Monday, 6 April 2009

Le Marche wines - suprising variety, unquestionable quality

In 2008 Italy overtook France for the first time since 1998 as the world's biggest wine producer, turning out 4.7 billion litres of the stuff. Now it's a little difficult to get one's head around such a number, so looking at it in terms of consumption is helpful.

Italy also happens to be the world's biggest consumer of wine (in per capita terms), perhaps not surprising given their proclivity to pair most (non-breakfast) food with a glass or so of fermented grape juice. In 2007 they bought 299 million cases or some 2.7 billion litres, around 57% of what they produced. Converted into everyday terms, that means each Italian older than 15 (including the teetotallers) drinks a bottle of wine roughly every five days.

Somehow that number seems low, but I think there's a good reason for that. There's a vast production of wine that never makes it into commercially sold bottles, let alone into the stores that peddle them - the ubiquitous home brew, product of so many vines growing on the side of the house, next to the road, down near the culvert, and a hundred other places that simply can't be left to bare earth. Our neighbours, for instance, make 400 litres a year, and drink it all themselves. Notwithstanding the fact that they're one of the larger farms around here, it's still of modest size when one thinks in terms of cooperatives and agricultural empires, so think how many litres that translates into nation-wide when one takes into account all the grape-growing neighbours of Italy.

But all that's really beside the point. It's Le Marche's wines that we're here to talk about. And what a conversation it is - the region's wine cellar is a treasure-chest of discovery, not least because their labels, blends and varietals are relatively unknown. Also, annual production is small by the standards of other regions - 181.5 million litres, or around 7% of the national production comes out of Marche.

But that doesn't mean it's inferior - far from it, in fact. For example, on the Associazione Italiana Sommelier (AIS - Italian Association of Wine Sommeliers) list of 5-star wines for 2009 (those that scored 91-100 points), Le Marche has 21 - only the Piedmont, Tuscany, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia have more. Much has changed in the wine industry here in the past 10 years or so - as it has in other parts of Italy - with cultivation and fermentation techniques undergoing research, improvement and modernization, old varietals being resurrected, international ones being introduced (or re-introduced in some cases), and overall quality rising steadily compared with 20 and 30 years ago.

The fact that Marche's wines are not as well known as those of other regions makes a visit here one of discovery and adventure for the taste buds. Sure wine-drinkers around the world may already know about Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi - perhaps as much for its striking green amphora bottle as for its verdant freshness - but there are many others worthy of attention, despite their probable anonymity outside Italy (and even Le Marche): Bianchello, Falerio, Esino, Maceratesi, Pesaresi, Pecorino ... and that's just the whites (which make up 62% of the region's production). Amongst the reds, there's also plenty to choose from, with Rosso Piceno leading the way in terms of production, and Rosso Conero and Lacrima di Morro d'Alba standing out in terms of depth and variety. International varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc are also now beginning to make a strong statement in the region's offerings, while area specialties such as Serrapetrona's Vernaccia and Loro Piceno's vino cotto continue to add another long-standing dimension to an already appealing array of wine products.

Some say Le Marche's selection of wines is reason enough to visit this wonderful part of the world, and I'd be hard-pressed to disagree (even though it has a lot more to offer). So when you pack your bags for a trip to Italy's best-kept secret, be sure to pack your palates - they'll be very glad you brought them along.

(There'll be more in future blog posts on specific wines and growing areas, so check back for periodic updates.)

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