There are many fascinating things to see in Orvieto—the Etruscan necropolis, stunning frescoes in the cathedral, St. Patrick’s Well—all legacies of the city’s long and tumultuous history.
Set on the eminently defensible summit of a “large butte of volcanic tuff” in southwestern Umbria, the city is very old, founded by the Etruscans during the eighth and ninth centuries B.C.
Wine was a vital part of life and commerce in Orvieto from early times. Called Velzna by the Etruscans, the city is thought by some to be the spot known in deep antiquity as Oinarea, “the city where wine flows.” The Etruscans certainly made a lot of wine there, producing it in facilities with an ingenious three-level design. Workers crushed grapes in a ground-level chamber. The resulting juice flowed down through terra cotta pipes to the first cellar, where it fermented for about a week. The new wine was then transferred to a lower cellar for aging and storage. The ultimate beverage is said to have been aromatic, perfumed and golden yellow.
The Etruscans used wine for both quotidian and ritual purposes, as depicted in early frescoes. Archaeologists excavating tombs in the necropolis have found numerous containers used to store and serve wine, apparently buried with the tombs’ occupants.
Orvieto experienced its greatest prosperity during the Middle Ages. Its wine became the wine of the popes and was the principal resource for financing construction of the famous cathedral. Indeed, Luca Signorelli, who created the stunning Last Judgment frescoes in the Chapel of San Brizio, was paid 1,000 liters of Orvieto wine annually as partial compensation for his labors.
Orvieto is about 80 miles from Rome, and it was a convenient place for popes to repair when hostile powers threatened their home in the Vatican. Five popes lived in Orvieto at one time or another during the 13th century. They fortified the city, built themselves a fine palace, and in 1227, they established a school of theology at which Thomas Aquinas taught a few years later.
During the 16th century, Pope Clement VII ordered construction of a large well to ensure that the city would have access to water if besieged. Known as St. Patrick’s Well today, it is 175 feet deep and 43 feet wide. A spiral ramp winds down to the bottom, where a short bridge crosses the water. A second ramp spirals back to the surface. The double-helix arrangement allowed donkeys with empty containers to descend, be loaded with water and then to ascend without having to turn around or pass other animals.
Hailed as “the sun of Italy in a bottle” by poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, Orvieto wine traditionally was sweet. This no longer is the case. Dry wines predominate today. You may see the Italian word secco—dry—on their labels. Sweet or off-dry Orvieto whites, typically marked amabile or abboccato, make up only about 5 percent of production at present.
The regulations for Orvieto wine are flexible. The blends must comprise at least 60 percent Trebbiano (also called Procanico) and Grechetto grapes. In addition, they may include other “grape varieties not listed . . . but still authorized for cultivation in the regional or provincial level.” Many unusual (for this part of Italy) grapes are authorized in the region today, giving contemporary winemakers freedom to innovate. Wines are labeled Orvieto or Orvieto Classico depending on precisely where they are grown.
According to Gambero Rosso’s Italian Wines 2010, Argillae (argillae.eu) is a joint venture of the Bonollo, Di Cosimo and Ascenzi families. The estate is located in the hills northwest of Orvieto. In addition to Procanico and Grechetto grapes, the Argillae Orvieto DOC 2012 ($17) includes Malvasia di Candia, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It is a yellow-straw color and has a striking floral bouquet, apparent the instant the cork exits the bottle. Once the wine reaches a glass, subtle citrus and tropical fruit aromas become evident. In the mouth, the Argillae is rich, round and, at the same time, somehow ‘tangy.’ Its complex flavor evokes apricots and peaches—and, after a while, bananas. Argillae recommends pairing this wine with fish, white meats or with pasta dishes made with vegetables.
The Barberani (barberani.com) estate is located above Lake Corbara, about 10 miles from Orvieto. The Barberani Castagnolo Secco Orvieto Classico Superiore DOC 2011 ($17) is a lovely straw-colored wine with a refreshing bouquet of lemon and lime. Its round flavors of peach and lime are enhanced by subtle acidity and an attractive minerality. The blend includes Grechetto, Procanico, Malvasia, Drupeggio, Verdello—and perhaps even a bit of Chardonnay or Riesling, which the winemakers seem to have added in other vintages.
Palazzone (palazzone.com) takes its name from a medieval pilgrim’s inn near the vineyards. The Palazzone Campo del Guardiano Orvieto Classico Superiore DOC 2011 ($28) comprises 50 percent Procanico and 30 percent Grechetto as well as lesser quantities of Verdello, Drupeggio and Malvasia grown in a vineyard known as “The Warden’s Field.” According to Palazzone, it was aged 24 months in bottles “in a recumbent position in . . . tufa caves dug in ancient Etruscan times immediately below an ancient grove of chestnut trees.” This delightful wine is a rich yellow-straw color. Its bouquet evokes flowers and minerals with a hint of melon. Fresh and round in the mouth, it offers veiled acidity and some minerality. The importer recommends serving Campo del Guardiano with seafood or “complex” dishes. We enjoyed it with chicken Marsala (made with dry Marsala), which proved to be an excellent pairing.
The Palazzone Terre Vineate Orvieto Classico DOC 2012 ($16) uses the same blend of grapes as its sibling, though the grapes were grown in different vineyards. (Terre vineate appears to be a roundabout way of saying “vineyards.”) The wine is a pleasant straw color and offers a bouquet of grapefruit and lemon. The winemaker’s notes reference “a definite scent of hazelnut,” and we agree. This is a fruity and refreshing wine with flavors of melon, light peaches and citrus.
We tasted these wines in the dead of winter—a very harsh winter. Even in such trying circumstances, the wines evoked warm memories of lovely spring and summer afternoons in Italy. D’Annunzio was onto something.
Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Chicago. Questions or comments? Email Robert at RBCalvert@att.net.