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Although the wines of Northern and Southern Italy get all the attention, big changes are also occurring in Italy's belt, the region extending from Rome across the narrow peninsula to the Adriatic Coast.

Lazio (or Latium), the region centered around Rome, Umbria to the northeast, and Abruzzo on the Adriatic have long produced vast amounts of wine, but have not much garnered critical attention in recent times.

That's changing as new blood seeks to establish — or replace — these regions in the upper reaches of Italian wine production.

The three regions couldn't be more different, however. Although central Italy is only about 160 miles from Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic Sea, the massive Apennines backbone of the peninsula reaches almost 10,000 feet altitude, and the east and west are very different.

Once the world's most famed

The wines produced in the region of Lazio around Rome were once the best known wines in the world.

Falerno was the most famous wine of antiquity, and the area's white Frascati and Est! Est!! Est!!! were wildly popular in America in the 60s and 70s.

Sadly, their reputations slipped as wineries expanded production to meet demand, planting prolific grapes offering high yields instead of quality.

That era has mostly ended, and many wineries in Lazio are now producing excellent wines once again, although their reputation lags the product.

The wineries are also experimenting with new varieties and re-discovering their once-proud heritage, including red wines. Although many Americans associate Italy with red wine, Lazio, like many Italian regions, produces far more white than red.

The area's vintners have traditionally created a sea of cheap Frascati in the mountainous Colli Albani area 10 miles south of Rome, and shipped it to the Eternal City to wash down the area's hearty cuisine.

Today's 20 producers range from small family wineries to huge Fontana Candida, which makes about half of the bottled production of Frascati (750,000 cases).

The grapes used include both high-yielding Malvasia and Trebbiano, plus, increasingly, better traditional grapes. The producers use little oak so the wines reflect the grapes rather than barrels and most of the wine complements food without dominating it.

Among the better producers of Frascati besides Fontana Candida are Casale Marchese, Castel de Paolis, Conte Zandotti and L'Olivella.

The Napa phenomenon in Lazio

As in Napa, wealthy outsiders with a love for wine are establishing and restoring faded properties.

One example is Casale dell Ioria, a hilly property in southeastern Lazio owned by Paolo and Erminia Perinelli. They produce high quality wines from indigenous varieties like red cesanese and white passerina.

The estate of Paolo and Noemia d'Amico lies high above limestone canyons in Lazio's northeastern Tuscia region. The Neapolitan shipowner and the Brazilian former model and cosmetics executive have melded ancient and new buildings including caves, tunnels and an old tower spread over 650 acres to produce traditional and innovative wines.

Est! Est!! Est!!! and northern Lazio

Besides Frascati, the most famous wine from Lazio owes its fame more to its unusual name than the wine itself.

The story goes that in 1111 A.D., a German bishop was sent out from Rome to look for good wines, and was to mark "Est" (it is) on the door of any he found. When he got to the ancient village of Montefiascone on the shores of large Lake Bolsena north of Rome, he was so impressed he labeled it Est! Est!! Est!!!.

Until recently, the wine rarely lived up to its reputation, though some producers like Mazziotti, owned by a Roman doctor, are making good Est while developing other wines.

The biggest force in the improvement of Est! Est!! Est!!!, however, has been Riccardo Cotarella, a famed winemaking consultant who assumed production of Poggio del Gelsi Est wines in 1966.

Since then, the wine has dramatically improved. Perhaps more significantly, Riccardo and his brother Renzo, head of winemaking for giant Antinori of Florence, now make excellent red wines under the Falesco name from northern Lazio and nearby Umbria including popular Montiano merlot.

Now many other local wineries are producing fine reds from sangiovese, Italy's most widely planted red, from international grapes like merlot, and from red varieties that were once popular, such as aleatico.

Umbria, the new Tuscany

Northeast of Lazio and southeast of Tuscany lies brooding Umbria. The only landlocked region in Italy on the peninsula, it's a beautiful land of hills and mountains, dramatic subdued colors and ancient cities and towns.

Much of Umbria has been very poor, and many outsiders unable to buy land in chi-chi Tuscany have bought abandoned villas and castles to restore into showplace estates and inns.

These include a number of impressive agri-tourismos, rural inns on farms that produce their own wines, olive oil and other products. These include Agritourismo Podernovo, Relais Todini and Tenuta di Corbara, all elegant inns with magnificent restaurants in dramatic settings.

These aren't rustic farms, but sophisticated small hotels, and they're the perfect place to stay to experience Umbria. Todini even has a private zoo that guests can visit, while Corbara boasts multiple restored farmhouses on a giant U circling the restaurant and inn. That's only a small part of its huge estate, which also includes a pink castle overlooking Lake Corbara that may eventually be turned into an upscale hotel.

Like most of Italy, Umbria has long produced wine, but little was renown.

Orvieto, perhaps Italy's most impressive hill-top town, gave its name to the best known Umbrian wine. The drinkable white, like so many other wines in Italy, is being upgraded by producers reducing yields and otherwise improving quality to appeal to international markets. Bigi is a big and reliable producer of Orvieto but also makes approachable reds. La Carraia is a smaller winery with fine reds and whites.

White Grecchetto, a traditional component of Orvieto, excels alone, too, and makes a crisp wine perfect with a variety of food.

Even more exciting than the drinkable whites are Umbria's new reds, as might be suspected from the climate and soils. Again, the Cotarella brothers have had a big impact, especially with their Falesco Vitiano, which created a revolution in inexpensive Italian reds.

Another big force is Antinori, whose winemaking is managed by Renzo Cotarella. It produces mostly white wines at Catello della Sala near Orvieto.

The most famous reds of Umbria are big sagrantino di Montefalco and lighter Montefalco rosso, but many producers emulate nearby Tuscany, using sangiovese, normally blended with other grapes as is traditional to provide depth. Experiments with international grapes abound; Franco Todini, for example, makes an excellent blend of cabernet and merlot called Nero Cervara.

Colpetone, a new producer, is completing a state-of-the-art winery to produce red Montefalco and sagratino wines from its 300 acres.

Abruzzo goes its own way

Abruzzo, known in English by its plural name, Abruzzi, is one of Italy's least-visited regions. The large area on the eastern coast slopes from the high Apennine mountains to the Adriatic Sea, producing a wide variety of growing conditions.

As might be imagined for an area fronting the sea, Abruzzo produces superb seafood, yet it is best known for its reds, notably Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, apparently a clone of sangiovese that produces deeper color and more intense flavor than the better known version from Tuscany.

One of its region's specialties is a delightful deep pink rosé called Cerasuolo, which local producers don't even want writers to try since they complain that no one else will buy it. They should.

Though Abruzzo's best known wines are reds, it's trying to become better known for its whites as well. These come from trebbiano, Italy's most popular white, and, increasingly, from chardonnay.

Two wineries in Abruzzo have gained wide recognition for making exceptional wines. One is Masciarelli, who seems to share the talent for promotion along with making fine wines. He names his lighter wines after his wife and partner, Marina Cvetic. They produce exceptional wines from both international grapes like chardonnay and cabernet, as well as local montepulciano and trebbiano.

Likewise, Edoardo Valentini's wines are almost cult favorites.

Many other wineries in Abruzzo also make fine wines, and most are bargains for their quality.

Many come from dedicated newcomers to winemaking whose drive to produce great wines would be familiar here. They include Valle Reale, Marramiero, La Valentina, Nicodemi, Villa Medoro and Illuminati.

Bosco Nestore is an old-time family winery while Azienda Agriverde is a sparkling varied estate that also contains a renowned spa, inn and restaurant.

Even old co-ops like Frentano are upgrading their wines to appeal to wider tastes, though their prices remain almost embarrassingly low.

Molise

Molise, south of Abruzzo on the Adriatic, is even less known than its northern neighbor. Still, some producers here are making exceptional wine among a flood pleasant to drink when you're in the area — as few visitors are.

Standing out is Di Majo Norante, which specializes in wines made from traditional, even ancient, grapes such as falanghina, fiano, greco, aglianico and prugnolo. It also uses some montepulciano and Sangiovese for reds.

Other quality producers in Molise include Borgo di Colloredo and Masserie Flocco.

Great buys for meals

Wines from the central belt of Italy range from pleasant to superior, but almost all complement foods well and are great bargains compared to the well-known wines of Tuscany, Piedmont and other better-known regions. Other than Orvieto and Frascati, they're not too easy to find here in Napa Valley, but a few stores like JV Wines and Spirits and Vineyard Outlet are good places to start. Our many Italian restaurants feature them too.

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