Vinnie and I were in the Italian region of the Marche, driving along the valley of the river Metauro and heading towards the Adriatic coast. As I explained to my loyal travelling companion, we were following the route of the old Roman road, the Via Flaminia, that finishes at the Arch of Augustus in the town of Fano. This town was originally a Roman colony built, on the orders of Augustus, by the architect, Vitruvius, whose surviving writings on architecture were to inspire generations of Renaissance architects, including the famous Andrea Palladio. Augustus dedicated the town to the Roman victory against the Carthiginian general, Hasdrubal Barca, at the Battle of Metauro fought in 207 BC. It is a measure of the importance of that victory that Augustus commemorated it over 200 years after the event. The invasion of Italy by Hannibal and his elephants is well known but the success that the Romans had in defeating his brother, Hasdrubal, who was arriving to bring reinforcements, was pivotal in the eventual Roman victory. So this is a region that is awash with history.
Today, this part of Italy remains relatively unknown to foreign visitors but for the wine lover there are good things to be found here. Known for both red and white wines, we went to find one of these lesser known gems called Bianchello del Metauro. Made from the Bianchello grape, this DOC white wine comes from a small area along the eponymous river. To learn more, we visited a winery called La Crespaia situated up in the hills at about 150 metres above sea level and only 3 kilometres from the Adriatic. Here we met the winery manager, Shayle Lambie-Shaw, who is originally from New Zealand.
This is a small enterprise of 10 hectares with an annual production of around 40,000 bottles per year but its lack of size is more than made up for in the care and knowledge that go into their wines. La Crespaia was started in 2011 by the owner, Rossano Sgammini, but there have been vineyards here for centuries. However, when Rossano took over the majority of the vines were Sangiovese; he had very different ideas and so the vines were replaced with Bianchello and the vineyards have been managed organically ever since.
La Crespaia concentrates on a small range of wines and I was able to taste two, the first being the DOC Bianchello del Metauro. After a careful hand harvest using small 15 kilogram baskets, the grapes are brought a short distance to the winery. This is a very compact arrangement – the winery is in the middle of the vineyards and so distances are small. After destemming and soft pressing, a temperature-controlled fermentation follows, at around 18 degrees, in stainless steel before it matures, again in steel, for about 6 months on the lees. The colour is straw and on the nose there are grapefruit and floral notes; on the palate there is low acidity with green apple. I think this would complement a seafood risotto perfectly.
The second wine was their DOC Bianchello del Metauro Superiore called Chairaluce. After a manual harvest this wine has its fermentation started using wild yeasts in a process called pied de cuve. In this process 10% of the grapes are harvested two days in advance and remain intact, allowing their yeasts to begin the fermentation before being added to the pressed juice from the main harvest. After fermentation the wine remains for nine months on the lees before being bottled. The result is a similar colour to the first wine but is fruitier with light citrus, low acidity, and also a hint of salinity from the nearby sea. This is a wine that would go well with swordfish and baccala or even pork. Shayle thinks this wine should have a life of at least 5 years and is probably at its best around 18 months after the harvest.
Controversially in Italy, both these wines come in screw top bottles which may upset some Italian traditionalists. I know these are used extensively in New Zealand but when I put this to Shayle she insisted that this was a decision made by Rossano before she arrived at La Crespaia. That being said, she does think that for white wines this method of closure works well. These reasonably priced wines will allow you to taste the essence of the northern half of the Marche, an area where the climate is noticeably different to the more Mediterranean south.