Vinnie and I were driving through the countryside of the Marche on our way to the village of Offida. “You’ve heard of the bull run in Pamplona, haven’t you?” I asked Vinnie. “Yes but that’s in Spain so what has it got to do with us?” he asked. The answer is not straightforward. The Christian tradition of Carnival is about celebration before the period of abstinence that is Lent. One explanation of the word is that it comes from ‘carne vale’ or ‘farewell to flesh’ that anticipates the self-denial of meat and dairy products that is often a feature of the period recalling Christ’s period of fasting in the desert.
The Friday before the end of Carnivale, on Shrove Tuesday, Offida prepares itself by throwing a massive party. This festa kicks off in the early afternoon with two men dressing up as an ox, wandering the streets of the centro storico, and finally arriving at the main piazza where a large crowd dressed in traditional white robes awaits them. As the excitement grows, the ox becomes more and more wild and the atmosphere, fueled by large quantities of the red wine, becomes more and more frenetic. The day finishes with the ‘slaughter’ of the ox and the crowd carry the ‘carcass’ through the town to the strains of the carnival hymn. Now, in Pamplona men are seriously injured and sometimes killed but in Offida the worst injuries are sore heads the following morning.
All this postprandial carousing requires a not inconsiderable quantity of wine and fortunately there is plenty produced locally, Indeed, the town gives its name to a DOCG wine. To discover more, we travelled to the surrounding countryside to visit a small winery called La Valle del Sole where the Di Nicolo family makes both red and white versions. The first thing to notice is that the name is not the most appropriate as the winery is on a ridge not in a valley.
However, this location has its advantages as Alessia explained to us. There are vineyards on both sides of the country lane that runs past the cantina, along the edge of the ridge. On one side the vines face east, looking towards the sea, where the soil consists of sand and clay. The sun shines on them only in the morning and they are caressed by sea breezes and this suits the Pecorino grapes that grow here from vines which are 21 years old. On the other side, the vineyard looks towards the massive, austere beauty of the Monte Sibillini mountains and the soil has more clay. Here, they have vines of both Montepulciano and Passerina grapes up to 60 years old.
To understand a little more, Alessia briefly explained the history of the business. The land has been in the family since 1956 and the first vines were planted in the 1960s. In the 1980s they planted the Pecorino vines. This is a variety native to the Marche and the name, which translates as little sheep, apparently derives from the habit of sheep – of which there are many in the mountains of the Marche – of enthusiastically and frequently dining on the grapes. This is a low-yielding vine and in the past because of this it was not popular. But in recent years, with the resurgence of interest in native varieties, it has come back into production. In total, La Valle has 11 hectares of vines and produces around 40,000 bottles of wine per year, all certified organic.
I sampled two of their DOCG wines. The first was a white 2020 Offida Pecorino. The grapes for this wine are harvested by hand before being soft pressed and fermented in concrete vats. After fermentation the wine remains in concrete on the lees for six months. Concrete allows the same micro oxygenation as oak without adding tannins or other flavours. This neutrality enhances the appreciation of the flavours of the grape. After bottling, the wine rests for a further six months before it is released. Alessia suggests that this is a wine that reaches its best after two years and certainly it had a beautiful bright straw colour. The bouquet was delicate with pineapple and floral notes and in the mouth there was a light lemon flavour with a hint of salinity. This is a wine that would pair well with baccala or white meat.
The Offida Rosso was from 2018 and is made from 100% Montepulciano grapes. After fermentation on the skins, the wine again spends 6 months in concrete tanks but then is transferred to botte made from Austrian oak. Each of these huge barrels holds 24 hectolitres of wine, the equivalent of 3,200 bottles. Finally, it rests for a minimum of six months in the bottle. The colour is a dark ruby/violet and is almost impenetrable. On the nose there is the complex mix of aromas that you associate with time spent in oak. There is vanilla, liquorice, leather, as well as cherries and on the palate bitter cherry with tannins that are still strong. This is a wine that will age well. Red meat or mature cheese will pair well with this full-flavoured wine.
For the opportunity to explore these wines as well as this lesser-known but beautiful area of Italy, or indeed to join in the celebrations of the Bue Finto, or false ox, La Valle also offers accommodation.