Drinking in Le Marche: the ultimate wine tour
This story was the cover of the Philadelphia Inquirer's travel section on February 4, 2007.
CAMERANO, Italy - Kees Dekker sipped a glass of Rosso Conero wine in the cantina of La Terrazza vineyard and pronounced, "You don't drink this wine because it's just wine."
I nodded, not really knowing if I could fully appreciate the subtle differences in flavor. Visiting the small vineyard, for me, meant drinking free wine in a chilled room on a blazing summer day - among the joys of visiting the less-touristed Le Marche region of Italy. Dekker, a Dutchman, savored the dry, fruity taste, paused, and then declared, "This is a serious wine; it has complexity."
He and his wife had vacationed here in Le Marche every summer for the last four years and they were in the process of buying a home. They had initially looked in Tuscany and Umbria, but found that Le Marche was cheaper, less crowded with foreigners, and far more diverse than anywhere else they had been in Italy.
"Italians say that Le Marche is Italy in one region," Dekker said with a sigh. "You have the sea, the mountains, all four seasons."
Le Marche, which is northeast of Rome by a ride of about three hours, begins at the Adriatic. As you go west, It develops into gentle, rolling hills and ends in the massive, mile-high Apennine Mountains. As the terrain evolves, there are minor disparities in people's attitudes and slight differences in cultures.
Residents of hilltop towns separated by only a few miles have different dialects and opposing outlooks on life. The special delicacy of one town may be unavailable in the next town down the road. The modest style of one city, while not necessarily noticeable to outsiders, may be different from the slightly less modest style of the next.
And that's the way they like things.
"In America, things are black or white," said Carlo Cleri, a friend who lives in the medieval city of Cagli. "We like variety, difference. There is a lot of range between white and black."
Wine is a prime example: More than 250 government-sanctioned varieties of wine are produced in Italy, a country smaller than California, which has fewer than 30 varieties.
Twelve varieties are made in Le Marche. Each, labeled "D.O.C." (denominazione d'origine controllata, meaning wine of controlled origin), has its own characteristics that vary, if only slightly, from other wines produced in the region.
Whether or not you can appreciate the difference between a full-bodied Rosso Conero and an ethereal Rosso Piceno, you could spend years exploring the hundreds of vineyards in Le Marche, from international production facilities to mom-and-pop farms. But you can also spend a day or two, by renting a car and driving from winery to winery. They are often concentrated in one area. The town of Morro D'Alba, for instance, has six of them.
"You're walking on wine," Gianluca Garofoli said with a laugh as we entered the original fermentation room of his family's vineyard.
The affable, English-speaking 25-year-old explained that below our feet, in concrete tanks, were thousands of liters of Rosso Conero, the garnet-colored red wine produced only in the area surrounding the nearby mountain, Monte Conero. The old cellar, ripe with the aroma of wine, was built in 1901 and is still used today, even though the Garofoli family has completely modernized the facilities.
"Each generation has built this business, step by step," said Gianluca, whose grandfather's grandfather started the vineyard in 1871 along the pilgrimage path to Loreto, where there has been a shrine to the Virgin Mary for 800 years.
A Red Sox-loving baseball fanatic, Gianluca said his family was among the first vintners to put wine in bottles, rather than jugs, in the latter half of the 19th century. In the 1950s, they were among the first in Italy to have a fully automated bottling plant. "We totally changed the distribution of wine in Italy," he said.
Gianluca eagerly walked us around the state-of-the-art plant where machines filled 5,000 bottles per hour. The mid-sized winery distributes 2.2 million bottles around the world annually.
Then he offered us wine, "And now we drink?"
So we sat for a few hours, sampled several bottles of Garofoli's finest, and talked to Gianluca, the leftfielder for the local squad, about life in Le Marche.
"Monte Conero is beautiful," he said, referring to the mountain that is a popular resort for vacationing Europeans. "Everyone knows it around the world. This is a very good region to live."
Actually, Monte Conero and the Le Marche region are little known to most Americans, especially in comparison to famed Italian destinations like Rome, Venice, and heavily trafficked Tuscany. But Le Marche, due east of Tuscany, is a trove of charming hill towns, pristine beaches, and stunning vistas.
On any random drive, you can find vast fields of radiant sunflowers, ancient castles perched high upon mountaintops, and enchanting villages full of friendly people who don't speak a lick of English.
And wine. "Lacrima grapes are a special type of grape," said Cleri, my friend from Cagli. "It's traditional, it has the flavor of old wines."
We were spending the afternoon touring the Stefano Mancinelli winery, with Stefano's parents, Fabio and Luisa, as our guides. The factory, which specializes in the rose- and violet-scented Lacrima, was just a basic production plant, and the family couldn't have been nicer to us.
Luisa sliced a blackberry pie and invited us to sample the wines. Fabio explained, in Italian, how he began making wine for himself about 50 years ago from grapes grown on the hills near Morro D'Alba, a castlelike city. His passion became his son's business and now they are among the few vineyards certified to produce the velvety-smooth Lacrima di Morro D'Alba.
"To me, this is the best wine," Cleri said. "It is a wine I usually open with a girl."
The fresh, white Bianchello del Metauro wine from the Guerrieri vineyard tastes like Le Marche. You can smell the dry farmland in the glass and savor the sea air that wafts over the fields.
The grapes are grown in the Metauro River valley, a few kilometers inland from the Adriatic Sea, on 500 acres of land that has been cultivated by the Guerrieri family for more than 200 years. The grape variety, however, is much older and carries a sense of pride for the locals.
Legend has it, Luca Guerrieri told us, that the Bianchello del Metauro saved the Roman Empire. The great Carthaginian general Hannibal had already taken much of southern Italy when his brother, commander Hasdrubal, began advancing upon Rome from the north.
On a hot summer night in 207 B.C., Hasdrubal's troops made camp along the Metauro River and found a farmer with vast reserves of Bianchello del Metauro. The Carthaginian army reportedly drank gallons upon gallons of the refreshing drink and when the Roman legions attacked in the morning, the Carthaginians were either too drunk or hung over to survive.
Or so the story goes.
Nearly every day, we visited another winery.
In Camerano, Silvano Strologo showed off massive, 27-liter bottles of Rosso Conero at his family-operated vineyard. We watched locals fill up five-gallon jugs with Lacrima at the Vicari vineyard in Morro D'Alba. We visited the tourist-friendly Conte Leopardi winery in Numana, where the owner handed visitors a glass of wine as soon as they entered the shop.
In Staffolo, Sandro Finocchi, clad in brown sandals, a black tank top and shorts, offered to give us a tour of his 20-acre property even though he was in the middle of eating lunch.
He walked us down a gentle, sloping hill thick with grapevines and olive trees. Finocchi explained that the land had been in his family for generations but that he began producing and selling wine in the mid-1980s, with most of his product going to restaurants in Rome. He pulled a small, rubbery branch off a tree and showed us how he used the twigs to bind grape vines to fencing.
"Everything is organic," he said, with his daughter Elena, 16, acting as translator. "We only use a minimal amount of chemicals to keep away parasites."
Finocchi and his two daughters gather the grapes, bottle the wine, and label and box the final product.
"I live upstairs and I work here," Finocchi said. "I don't leave too much!"
Two middle-aged brothers poured copious amounts of delicious wine for us at the Capinera Winery in Morrovalle. We were a rare excuse for them to practice their English.
A gruff worker at the Moroder vineyard in Ancona briskly escorted us through the cellar but never offered us wine. So we left.
"Of course, Tuscany is always first," said Laura Baldinelli, an employee at the Umani Ronchi winery in Osimo. "But Le Marche wine is very popular now as well."
Baldinelli led us to the 58-degree cellar designed to look like the inside of a jewel mine. "Here, there are not diamonds but our top wines," she said.
As stylish as a nightclub, the moist, dim room housed 500 barrels, each holding about 300 bottles of wine, and that is only a portion of the vineyard's production. The winery turns out 4.5 million bottles every year.
In a slick glass showroom afterward, Baldinelli filled and refilled our glasses as though we were old friends visiting from out of town.
Hours later, I left with several bottles. Back home in Philadelphia, my trip would live on.