finding English-speaking types. This is something to consider if you plan on paying a visit. My Italian is mostly non-existent. Luckily, my translating (and transportation) needs were attended to by the young and rather charming Angelica D’Andrea, without whose linguistic abilities, navigational prowess and overall professionalism I would have been culturally as well as physically lost.
After you stroll through scenic Offida, you might, as we did, plunk yourself down in the cozy confines of Bartolomei’s Cantina del Picchio restaurant for dinner, and perhaps taste one or two of the wines of Ciù Ciù. Meals in Ascoli Pinceno (as I’m sure they are in other parts of Italy) are multi-course affairs and unless you show some discipline and pace yourself accordingly, you’ll be stuffed halfway through (as I did). It was here that I was first introduced (and became addicted) to the previously mentioned Olive all’Ascolana. Be sure to try them. Kudos if you are able to leave any on the plate.
Ten wines later (Me having just a taste or two? Right…) I was in a rather pleasant state of surprise once again. While most Canadian wine lovers are probably familiar with the aforementioned white Verdicchio, I was wowed by the diverse range before me, including some serious, complex reds typically blended from Montepulciano and Sangiovese and/or Cabernet. I had, until now, ascribed to the formula that Marche wine = white wine. This formula was obviously seriously flawed. In fact, in this part of the Marche, the Verdicchio grape is usurped in importance by the dynamic duo of Pecorino and Passerina.
Not a pairs skating team, Pecorino and Passerina are in fact the grape varieties that typically end up in the white wines of Ascoli Picenos. While the higher-acid Passerina is often used for Spumante wines, like Ciù Ciù’s crisp, floral, anise-tinged AltaMarea Passerina Spumante, its crisp, citrusy, peachy, mildly nutty profile can be found in a range of still white wines that you will have the pleasure of discovering.
As pleasant as Passerina can be, I took to Pecorino with more enthusiasm. Native to the Marche (though planted in other regions and under different names), Pecorino yields wines that range from crisp and subtle with notes of liquorice and vanilla — like the Rugaro Percorino 2010 I tasted at La Cantina dei Coli Rapini — to something that comes off as a cross between a rich Alsace Pinot Gris and an aromatic Viognier (as did the intensely aromatic, rich, viscous and spicy Iosonogaia Pecorino 2007 from Le Caniette that clocked in at 15 per cent alcohol). I wanted to learn more about this intriguing grape. And, as luck would have it, I would be introduced to someone with an intimate knowledge of it the next day.
“Women are the strength here,” D’Andrea emphasized as we pulled into driveway of Tenuta Cocci Grifoni. The weather, while warm, had been delivering a mixed bag of mostly rain. Since the region hadn’t seen any for close to two months, it immediately became apparent to everyone that I was, in fact, responsible for it. However, Dottoressa Cocci Griffoni assured me, as she led us into the winery, that skies would be clear for the rest of the week. And true to her word, they were.
“Pecorino is a variety native to the Marche, but one that was almost lost,” Cocci Griffoni explained to me over glasses of the winery’s luscious, honeyed, mineral-laced Colle Vecchio 2010 Pecorino and the slightly richer and earthier 2008. She noted that the roots of this indigenous vine could be traced back to 1871. However, it was not until 2001 — and almost exclusively due to the efforts of Guido Cocci Griffoni (the winery’s founder) — that wines made from this grape were granted official DOC status.
If (or should I say, when) you visit Tenuta Cocci Griffoni, and many of the region’s other wineries, you’ll notice that effort is concentrated primarily on research, development and what ultimately goes into the bottle. Some, including the co-operative La Cantina dei Colli Ripani are of considerable size. Others, like Tenuta De Angelis, Ciù Ciù and the sleek, compact Le Caniette, are family owned and operated and craft a single line of wines. In contrast, wineries like Vinicola Carassanese and Collevite – Cantine della Marca have two or more tiers designed to cater to different segments of the market. The latter even offers a range of artisan beers, some incorporating red or white wine to up the flavour ante. However, with most of these, the emphasis is on function rather than form. Things take on a bit of a new dimension at Domodimonti.
One of the first things you’ll notice — other than the fact that the winery, perched hundreds of feet up the side of a hill, looks like something out of Napa Valley — is that it flies both Canadian and Italian flags. As it turns out, owner Francesco Bellini was born in Ascoli Piceno but moved to Montreal at the age of 21. Having made a considerable fortune in the pharmaceutical industry and garnering as many accolades as could be dealt, Bellini now divides his time between Montreal, Shanghai, Miami and, of course, Ascoli, and is both a Canadian and Italian citizen. Unlike the United States, in Canada, he says, “you don’t have to become a part of the melting pot, because in Canada the roots and culture of all nationalities are respected.”
In any case, you’ll no doubt agree that the winery is an architectural showcase. Complete with luxurious guest suites, swimming pool and a staffed, gourmet kitchen, it would be an ideal spot for a corporate retreat. Or a retreat, period. After a terrific lunch prepared by said kitchen and a tasting of a range of winemaker Carlo Ferrini’s impeccably-crafted wines, we lounged by the pool, glasses of the fragrant Déjà Passerina 2010 in hand, and contemplated what the English phrase for questa è vita might be, finally settling on “This is the life.”
“Come back again and stay with us,” Domodimonti’s Maria Pia Bianchini invited me. “Bring your family.” When I informed her that I was single she responded, “There are many beautiful women in Marche … maybe you just come back and stay here.” I actually don’t think I’d have much of a problem complying. Whatever your marital status is, you probably won’t want to leave either.
Speaking of beautiful sights, you’ll find no shortage of them in Ascoli Piceno. Founded several centuries before Rome, the town features a bevy of historic attractions including the stunning central Renaissance square, Piazza del Popolo (“Square of the People”), the church of San Francesco and the Cathedral of Sant’Emidio, among many others. I personally noticed many beautiful sights of the sort mentioned by Bianchini. “Why do you think I moved here?” Velenosi’s Export Manager, Andrea Bianco, asked rather rhetorically.
Bianco’s actual residence is in Ascoli, but I had to wonder how much time he really spends there. More often than not he’d be in a different country, living out of a suitcase and spending his infrequent down time in various hotel rooms (sleeping, I can only expect). “My idea of a ‘night out’ is sitting at home on my couch, in track pants with a beer watching something dumb on TV,” he confessed. His rigorous schedule leaves him little time to pursue anything as permanent as the married life, though he does claim to seek out “a fiancée in every city [he] visits.” However, considering what was afoot in town, I’d say Ascoli is as “target-rich” as any single guy could ask for.
Heading back to the car after our tour and espressos, we bumped into a petite blonde and a statuesque brunette, the two of whom Bianco began chatting up. I was about to comment on his technique when he admitted they were both part of Velenosi’s sales team. I could only assume each had, inexplicably, abandoned promising modelling careers to sell wine. Bianchini’s suggestion popped, once again, into my head. If I was going to defect, I needed to plot the details quickly. Tomorrow was to be my last day, albeit a leisurely one spent, well, lounging. The stretch of beach that runs from Grottammare south to San Benedetto del Tronto (and probably both north and south of each town, though I can’t say I journeyed that far on foot either way) is peppered with restaurants, bars and other places to hang out and enjoy some local wine and fresh frutti de mare. I found the beach itself a great place to relax, and the sea a welcome respite from the sun’s intensity.
As I drew myself away from the warm caresses of the Adriatic onto the white sand just a cork pop from my hotel in Grottammare, it dawned on me that I actually had to be up at a rather ungodly hour in not too many hours. I thought about the fantastic seafood dinner I had with some of the members of the Consorzio in a chic seaside restaurant, and about finally enjoying a home-cooked meal in the kitchen of Giovanni Vagnoni of Le Caniette (anyone who knows Italy will tell you, when you ask where to eat, to find a family to take you in). I thought about the spectacular landscape, the breathtaking views from the city of Ripatransone, the intricately painted barrels at La Cantina dei Colli Ripani and the generous winemakers always plying me with more bottles than I could hold (when I told Vagnoni I couldn’t possibly jam any more wine into my luggage, his response was “So I give you olive oil” — funny how you can always find a bit more space). I remembered the colourful Simone Lanciott of Vinicola Carassanese asking me, sotto voce, “It’s just you, right?” before slipping me a bottle of his treasured Luigi Polini Primus Marche Rosso 2000 and finding, while driving back from Ascoli with Bianco, that we had a mutual love of progressive rock music.
Like me, you’ll no doubt be wishing for a longer stay and a way to get back. Or you might just do as Bianchini suggests and never leave.