March 2024 - Central Italy

March 2024 - Central Italy

March 2024

Central Italy



Damiano Ciolli


We all have every right to be huge fans of Italian wine. There is some ‘non se che’ that Italian wines possess. Somehow it seems that almost everything out of this country is at the junction point of charming rusticity, overt fruitiness, and mouth-watering acidity. These wines never fail to charm. When it comes to price:quality, one of my favorite general areas within Italy is smack dab in the center of the country. Sure, the wines of Piedmont, Veneto, and Tuscany are well-known to often be incredible. But they’re often priced as such - especially when you find a producer who the wine hive mind latches onto. Once you head south of Tuscany and cross that border into Lazio, Umbria, Le Marche, or further South, it’s quite common to find absolutely fantastic producers who just a small portion of consumers have ever heard of. This month we’ll just explore two of many hidden gems from the heartland of this beautiful country.

Central Italy is often defined as the regions of Tuscany, Lazio, Umbria, Le Marche and Abruzzo. From a wine sense, I’ve always divided Italy in half - Tuscany and Emilia Romagna mark the start of ‘the North’ - successful wine regions that have been historically lauded. Calabria, Molise, and Puligia often mark the start of ‘the South’ (which includes the Islands of Sicily and Sardinia) - regions historically seen as more backwater, or lesser by the wine world. We recently covered Tuscany back in August 2023. For the purpose of this writeup, we’ll take the common classification and modify it a bit to just focus on Lazio, Umbria, Le Marche, and Abruzzo. These regions share similar climates, sensibilities, and grape varieties.

Geography & Climate


Peninsular Italy is largely defined by the Apennine Mountains - a chain of mountains that extend from Liguria in Northern Italy all the way south to Calabria (and even Sicily by some accounts). While the Alps run laterally along the country’s Northern border with Austria, Switzerland, and France, the Apennines run lengthwise and are fully contained within Italy. This range - or collection of ranges - forms the ‘spine’ of Italy which nearly every major river or weather system south of the Alps stems from. The geology of the range is varied and relatively young compared to other mountains in Europe. This results in the range looking particularly rugged and jagged. In the Central Apennines, the geology is mostly clay and sandstone, pushed up from ancient seabeds. Throughout the Apennine Range, there are numerous volcanoes, many extinct yet a few remain active. The fault lines also remain active, and have been particularly dangerous in Central Italy in the last few dedaces

On the west side of the mountains, you have a number of Italy’s largest and most famous cities - Florence, Rome, Naples. This side of the range rises slowly from the Mediterranean Sea, allowing gradual rolling foothills and verdant valleys. Here you can find more temperate weather systems and warm Mediterranean climates. The warm waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea generally mean less cloud cover and more sunlight. 

On the other coast, along the Adriatic Sea, the mountains rise much steeper and seem to even shoot up from the seashore in some areas. Here you have much less densely populated cities in the regions of Marche and Abruzzo. The weather tends to be a bit more oceanic, due to the slightly cooler temperatures of the Adriatic as well as the proximity of the mountains to the sea.

History, Regions, & Varieties

Entire lives and countless libraries have been dedicated to Italian history, so I won’t even begin to try and summarize the rich history here. In the winemaking sense, it can be honestly said that ‘All roads lead to Rome’ - as the impacts of the Roman Empire on wine are vast. Many of the grapes summarized below have been cultivated in these regions for thousands of years, with historians like Pliny the Elder cataloging them long before Italy was even a country. 

Lazio, aka Rome’s backyard, is ironically the least celebrated of Central Italian regions. Lazio is mostly known for its white wine appellations - Frascati and Orvieto are the most famous - and many are made for immediate consumption and are released directly to a thirsty, insatiable market (the perk of having a capital city next door). In more geeky wine circles, however, it is really the Cesanese grape that has given Lazio attention in recent years. A small number of producers have latched onto this ancient grape, cultivating it in the hills around Rome. While finicky and stubborn to ripen at times, it can show wonderful notes of red fruit, minerality, and plum spice layered over a light/medium body, bright acidity, and soft tannin.

Umbria, which we covered in September 2022, is a small landlocked region bordering Tuscany, Lazio, and Le Marche. Here one can find a combination of textured whites (Grechetto) and crisp whites (Orvieto is in both Umbria and Lazio), as well Italy’s biggest, boldest red variety - Sagrantino. Like much of Central Italy, there is a fair bit of Sangiovese plus white grapes like Malvasia and Trebbiano that spill over from Tuscany.

On the other side of the Apennines you have Le Marche and Abruzzo. Le Marche, north along the coast, is climatically a bit cooler and the landscape gentler with rolling hills. Verdicchio is the primary white grape here. It is grown in two areas - Castelli di Jesi, near the coast, and Matelica, in the mountains. Verdicchio is a lovely grape with bright acidity, bitter green almond notes, and a deep minerality. The incredibly unique grape Lacrima di Morro d’Alba is also grown here. It is named as such because the grape resembles a tear drop, and the thin skin punctures easily allowing the juice to run out like tears. This wine is juicy and layered, with intense floral notes. The more common reds to be found in Le Marche, however, are Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Often blended together and sold as ‘Rosso Conero’, the finished product has plenty of structure and tannin, bright red fruits, and a complex earthiness.

To the south, we find the last of our ‘Central Italy’ regions, Abruzzo. This region has a rugged, mountainous inland. The highest peak in the Apennines - Gran Sasso - is located here. Abruzzo also has a long coastline that offers a lot of the same pleasures as its neighbor to the North - affordable seafood, uncrowded beaches, and great wine. Here, Montepulciano and Trebbiano reign supreme. Montepulciano makes big, flavorful reds with meaty notes and deep black/red fruits. It is ageworthy and rather affordable compared to top wines from the Northern regions. Rosato can be made from it too, which has earned the name Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo (translation: Cherry-red) based on the deep, dark red color the wine takes on. The ubiquitous Trebbiano grape is also found in Abruzzo, and some believe that there is a certain subtype (or different grape altogether) grown in Abruzzo that makes far more compelling wines than Tuscan Trebbiano, for example. The resulting wines can be rich and textured with notes similar to a Chardonnay.

Garofoli, "Komaros" Rosato of Montepulciano, Le Marche 2022

Garofoli is a historic producer located alongside the Conero National Park in Marche. It was founded in 1871 as a small business producing and selling wines by Antonio Garofoli. The winery grew with each generation, establishing more of a reputation, expanding production, and farming more vineyards. Currently, the fourth and fifth generation are running the family estate, which owns and farms all of its own vineyards (125 acres).

Garofoli makes delicious (and affordable) reds of Sangiovese and Montepulciano from vineyards in Rosso Conero DOC. They also have vineyards in Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOCG, which allows them to produce a number of whites. ‘Komaros’ (named for the Greek word for Monte Conero) is a rosé of 100% Montepulciano. They pick younger vines and directly press them, limiting skin maceration and maintaining a light pink hue (rather than the deep red of Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo - made with the same grape). The wine sees a short aging period (4 months) in Stainless Steel tanks and is released to the market quickly. It is perhaps designed for beachside sipping, however it would be perfect for some false (or real) Spring days!

Damiano Ciolli, “Silene” Cesanese di Olevano Romano, Lazio 2022

Damiano Ciolli is also the 5th generation to work the land where his grapes are grown. His story is a bit different, however. Coming from a long line of farmers in the Olevano Romano (just east of Rome), Damiano was the first in the family to refuse to sell the grapes and instead work with them himself. He started his winery in 2001 with his partner Letizia Rocchi (who has a PhD in winemaking & grape physiology). Today, the Ciolli family winery focuses on primarily the Cesanese grape and is, in my opinion, one of the masters of it.

This is the estate’s entry level Cesanese d’Affile, named after a wildflower that can be found in the fields (Silene Vulgaris). The two vineyard sources are 20-40 years old, grown on a mixture of red clay and volcanic soils. Fermentation is started with native yeast and the skins macerate for 10 days before pressing and aging for 1 year in concrete.

The resulting wine is laden with bright red fruits (bing cherry) and violets. It offers a touch of herbal, spicy, and smoky minerality. It is a bright, refreshing red with fantastic acidity for pairing lighter meats, vegetables, or drinking on its own.

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