Explore the lesser-known wine regions of Umbria and you will discover there is something bubbling at the surface, ready for the spotlight. This is the Natural Wine movement in a region that has flown under the radar for years. The methods of natural winemaking have been gradually gaining speed in Umbria over the last 20 years, thanks to dedicated local winemakers and consultants like Danilo Marcucci (Conestabile della Staffa) and historically innovative Montefalco producer Paolo Bea. These are two names of principle leaders who really set the stage for what is now a hub for natural wine production in Italy. A place where students of viticulture come to study, hoping that they too, will understand how to make unique soil types sing all the way from vineyard to glass. After having spent just over a year in this curiously undervalued region, I can’t think of a better place to hone in on the natural approach; The air is pure, the soils are rich, and life moves slower here, forcing you to stop and listen to what nature is trying to tell you.
At this point, Natural Wine (or ‘natty wine’ as many have fondly coined it around the world) would have crossed your path at least once. If the answer to my statement is ‘no’, then it is time to get on board because this is a trend that will not be going away any time soon.
Umbria’s wine production is unfamiliar to many, but has started to ramp up speed, gaining more and more international popularity by the day. The diversity of the wines this land offers plus the fact that one’s dollar stretches further here makes Umbria one of the most intriguing regions on the rise. I’m sorry to say, it will not stay this way forever – this I know. Italian wine importers, globally, are starting to catch on as consumer demand grows and conscious consumption continues.
It makes sense that this movement is growing in popularity. We, as humans, have become more, and more informed about what we consume each day. New generations are emerging more thoughtfully, aiming to support farmers who grow and produce with the future of our planet in mind. This isn’t some fast trend, this is the way we must start to consume and Umbria is at the front of it.
Wine consumers often assume that natural wine is just something funky, weird, and tasting like vinegar (usually with visibly floating chunks in the bottle too). While there are many natural wines that fit this description, there are just as many that do not. Natural wine, in layman’s terms, is wine made with as little intervention as possible by man (aka: ‘minimal intervention’). Natural winemakers follow organic guidelines (often biodynamics too) in the vineyard, working to maintain a healthy microbiological environment for the grapes to thrive. In the winery, only naturally occurring yeasts (found on the skins of the grapes) are used to start the fermentation process. Once the grape juice has turned to wine there is no fining, filtering nor are there large amounts of sulphur added in order to stabilise the final product. Winemakers can choose to add some sulphur to ensure their living, breathing wine does not start spontaneously re-fermenting in the barrel or bottle (how pet-nat is made), but the addition of said sulphur is minimal. This makes natural wine a great alternative for those who feel they are sulphite intolerant.
History proves that the first traces of winemaking can be linked to the country of Georgia in the year 6,000BC. France and Italy may claim to be leaders in the modern natural wine movement, but it is thanks to trade routes connecting countries like Georgia and Slovenia that finally lead the methods to the north-eastern pocket of Italy: Friuli-Venezia Giulia (the ‘Nonno’ of natural winemaking in Italy). Finally, the methods, skills, and ideals made their way to other parts of Italy. Umbria’s own Danilo Marcucci (natural wine consultant and producer) studied under greats like Friuli’s historic natural wine producer Radikon almost 30 years ago. A time when natural wine meant almost nothing to anyone outside of the small movement.
Time and time again natural winemakers describe themselves to me as being ‘shepherds of the land’, ‘messengers’, and ‘carriers’. Rocco Trauzzola, winemaker of Mani di Luna, which means ‘Hands of the Moon’ located in Torgiano, Umbria, explains his wines as consisting of ‘Solo uve, solo uve’ – ‘only grapes, only grapes’. He is adamant that this is understood by every person who visits their winery and vineyards; ‘Solo uve’ says Rocco. Nothing less, nothing more.
It seems that Umbria’s natural wine movement wasn’t so far behind Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The history here is so extensive that there is already a new generation of winemakers in place who have learned from the greats of this region and already are starting to carry the torch themselves. Umbrian-born, Danilo Marcucci, was one of the first in the area to think naturally about wine and gain international recognition for his (at the time) radical ideas and methods. Danilo now consults for wineries across Italy and describes himself as a musician of the Italian terroirs. He explains that he can play many types of instruments (soil in this instance). He is so in tune with the land that he can connect easily to the true sense of place and brings this out through the finished wine. This, in his eyes, is the true meaning of terroir. Marcucci has begun planting vineyards with his sons in mind – knowing the vineyards won’t be ready in his lifetime, but will be there when his boys are ready to shepherd their local soils just like Papà.
Believe me when I say: there is something for every wine consumer amongst the natural wine world and it is well-worth your time and exploration. It is quite possible you have already consumed a natural wine without even knowing it. I have tasted some of the most elegant wines of my life made by Italian natural winemakers and found myself questioning all my preconceived notions about the movement.
I wouldn’t have been able to tell you any of this a year and a half ago as I still spent my days selling fine Italian wine to Sydney-siders at one of Australia’s most sought-after wine shops. Natural Italian wines were available in Australia, but hardly anything caught my attention from the region of Umbria. Imagine my surprise, when I began exploring my new home in Italy, only to discover I knew basically nothing in the way of natural items.
I made this humbling discovery by way of our local butcher shop: La Carneria, Spina – owned and operated by a young husband and wife team of the area. Past the displays of local meats, cheeses, pasta, and olive oils I arrived at an incredibly colourful wine display (an eclectic wine label can often be the hint that it is naturally made). Most of the wines on display were local, not Italy local, but Umbria local. My jaw dropped. “Who is making all this natural wine?!” I shrieked.
It was through conversations with our butcher, Andrea (hard core lover of the movement) that I realised my knowledge of Umbria’s wine production was pretty slim. I am pleased to report that since then, I have tasted, toured, and even begun to export some of the region’s most exciting wines amongst this movement.
So, are you still picturing floaty bits and funky vinegar smells? I am here to remind you to keep an open mind and let your curiosities guide you. Many of the soon-to-be best natural winemakers of Umbria are still under the age of 40, living with Mamma and making wine in their parents’ garage. They have learned from the greats, are quietly honing their skills, finding their authentic voice, and will be making some noise in the very near future. The next time you find yourself in Umbria, seek out a natural winemaker or two, visit their vineyards and put your ear to the ground – listen to what mother earth is trying to express to you.
You would be surprised how much Umbrian natural wine you can find overseas. If you’re interested in starting the exploration I would recommend seeking out producers like Conestabile Della Staffa, Paolo Bea, Tiberi Vini Artigianali, Cantina Margò, and Fattoria Mani di Luna. Remember, when you open that first bottle, close your eyes and let yourself be transported to these lands. See the genuine farmers honouring their lands and finally, taste that sense of place with each and every sip.