When the Greeks began to settle on Italian soil in the 8th century BC, they called their new home Oenetria, the land of the tamed vines. Already great producers of wine, the Greeks recognized an exceptional capacity for the cultivation of grapes. Italy has consistently shown itself worthy of its ancient title with the astonishing number of varietals (over 400!) that thrive in the peninsula—more than in any other country in the world.
For that reason, Italy’s wines are as varied as its art, and just as each artistic era has its masterpieces, its creative geniuses, and its unique stories, so each region of Italy offers different combinations of nature’s bounty, human skill, and extraordinary inspiration.
One such case is a vineyard just outside Orvieto, Decugnano dei Barbi, where, in a little slice of paradise—think dramatic vistas of hills and vales and a palette of olive, forest, grass against a larimar sky—wine has been produced since the 13th century and the days of the Papal States. In the 1970s, after years of neglect, Claudio Barbi, son of a Lombard wine merchant, purchased the land with a plan to produce high quality wine in a region more famous for quantity than quality.
Part of the project involved revolutionizing vinification techniques. Claudio Barbi was the first to introduce to Umbria a sparkling wine made in the “traditional method” (second fermentation in the bottle used to produce Champagne). The result, Decugnano “metodo classico” (half chardonnay-half pinot noir,) can give French Champagne and Italian Franciacorta (produced in Claudio’s native province of Brescia) a run for their money.
Claudio also was the first to produce an Umbrian sweet wine from “noble rot” or Botrytis Cinerea, the same process that makes the world-famous Sauternes wine. His Pourriture Noble, is addictive. As a rule, I don’t love sweet wine, but on one sunny afternoon at the vineyard, I drank a half bottle on my own and my eyes still light up when my husband pulls out a bottle to go with foie gras or a slice of homemade apple pie.
The two bestselling wines from the Barbi vineyard are unassumingly called Decugnano bianco (white), and Decugnano rosso (red). The whites are a refreshing and delightful blend of Grechetto (Umbria’s most popular white varietal), Vermentino (usually found along the northwest coast of Italy), a bright touch of Sauvignon Blanc, and a drop of Procanico, a clone of Trebbiano, a ubiquitous grape known for its high acidity. It is reasonably priced, has received ratings as high as 90 points (on Wine Enthusiast for 2015 vintage), and is starting to show up on serious Italian wine lists.
In the chilly days of winter, Decugnano Red, a blend of Sangiovese 30%, Syrah 40%, Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 30% marries well with the comfort cuisine of central Italy. Umbria, where wild boar abounds, makes spectacular stews and sauces. The tannic Syrah stands up to these succulent dishes, while the leather and vegetal elements of the Sangiovese complement the rich flavors of Umbrian cuisine. Decugnano Rosso’s 2013 vintage received a 94pt rating from James Suckling.
Claudio’s son Enzo runs the vineyard now, although Claudio came out of retirement to produce the latest Pourriture Noble. Enzo has made a name for Decugnano in Italy and abroad, but occasionally is at the estate long enough for us to go out and visit. Talking about wine with Enzo and Claudio in the glorious setting of the villa and going down into the cellars carved out of the tufa stone is a splendid way to pass a day. The villa is set up for tasting and tours and well worth a stop after a visit to the magnificent town of Orvieto. After indulging in delights for the eye and the mind of the historic town crowned by a stunning cathedral, an afternoon at Decugnano provides pleasure for the palate and serenity for the spirit.