Orvieto is built on a plateau of volcanic rock, overlooking the Tiber valley, where it stoically watches over the Autostrada del Sole and a steady stream of tourists passing by between Rome and Florence. This is a shame because Orvieto is a charming town and definitely worth a visit. The beautiful frescoes by the Tuscan artist, Signorelli, in the San Brizio Chapel of the Gothic cathedral are said to have inspired Michelangelo and really do merit a visit. The scene of the resurrection of the flesh with the archangels calling the dead to judgement is an essay in draughtsmanship. Next to it, in the dreadful scene of the damned, the artist painted himself as a lascivious one-horned devil lunging after a voluptuous sinner so perhaps he wasn’t taking it too seriously.
In the surrounding countryside you can find some beautiful white wines, principally the Orvieto Superiore, and this was to be the next stop for Vinnie and myself. Deep in the countryside, and not far from Orvieto or the Autostrada del Sole, the winery, Madonna del Latte or the breastfeeding Madonna, is named after the house it is built around which, in turn, was named after a small chapel on the edge of the grounds.
We were welcomed by Ruta and Leon who were happy to show us around this small estate that, from four hectares of vines, produces around 20,000 bottles of wine per year. The house was bought as a ruin by Leon’s parents and it has been meticulously restored. Possibly the most unusual feature is the huge cellar. This was discovered during the restoration and was full of accumulated rubbish. Having been laboriously cleared out, the resulting space is reminiscent of an Etruscan tomb although it is impossible to date it with any confidence. What is certain is that, excavated into the soft volcanic tufa, it provides perfect temperature and humidity for the wines stored there in barriques of French oak.
Leon is justly proud of what has been achieved here. He brings a wealth of experience to the estate, first training in Austria and thereafter working in the wine industry in California and New Zealand. The estate is run with scrupulous care for the environment and, walking around, the air is rich with the sounds of bees and other insects, with the perfumes of a myriad wild flowers. Amongst the olive trees the wild grasses and flowers, rather than being strimmed to within an inch of their lives, have been allowed to flourish and provide a haven for the wildlife. Even the latest extension to the wine-making facilities has been built into the hillside, covered in a thick layer of soil and topped with solar panels which power the estate, all in an effort to minimise its environmental impact.
For such a relatively small property they grow a large selection of grapes here with famous international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon alongside lesser known vines like Viognier. But we were there with a specific purpose in mind, ie to sample the Orvieto Classico Superiore. This is a wine that sadly, in the wrong hands, can be very ordinary. The rules for production are unusually generous in that they specify only that 60% of the wine must be Grechetto or Procanico. This allows producers to swamp more delicate flavours with an overdose of varieties like Chardonnay.
However, Leon would never countenance such an approach and alongside the two specified varieties he blends Verdello and Drupeggio. The result is an essay in the beauty of the countryside that produced it. A pleasing pale yellow colour with a hint of green the perfumes are full of fennel, rosemary and wild grasses. On the palate, underneath the flavours of white flowers and wild herbs, it is pleasantly acidic with the hint of saltiness that comes from the minerality of the volcanic rock that the vines are grown in. Ideal as an aperitivo or an accompaniment to fish or white meat, Leon also suggested pairing it with fresh goats’ cheese. Whichever you choose, this is an Orvieto Superiore that will not disappoint and for me will always conjure memories of the Umbrian countryside in summer. The wine-tasting area is very pretty on a warm summer’s afternoon and that, coupled with a wonderful wine, made it an afternoon to be savoured.
Madonna del Latte is hopefully an indicator of where we are heading, namely small producers such as Leon, with a real passion for forgotten grape varieties, making exquisite wines for the sheer love of it. Call and book a wine-tasting. You won’t regret it.