A version of the article first appeared in Decanter magazine, in 2007.
Just to the east of Tuscany, on the Adriatic coast lies a region harbouring the secret of its rapidly improving red wines. The Marche is most renowned for verdicchio, which can indeed be one of the country’s top white wines, but these account for just 15% of Marche production.
It is red grape varieties, notably montepulciano and sangiovese, that are planted across two-thirds of the vineyard area. Sangiovese is more classically appreciated in Tuscany, and montepulciano usually associated with Abruzzo, immediately to the south, so the Marche has struggled to strike its own individuality and identity for red wines.
It does have its own red speciality, lacrima, grown around Morro d’Alba in the north, but it is montepulciano that is building the region’s reputation. You’re unlikely to see the grape variety on the front label as it seems neighbouring Abruzzo has prior claim to that usage. But look for anything ‘Rosso’ from the Marche and it’s likely to have a chunk of montepulciano in it. Back label inspection will usually reveal the relevant information.
The grape varieties
Lacrima A speciality from the north-west of Ancona with its own small DOC: Lacrima di Morro d’Alba. It is not totally unlike dolcetto in that it’s light in tannins and the focus is on primary fruit.
Sangiovese Both Italy’s and the Marche’s most planted red grape variety. Sangiovese is a highly vigorous variety, needing strong vineyard management to bring out its best, and key elements of this are to restrict yield, and to ensure the tannins are both ripe and soft. Despite being a slow and late ripener, it keeps its natural acidity well, and this can add a little freshness to a blend, but it is not deeply coloured due to its thin skins. With its deep colour, montepulciano is a good blending companion. Flavours include red and black cherries, trending to earthiness and a warm, herbal, tealeaf and leather character with a little maturity.
Montepulciano This is the most widely planted red variety after sangiovese and the one showing real character and quality in the Marche. It is not to be confused with the town of Montepulciano in Tuscany or the DOCG there: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (which is made primarily from sangiovese). Montepulciano is vigorous and late ripening, it’s deeply coloured, has high alcohol and high extract and a decent level of acidity. It can make soft, deeply coloured fruity reds and there are many made in this style. It can also make top quality serious wines where rich sweet mulberry fruit and chocolate texture come to the fore and a characteristic meaty, gamey flavour develops with time.
Rosso Piceno DOC and Rosso Piceno Superiore DOC
These DOCs are blends of 35-70% montepulciano and 30-50% sangiovese, with up to 15% of other allowed red varieties. The patchwork vineyards are scattered in the crumpled hilly zone between the Adriatic coast and the Apennine mountains.
Rosso Piceno is a large DOC, starting just south of Ancona, but the main areas of production are in the south around Ripatransone, Offida and Ascoli Piceno. Rosso Piceno Superiore is a small subzone of Rosso Piceno, found in the far south-eastern corner of the Marches, on the Abruzzo border. Yields are a tad lower, alcohol a tad higher, but to date there is not much evidence of consistently superior quality coming from this sub-zone.
Az. Agr. Le Caniette, Rosso Piceno 2001, Morellone. £12.92 Passione Vino 4*
Smoky cherry nose, smooth attack, rich black and baked berry fruit palate with ripe tannins. Big wine, primary fruit with some complexity.
Poderi Capecci San Savino, Rosso Piceno Superiore 2003, Picus. £8.25 Ockse Wines 4*
Blackberry crumble nose; allspice on palate and fine-grained tannin. Powerful and muscular; balanced by sweet fruit and chalky dry finish.
Rosso Conero DOC and Conero DOCG
In the north of the Marche region, the 572-metre peak of Mount Conero, skirmishing with the southern suburbs of Ancona, gives its name to two appellations. Both focus on montepulciano, which must be at least 85% of the blend, and it can be a pure varietal. If other grapes are used they must be sangiovese or other authorised ones. The best wines have black cherry and herbal aromas, they’re rich in tannins, full-bodied and ageworthy.
A clear recognition of the superior quality potential of montepulciano here is the creation of the tiny Conero DOCG, which takes effect from the 2004 vintage. So Le Terrazze’s Sassi Neri for example, has become Conero DOCG.
Fattoria Le Terrazze, Rosso Conero 2002, Sassi Neri. £25.50 Berry Bros. 4.5*
Medium deep ruby; sweet red berry with freshness, elegance and perfumed fruit. Crunchy fruit with rich complexity, texture and long finish.
Umani Ronchi, Rosso Conero 2003, Cumaro. £16.50 SWIG. 4*
Medium deep ruby; spicy black berry nose, sweet fruit attack, full bodied with integrated alcohol. Attractive fruit, with ripe tannin structure and decent finish.
IGT Marche Rosso
IGT, like Vin de Pays, exists for those producers not wanting to work within the confines of DOC regulations. Most normally this means wines of high montepulciano proportion that don’t have the good fortune to be within the DOC of Rosso Conero. IGT can also come from other grape varieties, so careful reading of the back label is required.
Poderi Capecci San Savino, Marche Rosso 2001, Quinta Regio. £14.50 Ockse Wines 4.5*
Montepulciano. Dense ruby; sweet black fruit with attractive spicy new oak nuances on nose. Smooth palate, hint of raisined fruit backed up with spice and ripe lush tannin. Big showy wine.
Az. Agr. Oasi degli Angeli, Marche Rosso 2003, Kurni. £39.95 Passione Vino 5*
Montepulciano. Dense with purple rim; sweet fruits of the forest, succulent texture, seductive mouthfeel with rich fruit, dense fresh and baked black berries, muscular and powerful with elegant perfume, and plentiful voluptuous tannins. A wine apart.