A few days ago, I enjoyed a delightful lunch with Angela Velenosi at Del Posto, an oasis of fine food and blessed quiet in the thunder of New York’s restaurant scene. Signora Velenosi owns the second largest family-run winery in Le Marche, a region to which wise winos should pay a lot more attention, for the variety and the quality of its wines and for the significant fact that the great majority of them are very reasonably priced.
If you’re unfamiliar with Italian geography and Italian regions, Le Marche lies on the Adriatic (eastern) coast of central Italy, bordered from north to south by Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, and Abruzzi. Its name derives from that fact: It means the marches, i.e., the borderlands. Le Marche epitomizes the geography of Italy: Its western border is all mountains – the spine of the Apennines – and its eastern all beaches. Locals like to say that you can ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon, with, depending on your taste, a bracing mountain lunch or a light seafood repast in between. Clearly, Le Marche is a region that needs wines for every occasion.
The Velenosi winery seeks to respond to all those needs. The 32-year-old firm makes more than 20 wines, working primarily with the traditional grapes of the region. That means primarily Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Sangiovese for the reds, and Verdicchio, Pecorino, and Passerina for the whites, all vinified in a variety of ways.
We tasted eight of them at lunch, and they all showed a very high level of winemaking, as well as admirable varietal character.
We started with Passerina Brut, a non-vintage charmat-method sparkler. Passerina is the name of the grape that constitutes 100% of this wine, a native variety that had almost been lost until a few enterprising producers undertook its resurrection about 20 years ago. It makes a lovely aperitif, light and refreshing, with a dried-lemon-rind nose and a palate of lemon peel and minerals.
We went on to a 2015 Querciantica Verdicchio DOC. This is another indigenous Marche variety, unquestionably the most important white grape of the region. Verdicchio seems destined for greatness – if it can ever grab the attention of wine drinkers outside the Marche. Think of the minerality of Chablis understrapped by a really bracing Italian acidity, and you’re getting close to a well-made Verdicchio. This young Verdicchio, from the Castelli di Jesi DOC zone, was well made indeed, with the classic bracing minerality. I stress its youth, because among Verdicchio’s many virtues is an ability to age and mature. Riserva bottlings especially can easily please after a decade, and the best vintages can go longer still.
For our third wine, we tasted yet another Marche specialty variety, a 2015 Villa Angela Pecorino, an Offida DOCG. Where the grape name comes from is something of a mystery: Pecorino means sheep in Italian, but there is nothing in any sense sheepish about this grape or the wine it yields. This fine example was intense and concentrated, with a complex palate that tasted of salt and mineral and grapefruit peel – very, very intriguing.
Then we switched over to reds, but we didn’t abandon indigenous varieties.
Our first red was 2015 Querciantica Lacrima di Morra DOC. The grape is so called because its skins are so tender that just touching them can produce a small drop of juice – its tear (lacrima). This is a light-bodied red wine, often drunk in the Marche with antipasti or light lunches. This bottle showed the characteristic black cherry nose and palate, very fresh and appealing. You could happily drink lots of this, ever so lightly chilled, on a warm afternoon.
Next came 2014 Brecciarolo, a Rosso Piceno Superiore DOC. Rosso Piceno is the traditional red wine blend of the Marche, 70% Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and 30% Sangiovese. Note that – despite the name – Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo has nothing to do with the Tuscan town Montepulciano. It is its own variety, long cultivated in the Marche: How it got its confusing name nobody knows for sure. Wherever the grape’s name comes from, Brecciarolo is a fine wine, with the Sangiovese bracing the softness of the Montepulciano, and the two harmonizing into a pleasing, almost elegant red wine for all occasions.
Then Signora Velenosi poured 2011 Roggio del Filare, a Rosso Piceno Superiore DOC, which raised the stakes. The blend is the same as Brecciarolo, but the harvest comes from super-ripe grapes on 50-year-old vines. They are given a long maceration on the skins to yield a deeply colored, intense wine of very great elegance. This 2011 already showed maturing, earthy/mushroomy notes on the nose, and the palate followed suit. Still lively and beautifully structured, this seems a wine that will deepen and improve for some years yet.
As you can tell, this was a wet lunch: We still had two red wines to go.
The one next up changed tack completely. A 2012 Ludi – the word means games – an Offida DOCG. It was vinified from 50% Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, 30% of the very non-indigenous Cabernet sauvignon, and 20% of the equally non-native Merlot. My regular readers will know I am no fan of international grapes in Italy, but this wine may make me re-think my absolutism. It was excellent – very fine and elegant, with lovely fruit and soft tannins. It didn’t taste at all international: Rather it had a distinctive Italian accent. The Montepulciano and the Merlot (which does grow well in central Italy, I have to admit) definitely tamed the asperities of the usually aggressive Cabernet and folded it into a harmonious blend.
For our final wine, we reverted to Le Marche tradition: Visciole, a non-vintage red dessert wine made from 80% Lacrima di Morra and 20% fresh-squeezed syrup of wild cherries (visciole). The fully fermented Lacrima gets the infusion of visciole syrup, which causes a second fermentation that raises the alcohol to 14 degrees or above and intensifies the fruit sweetness of the wine. I’m not a big fan of dessert wines, but this is a lovely one, with that wonderful fruit stealing all the attention from the alcohol.
As this luncheon tasting clearly demonstrated, there is a lot to interest serious wine lovers in Le Marche: great native grapes, interesting experimentation and an extremely high level of winemaking, of which Velenosi is a fine example. For anyone seriously interested in wine – or indeed, for anyone simply looking for enjoyable wines at decent prices – Le Marche is well worth a look and a taste. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.