The city of Orvieto in Umbria sits atop a plateau of soft volcanic tufo in an easily defensible position. It was this that led Pope Clement VII to seek refuge in the city, following the sacking of Rome by the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1527. Understandably nervous after the events in Rome, he was anxious to ensure that the city could withstand a siege. With this in mind, he commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, a member of a famous Tuscan family of architects, to build a well and Antonio did not let him down. The well is 175 feet deep with a diameter of 43 feet at the base. The shaft has twin ramps in a double helix arranged to allow mules to descend down one to collect water and ascend on the other without obstruction, for water is the most basic requirement of life. Fast forward over 400 years and two scientists, Watson and Crick, discover that the basic building block of life, the DNA molecule, is a double helix, just like the well.
That’s all very interesting Vinnie chimed in, in a rather bored tone, but what about the wine? Well, Orvieto has its own DOC wine and to explore this a little more we went to a small winery, outside Orvieto, called Cantina Lapone. We were welcomed by the owners Piero and Ramona. Both born in Umbria, they are very proud of their heritage and rightly so. They have 35 hectares of land in a beautiful valley but only 20 are cultivated for vines, the remainder being left as woods. This brings its own problems as the wild boar that inhabit the woods have a taste for grapes and so they have had to install an electric fence.
Piero and Ramona began growing grapes in 2002 but it was only in 2011 that they began to make their own wines, with a modest initial production of 3,000 bottles. They now produce 30,000 bottles a year and Piero is happy with that; he does not foresee any further expansion. His winery is small but perfectly organised and we were privileged to see it in full operation as we visited just after the harvest had finished and the grapes were being fermented.
They grow 14 different varieties of grape including some red but this area is best known for its white wines produced on the volcanic soil and so we concentrated on these. The first and famous one is the Orvieto DOC, L’Escluso. In the winery we saw the Procanico grapes fermenting, unusually with the skins and stems. The final blend uses three other local grape varieties Greghetto, Malvasia and Verdicchio. The result is a wine with a deep straw colour with hints of green, probably from the 5% Verdicchio used in the blending. The bouquet is green apples with a hint of rosemary and in the mouth there is good acidity with red apples and a hint of salinity that is to be expected from volcanic soil. It would be a beautiful accompaniment to fish.
The 2019 Ramato that we sampled is 100% Pinot Grigio but with a twist and the clue is in the name. Rame translates as copper and Piero has left the skins in with the must for three to four hours to allow a beautiful golden colour, with a hint of copper to develop. On the nose there is ripe melon and on the palate pears balanced with acidity and a hint of salinity.
Piero also produces a Chardonnay that spends six months in steel before being bottled. The 2019 that we tasted has a pale straw colour with bouquet of green apples and elderflower and in the mouth peaches. Very rounded and balanced, again this is a good accompaniment to fish.
Finally, we tried Piero’s Verdicchio from 2018. The colour is a pale straw with hints of palest green. The bouquet is delicate with almonds and elderflower and on the palate there are flavours of lemon and pleasant hints of almond bitterness all balanced with acidity and some salinity. It also has a characteristic finish of bitter almond. A complex wine, this will go well with semi-mature cheese but try it also with lamb.
The setting of Catina Lapone really is a bucolic idyll and if you would like to sample it and the wines, Piero and Ramona offer accommodation as well. Here you are also close to beautiful Orvieto and Rome is less than two hours away by train if you so desire.