What do you do if you’re a wine region that’s uncool? This is a question I think about a lot, as wines come in and out of fashion in an especially fickle way. One day you’re Tove Lo, and the next, you’re Robin Thicke. Do you scramble to adapt as, say, Priorat did in the early 2000s, shifting to ripe and trendy wines? Or do you keep things as they are, as Sancerre has, and service the beast (uncool or not)?
I mention this because I’ve been thinking lately about verdicchio, the fresh and mineral white wine of Italy’s Marche region. Verdicchio was cool the way David Hasselhoff was cool—peaking sometime in the 1980s and hunting a return to repute ever since. It came to visibility as part of that first wave of simple Italian white wines that Americans enjoyed in the pre-chardonnay era: Soave, Gavi, Frascati, Orvieto and so on. These wines provided a white counterpart to Chianti, or whatever was being sold as Chablis at the time.
Even there, verdicchio was a bit of an underdog compared to, say, Soave, although its association with the Marche’s maritime culture on the Adriatic gave it a reputation for a fresh, verdant, fish-friendly wine a good 15 or 20 years before Ligurian vermentino and Campanian falanghina became a thing. It was highly visible thanks to its thin, curved bottle; some producers took that a step farther, doubling down on the sea connection with a fish-shaped bottle that, predictably, didn’t do verdicchio any favors. And the predictable did happen: verdicchio fell into that bargain bin of Italian wines discussed mostly in the past tense. Even 15 years ago, it was clear that verdicchio had fallen on hard times, and needed to find a way to offer something more.
A bit about the wines, but first, a few quick details: The verdicchio grape itself tends to have that lemony, tart fruit flavor you want in seafood wines, along with a piney side that’s reminiscent of vermentino or Campanian greco. The wine can have a bit of trebbiano (a probable relative) and malvasia mixed in. Most come from the hills west of Ancona, and you’re mostly likely to encounter Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, sourced from vineyards west of the town of Jesi, located 12 miles inland. Jesi wines are mostly grown on limestone and that’s reflected in their frothy, bright flavors. Keep moving inland and you’ll encounter the 4,850-foot Monte San Vicino, which sets apart the Jesi area from the smaller Matelica area, which sits at higher elevation, with more marl-like soil and usually later ripening. A lot of Matelica verdicchio can be tepid, but at its best, it can offer more weight and power than Jesi.
So has verdicchio found a way to offer something more than its past would dictate? I wanted to know. While my fondness for the wine is sentimental, I’ve been thinking about it in part because I like to consider it an Italian alternative to French Muscadet—a wine utterly perfect for seafood.
Muscadet has been enjoying a quality revolution, and while it would be too much to say that the Marche’s beloved white wine is making strides as Muscadet has, there is progress. Our latest PUNCH tasting revealed that verdicchio has staged at least a modest comeback of sorts. Several higher-end examples, including those from Andrea Felici, La Marca di San Michele (Jesi) and Bisci (Matelica) show that the sort of transparent, deliberate white winemaking in fashion today—extended lees aging in concrete or old barrels—has made it to the Marche, and for the better. The notions of skin fermentation and amphorae have even been flirted with as well, though the wines are difficult to find in the U.S.
That said, there’s still plenty of verdicchio being made the way it was in its heyday—cool fermentations in steel tanks, early bottling—that follows a pinot grigio model: mediocre is good enough. And yet, the most deliberate basic examples, like that from La Staffa, show that a well-made, straightforward verdicchio is still a pleasure. That sat in counterpoint to a lot of wines that were watery and neutral, and a few that were just weird or tired.
But even when we encountered faults, it was clear that more could be made of this grape. So in the end, perhaps verdicchio’s future is a question of will—if not the will to be cool, at least the will to take itself seriously.
La Staffa Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico
It’s odd to call La Staffa a classic, in a way, as its owner Riccardo Baldi is well shy of 30. But in the town of Staffolo, nearly 25 miles inland from the coastal provincial capital of Ancona, he’s making clean, proper verdicchio that recalls the best of what these wines used to offer. Made from soon-to-be organic vineyards at around 1,300 feet, and fermented in steel, this is the right side of Classico: just a touch yeasty (we tasted a version that had left the winery not long before), with ample fruit flavors but also lots of acidity and a slightly resinous, sticky herbal aspect, reminiscent of marjoram. It’s not the most serious wine, but it takes itself as seriously as it needs to, which is to say, a lot more serious than verdicchio used to be taken.
- Price: $16
- Vintage: 2016
- From: Oliver McCrum Wines
Andrea Felici Il Cantico della Figura Classico Riserva Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi
A bit farther inland and higher up (1,700 feet) in Sant’Isidoro—not far from Monte San Vicino—young Leopardo Felici is doing something very different at his family’s long-established estate. Perhaps it’s because of his work as a sommelier in London and Florence that he has expectations for white wines, and that shows in this bottle from the functionally organic San Francesco parcel of 50-year-old vines. The grapes get a long, cold maceration on their skins and then a year aging on lees in cement, plus another six months aging in bottle. The result is uncommonly creamy and full for verdicchio, but texturally precise and apple-flavored, with accents of celery salt and oregano.
- Price: $25
- Vintage: 2013
- From: David Bowler Wines
La Marca di San Michele Passolento Classico Riserva Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi
The intent here is very much the same as at Felici, but with a much younger winery in Cupramontana and younger, organically farmed vines (planted in 2001), overseen by siblings Alessandro Bonci, Beatrice Bonci and Daniela Quaresima. The Passolento is their riserva, and both fermentation and aging is done in Slavonian oak casks—in this case for a full eight months with another nine months in bottle. There’s something reminiscent of the Ligurian grape pigato in it—marine, but with a resinous bite, plus mint and grey salt. Despite its mineral intensity, there’s just a bit of richness from peach fruit to soften its rigid core.
- Price: $32
- Vintage: 2014
- From: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant
2013 Bisci Vigneto Fogliano Verdicchio Matelica
Since its founding, in 1972, Bisci has been the winery fighting the good fight for its hometown of Matelica. Mauro Bisci, son of founder Giuseppe Bisci, is now in charge, and the Fogliano is his family’s single-parcel effort from a 1978 planting of four hectares. The winemaking is perhaps a bit conservative (fermentation and 15 months aging in cement tanks, and another three in bottle), but in good years, like 2013, the Fogliano shows not just what verdicchio can yield, but specifically what Matelica—often seen as the middle child of the Marche—has the potential to achieve. This is full of sweet peach flavors, a charcoal-like stony side and a polished, ripe texture, almost like Soave.
- Price: $22
- Vintage: 2013
- From: Marc de Grazia/Skurnik Wines