TRECASTELLI, MARCHE, Italy — Having spent considerable time in the Marche region of Italy in recent years, it’s always a treat to happen upon young winemakers eager to pique the palate.
I first came to this region to discover the land where Bob Mondavi’s parents were born.
Not long after, I learned that one of the stalwarts of the Mondavi team — a blonde firecracker named Julie Prince who served as assistant to Margrit Biever Mondavi for a number of years — was also born in Sassoferrato, birthplace of Cesare and Rosa Mondavi. On one occasion, I accompanied Julie, her daughter and granddaughter on a special visit to the countryside of Julie’s birth.
During those trips, I had the good fortune to meet a charming couple, Rita and Umberto Ballanti, who serve as unofficial ambassadors of Sassoferrato, and can now call them true Italian friends.
In addition, I visited a winery on one of those trips where an enterprising young man served as a vital member of the cellar and vineyard team. Having spent some time in a California cellar, Marco Gozzi continues to work in that original Marche post. But since our first meeting he’s branched out — making his own sparkling wine and serving as a consultant to peers in the region.
When Marco recommends a wine to sample, a winery to visit, this wine fancier is all ears.
Just prior to the last harvest, Marco and I agreed to meet up for our annual summer beachfront dinner in Senigallia, a delightful seaside town on the Adriatic. But before we tucked into frutti di mare, I made some appointments — with the help of Rita and Umberto — to check out a couple of wine operations in the rolling hillsides nearby.
Brothers Andrea and Matteo Tomassetti, 39 and 30 years old, respectively, had spent considerable time in the olive oil business before deciding to branch out in wine.
They befriended a couple in their 70s who were looking for someone to take over their farming operation. There were four hectares of vines and another 16 with crops of farro, chickpeas and lentils. The Tomasetti brothers took over and converted the operation to a biodynamically farmed operation. They asked Gozzi to give them a hand in their new winemaking venture.
While there are plans for adding vineyard, says agronomist Matteo, at the moment the site contains two hectares of 50-plus-year-old sangiovese and Montepulciano grapes and two hectares of 45-year-old vines, mainly verdicchio and trebbiano, with a small plot of cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
The first wines from the Tomassetti brothers come from the 2015 harvest. Total production was 15,000 bottles, more than half of which was verdicchio. However, as their winery is located outside the tightly regulated DOC for this varietal, they have released it as Cercanome Marche Bianco IGT. It’s a refreshing white with lime leaf and fennel aromas, beautiful acidity and a splash of salt from the nearby sea. There’s also a rose, which is not typical for the region. Their Balia Marche Rosato IGT displays the expected ripe strawberry flavors of sangiovese, great acidity and memorable floral notes. The most unusual wine in the portfolio is Renudo Marche Sangiovese IGT, produced in a Beaujolais style. Employing carbonic maceration — 20 days without oxygen — gives the wine “freshness, drinkability and a little spice,” says consultant Gozzi. Deep purple, the wine also displays bright acidity and, rather than tasting like sangiovese, brings to mind another grape of the region, spicy Rosso Conero. At present, the Tomassetti wines are sold only in Italy. But the brothers are more than happy to set up tastings and an opportunity to purchase their wines if a trip to Marche is in your future.
Taking the reins
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Located in the rolling hills of the nearby Jesi district is a winemaking operation established by Andrea Felici on the heels of World War II.
Although octogenarian Andrea Felici shows no signs of slowing down, his son, Leopardo, has returned home to take the reins. Prior to teaming up with his father, Leopardo got good experience in the service end of the business, working at Gordon Ramsey’s Savoy Grill in London and Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence.
“My father told me, ‘Before you make wine, you must have an idea of the kind of wine you want to make. Go around the world and get experience,’” notes Leopardo.
He points out that his ancestors were farmers who grew both grains and vines. “The wine was sold in bulk to local families,” he adds. “It was a time of hard work and deprivation where most of the farmers were sharecroppers.”
The Andrea Felici winery is located in Apiro, one of the area’s highest and coolest microclimates that benefits from the cool breezes off the Adriatic and the fluctuating temperatures of the Apennines.
Focused on sustainability, Leopardo says the team spends “a considerable portion of our lives in the vineyard. We try to comply with its demands and thus allow its personality to emerge.” His father initiated organic farming practices more than a decade ago.
This is the land of verdicchio, cultivated for more than 600 years and the grape behind two of Marche’s most important DOCs—Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, to the west of Ancona and 20 miles from the Adriatic Sea, and Verdicchio di Matelica, farther inland and at a higher altitude, close to the Umbria border.
Verdicchio’s name is derived from verde, meaning green, referring to the yellowish-green skin of the grape, which gives the wine a subtle, greenish hue. It produces crisp, dry wines of naturally high acidity and often with hints of citrus and bitter almond. It is also well suited to the production of sparkling wine as verdicchio was one of the first Italian spumantes back in the 18th century.
Andrea Felici launched his own wine brand in 2003. From the family’s 10 hectares comes a pair of verdicchio wines. Total production is 67,000 bottles.
The largest production is Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore, a blend of eight vineyard plots that are a mix of young and old vines. Mint and mineral are apparent on the nose, with the wine’s bracing acidity evident through the lengthy finish, ending with that expected whisper of bitter almond. This wine retails for around $20 and, as it is imported here, available online.
The second wine, a single vineyard verdicchio made from 50-year-old vines, is a rich riserva that ranks as one of the top offerings of the region.
When it comes to verdicchio, Leopardo says it best: “It’s spaghetti with fresh tomato — it will never be boring.”