During an annual visit to friends in Le Marche in Italy, tasting the region’s exceptional wines is part of the daily regimen.
The most recent stopover — in the land known as the birthplace of Robert and Peter Mondavi’s parents — included visits to both a well-known verdicchio house as well as to a young winemaker carrying on the heritage of sparkling wine for which his birthplace is renowned.
Marco Gozzi is the latter, a native of Modena, best known for balsamic vinegar and Lambrusco, the sparkling red wine produced by the charmat method. He’s the production manager for Fattoria Villa Ligi in Pergola, where he not only helps the Tonelli family with its specialty, Vernaccia Rossa di Pergola, and a beautiful verdicchio bottling but also makes its Settecolli Brut Charmat, a round, toasty sparkler with lemon and apple notes on both nose and palate.
Gozzi is a university-trained viticulturist/enologist who’s gained experience from his apprenticeship and post-graduate days at Bellavista and Cavalleri, respectively, in Lombardy’s lake country, where Italy’s finest sparkling wine, Franciacorta, is produced. He worked harvests and yanked hoses around in others’ cellars — Germany and Italy — as well as the New World — from Sonoma County to Australia and New Zealand — before teaming up with Francesco and Stefano Tonelli at Villa Ligi.
His dues paid, Gozzi is not only making the brut for Villa Ligi — a steal at $7.50 a bottle — but he’s been quietly producing his own sparkling wine since 2009. In fact, his brand celebrates that first vintage — MG 09 Brut Metodo Classico. His claim to fame in both wines is a standup blend of chardonnay — a traditional grape for all sparkling wine — at 80 percent and verdicchio at 20, which brings pears, minerality and a hint of bitter almond to the fresh flavor of apples prevalent in the chardonnay.
“I’ve always used more chardonnay (for the cuvee),” says Gozzi, “otherwise it risks being overpowered by the aromatics of verdicchio.”
Gozzi has come a long way since he helped his father and uncle at 8 years old make the family’s sparklers in demi-johns in the cellar. The inaugural vintage of his MG 09 was only 800 bottles. With about 20 percent of the chardonnay going through malolactic fermentation, it’s an elegant sparkler — round, with a grain of minerality, tasting of green apples, stone fruit, even a hint of lime. There will be vintage differences, but it’s safe to say Gozzi’s spumante is worth seeking out if you’re traveling in Le Marche.
That’s because you can also taste the exceptional Villa Ligi wines at the same time. There’s the Vernaculum Pergola Rosso — a wine that thinks it’s a pinot noir — and the exceptional Vernaccia Rossa di Pergola from 50-year-old vines. This is an Aleatico grape that was brought to the region centuries ago, evolving into the clone, Pergola Aleatico Superiore. Yes — there are fascinating tales of the vine here in Le Marche.
When you’re invited into an Italian wine cellar, it’s a great day. If you get to meet Gozzi and the Tonelli family, you’ll not only get to taste and buy outstanding wines with a lot of bang for the buck, you’ll be charmed by their hospitality.
A hallmark verdicchio
One more reason for a wine tour of Le Marche is a Villa Bucci in Ostra Vetere, where some of the region’s impressive verdicchios are produced.
Located in the viticultural region of Castelli di Jesi, the Villa Bucci estate grew — in addition to grapes — sunflowers, peas, onions and corn. It has been in the hands of the present owners since 1930.
Verdicchio is the main grape variety on the family estate (with six vineyards totaling 30 hectares in size), with 5 hectares of Montepulciano and sangiovese also cultivated for Villa Bucci’s Rosso Piceno. Old verdicchio vines that average 35 years of age produce small yields of grapes (around half of what is typical for the region) and together Ampelio Bucci and long-time consultant winemaker Giorgio Grai produce some of the most compelling wines to leave the region each vintage.
Verdicchio produces some of Italy’s finest white wines when sufficient attention is shown to it. Such attention is shown by the winemaking team at Villa Bucci.
On a tour given by Ampelio’s niece, Claudia Porta, friends and I were treated to a tasting of a half dozen exceptional wines, including reds that I had not had before. The generous finish of Bucci verdicchio is present even in the wines not yet released, such as a 2012 that had only been in the bottle for a month.
The Villa Bucci Verdicchio Riserva comes from the oldest and best exposed vineyards and is only produced in the finest vintages. For example, there was no riserva in 2011, the grapes used in the larger Bucci verdicchio offering. The riserva undergoes 1½ to 2 years in Slavonian oak (50 and 75 hectoliter casks), then at least 1 year in the bottle prior to release.
Porta noted that it’s a white wine with many of the characteristics of a fine red. Its serving temperature, therefore, must not be excessively cool, especially for older vintages (best at 59 to 65 degrees), and the bottle should be uncorked at least half an hour beforehand. That’s because its lengthy élevage turns the wine’s primary aromas (grapes, flowers) into secondary and tertiary ones — spice, herbs, mineral notes, honey, almonds — that need to breathe at the proper temperature.
We tasted a 2009 (25 euros) that was simply intoxicating — a wine with big shoulders, a mouthful of apples, lemon/lime, with flinty notes and that telltale bitter almond finish. A finish, by the way, that’s still being written. So you can imagine what the 2007 riserva was like — not only what the 2009 has but with elevated elegance.
We also enjoyed the meaty, mineral and mushroom flavors of the 2011 Pongelli, a 50/50 blend of Montepulciano and sangiovese, and at peppery and long finish on the 2008 Villa Bucci Rosso Piceno.
It would be wise to make an appointment well in advance to visit either Villa Ligi or Villa Bucci. But if you’re headed to Italy, it won’t be a spur-of-the-moment trip.