The large Central Italy region embraces Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Abruzzo and Molise and Lazio. Geographically Central Italy is split by the imposing Apennine mountain range that runs the length of the centre of Italy like a slightly curved spine dividing, for example, Tuscany and Umbria from Emilia-Romagna and Le Marche. While there is the usual diversity of grape varieties when you drill down in to the vineyards of these regions, one grape variety dominates â€“ sangiovese, whether it stands alone or is blended.
At the heart of Tuscany is Chianti, spreading from north of Florence to south of Siena. Rolling green forested hills of captivating beauty characterise much of the Chianti area with vineyards sometimes planted at over 500 metres. The wines are dominated by the sangiovese grape supported by canaiolo, colorino, mammolo and ciliegiolo of the traditional varieties of the region but with the additional weight and structure of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot...
At the heart of Tuscany is Chianti, spreading from north of Florence to south of Siena. Rolling green forested hills of captivating beauty characterise much of the Chianti area with vineyards sometimes planted at over 500 metres. The wines are dominated by the sangiovese grape supported by canaiolo, colorino, mammolo and ciliegiolo of the traditional varieties of the region but with the additional weight and structure of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot which are now permitted.
Other great wines from Tuscany are Brunello di Montalcino (â€˜brunelloâ€™ being a very localised clone of sangiovese, and the only permitted grape), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (from the town of Montepulciano and nothing to do with the montepulciano grape; Vino Nobile is again made from sangiovese) and the so-called Supertuscan blends of several grape varieties, some of which are not permitted under DOC rules in areas such as Brunello. The most famous of these Supertuscans are Sassicaia and Ornellaia, both of which are essentially Bordeaux -style blends from Bolgheri close to the Tuscan coast in the west. The region, partly with the impetus of these regulation bucking blends, has been a driving force in improving quality in the region and consequently across Italy.
Umbria to the south of Tuscany has developed an impressive reputation for its wines, such as the aromatic, tannic but delicious sagrantino from vineyards around Montefalco. Here too sangiovese is widely grown, making impressive Torgiano and blends together with varieties like merlot and cabernet. Higher ground in the north is cooler than the southern zone. Orvieto lies almost between the two in the west of Umbria. The wines of Orvieto are beginning to find their feet once more after decades of underperformance now that many growers are focussing on the grechetto grape that had once been ubiquitous but which had been pushed aside by the higher cropping but far less interesting procanico (aka trebbiano Toscano).
Lazio is the region around Rome which is struggling to creep out from the shadow of the dull wines that historically fed the thirst of a ready market in the Eternal City. Basically, there was too little incentive to change. Now there are a number of producers working hard to make Frascati of real character by improving their clones and their methods and by lowering yields.
Across the Apennines from Umbria is Le Marche with its mountainous national parks and sunny Adriatic coast. The best white wines are the two verdicchios, dei Castelli di Jesi and di Matelica, with the latter making the more characterful examples from its higher altitudes. Pecorino grapes from zones to the south produce fruity, interesting white wines with real potential to rival the best verdicchio. Reds are improving all the time, including Rosso Piceno (sangiovese with montepulciano) and Rosso Conero (montepulciano).
North of Le Marche is the region around foodie Bologna, Emilia-Romagna. Home to Parmesan cheese, Parma ham and balsamic vinegar, the region has not developed a similarly impressive canon of wines to rival its reputation for fine foods. Much is unimpressive but the best sangiovese di Romagna from south-east of Bologna can be excellent, and as with elsewhere in Italy there are a growing number of growers and winemakers intent on improvement. The wine best known to British consumers is Lambrusco. Sadly the association many will have is with sweetened characterless froth from the 1970s and 1980s but the Lambrusco drunk by the Bolognese is very different and we are starting to see its appetising acidity and bracing bite, designed to accompany the salty hams, tangy cheeses and rich meat sauces of its home region, reach the UK.
As with Le Marche the vineyards of Abruzzo are squeezed between the great mass of the Apennines and the Adriatic, and the mountains have influenced the character of the Abruzzese and their food. To match their hearty dishes they drink montepulciano dâ€™Abruzzo, invariably gutsy and full of lively red fruits and a Society wine of many years standing. Rosés such as Cerasuolo dâ€™Abruzzo are also becoming increasingly well known for their value and constantly improving quality when growers lower yields and winemakers take them seriously. Further south is the little known Molise region where montepulciano, aglianico and trebbiano grapes make characterful, rustic reds and whites. The Biferno DOC was created in the 1980s and there are producers here who are making some very promising examples.