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The Heart of Umbria

On a pilgrimage to the famed Lungarotti Winery, editor Lettie Teague begins to see why Umbria so confounds Americans.
Although Robert Mondavi has built a wine empire that stretches all over the world, one place eluded him: the Umbrian hotel Le Tre Vaselle. Mondavi and Giorgio Lungarotti, who owned Le Tre Vaselle, struck up a friendship at a Paris wine competition in 1977. Several years later, Mondavi traveled to Torgiano, home of the Lungarotti winery and Le Tre Vaselle. But when Mondavi returned again and again, Lungarotti became suspicious. (After all, Torgiano was only a two-hour drive from Rome, but a 14-hour plane ride from Napa.) Mondavi finally admitted that he'd been trying to figure out how to re-create Le Tre Vaselle, a converted seventeenth-century manor, in California. By his third visit, he'd realized he couldn't. Said Teresa Severini, Lungarotti's daughter, "My father was so flattered, he sent Mondavi a pair of seventeenth-century Umbrian doors, like the ones we have at Le Tre Vaselle."

I was sitting in Teresa's office at Lungarotti headquarters as she told this story. I knew a fair amount about her late father--that he had created a wine called Rubesco, whose 1971 and 1975 riservas had been compared to great Bordeaux, that local shopkeepers still cried when his name was mentioned. But this was the first time I'd heard he was as generous as Elvis--who was famous for giving away his Cadillacs to anyone who admired them. I briefly considered mentioning how much I liked the light fixtures in my room at Le Tre Vaselle but resisted the urge. 

Not many winemakers build their own hotels--Piedmont's Angelo Gaja has been trying to (unsuccessfully, so far) for years. But then not many winemakers have the determination and will of Giorgio Lungarotti. Credited as the man who put Umbria on the world's winemaking map and hailed as a genius by the Italian wine press, Lungarotti had a vision of his native region as both a world-class winemaking zone and a top tourist destination. It was that vision that brought me to Torgiano--too late to meet the legendary Giorgio, who died a few years ago, but in time to see the spot he'd created and spend some time with his daughters, Teresa and Chiara, who are now running the show. And of course I was also hoping to taste a few of those famous '70s wines. 

Teresa, a 47-year-old mother of three, is Lungarotti's head winemaker, although she has the demeanor--not to mention the clothes and the hairstyle--of a CEO. Her 31-year-old half sister Chiara is in charge of the vineyards and Le Tre Vaselle. Chiara, who calls herself "a typical Italian: 30 and still living with my mother," looks like a college student--and, as I later discovered, drives like one too. Both women have worked for the Lungarotti winery since graduating from college in nearby Perugia. 

The two sisters split the responsibility for a lot more than a 200,000-case winery and a five-star 60-room hotel. In fact, Lungarotti holdings seem to take up much of the town. One block away from Le Tre Vaselle is the Lungarotti wine museum, housed in half of a baronial palace, with a collection of artifacts and ceramics that has been acclaimed as one of the best in the world. Much of the centuries-old collection actually came from the Lungarottis themselves, which goes to show just how long the family's lived here. A stone's throw away--a theoretical possibility as all Lungarotti buildings are stone--stands the three-story Lungarotti olive oil museum in yet another tastefully converted centuries-old building. (The Lungarottis could have a lucrative side business in historical rehab.) 

The olive oil museum, opened just after Giorgio's death, was an outgrowth of the family's other big business. In fact, the Lungarottis produce a private-label oil for retail giant Williams-Sonoma as well as an oil under their own name. Both the wine and olive oil museums were the work of the parents, Giorgio and Maria Grazia, a trained art historian. Maria remains actively involved in the family's enterprises; her touch can be seen almost everywhere, from the typography of the museum catalogs to the furnishings (all fabrics are Umbrian-made) of Le Tre Vaselle. 

The Lungarotti real estate portfolio also includes two guest houses, a pink nineteenth-century town house and a sprawling stone farmhouse, Poggio alle Vigne, a few miles from town. Then of course there's all that Lungarotti vineyard land, 500 acres that run from Torgiano practically to the city of Perugia. (The Lungarottis are Umbria's largest landholders.) Even the Torgiano businesses that don't belong to the family, the pizza parlor, the wine bar, prudently feature Lungarotti products in their windows. The effect is that of a vinous Disney World--certainly the town is just as clean and contained. Lungarotti's Torgiano, however, has more in common with the Taj Mahal than a theme park. But it was built, however, for the love not of a woman but of a wine: Rubesco. 

When Giorgio Lungarotti created Rubesco some 40 years ago, Umbria's reputation was pretty much limited to ceramics and St. Francis of Assisi (and to some extent the white wine Orvieto). Umbrian red wine was more like the punch line of a joke than a sought-after commodity. But Lungarotti, a frequent visitor to the great vineyards of France, was determined to make it an object of praise. Indeed, Rubesco, a blend of Sangiovese and Canaiolo, became the first DOC wine in Umbria. However, it was the single-vineyard Rubesco riserva, Vigna Monticchio, that made Lungarotti's reputation. Aged in oak for one year and in bottle for an extraordinary six to seven years (unheard of virtually anywhere in the world, save for certain wines made in Spain, such as Vega Sicilia), Vigna Monticchio is a wine that seems to have more in common with Burgundy than it does with Bordeaux. Indeed, the 1990 Vigna Monticchio (the most recent release) I tasted before traveling to Torgiano had a distinctly Pinot Noir­-like nose. It was soft and rich, though with none of the superconcentration now characteristic of so many modern Italian wines. 

It was on the way out of Torgiano, up the hills to the Monticchio vineyard, that I first discovered Chiara's aptitude for automotive speed. I'm convinced there are two types of women in Italy: elegant dressers and fast drivers. While Teresa certainly fit the first group, Chiara clearly belonged to the second--although she did wear her sunglasses glamorously Hollywood-style on top of her head. Chiara drove so fast that when we reached Vigna Monticchio, we went past it. Undaunted, she effected a 180-degree turn, which, I was impressed to observe, did nothing to dislodge the sunglasses from her head. In fact, even though the gently sloping vineyard and rolling hills beyond were beautiful in a bare, end-of-winter way, I found myself nearly as impressed by Chiara's well-anchored glasses. 

On the way back to town, Chiara described the improvements she and Teresa had made in recent years--new plantings, new clone types, new trellising--taking pains to emphasize that everything they did was but an extension of their father's efforts. "Giorgio helped to make Umbria, though he would never have admitted it. Teresa and I are only trying to enhance it," she said in a modest disclaimer. Indeed, Teresa also downplayed their recently hired consultant, Denis Dubourdieu, saying he was just "an old family friend from Bordeaux." (He happens to be one of the most highly regarded white-wine makers of that region.) She even refused to say much about the fact that the family had recently acquired land in Montefalco, an up-and-coming red wine district about 10 miles away. 

"It sounds to me like you're building an empire like the Mondavis'!" I remarked at the news. But Teresa just laughed, as if empire-building was something best left to Americans. Never mind that her family's museum was filled with Roman Empire evidence to the contrary. I was beginning to understand what had so confounded Mondavi. Perhaps it wasn't so much the challenge of replicating an Umbrian hotel, but that of trying to understand the Umbrians. But then, one of the first things that Chiara had told me was that "Umbrians are hard to get to know." Indeed, at a time when many wine producers send out a press release whenever they buy a new barrel, the Lungarotti daughters seemed reluctant to say much at all. 

They would, however, talk about wine. And even offer some for tasting. After all, in addition to Rubesco and Rubesco Vigna Monticchio, the Lungarottis make about 20 other wines, including San Giorgio, a Sangiovese- Cabernet blend almost as famous as Vigna Monticchio. It's aged just as long in barrel and bottle as the riserva, but styled more like Bordeaux than like Burgundy. There's also a rather bizarre Pinot Noir-­Cabernet blend created for the Canadian market, as well as standard-issue Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. The latter, Teresa says, is big in the American market. (All I can say is the Americans got the better deal.) I was particularly fond of Lungarotti's trademark white, Torre di Giano, a simple but delicious and refreshing blend of native Grechetto and Trebbiano grapes. 

The tasting that Chiara had arranged for me at Le Tre Vaselle began with a new white wine, Aurente, a Chardonnay-Grechetto blend that debuted last year. It was a rich, unctuous New World­-style wine, with a spicy Grechetto nose, which, according to Chiara, was what made it Umbrian. Then she produced several vintages of Vigna Monticchio, beginning with 1973. It was one of Giorgio's favorite vintages, she said. It was easy to see why: The wine was remarkably youthful, its nose pure Burgundian notes of cherry and earth, its color still impressively garnet, with only faint edges of age-revealing orange. Did the wine reflect the winemaker, her father? Chiara thought for a moment before replying. "The bouquet has its head in the clouds, but in the mouth it is very down to earth. That is my father." 

The 1982 that followed seemed a bit short and tart by comparison; Chiara rather improbably explained that this was because it was still young. Next came the 1992, nicely made but lacking the depth and interest of the 1990 I'd had back home. Finally, Chiara presented the 1995. This wine would not be released until fall and I would be the first journalist to taste it, Chiara said. Although it was rich and concentrated and surprisingly modern, I found it quite closed; it was certainly difficult to tell that it was the same wine as the 1973. I decided to ask Chiara, who had tasted many decades' worth of Vigna Monticchio to my paltry three, how she thought the 1995 would evolve. Did she think she and Teresa had made another 1973? Chiara just gave me the same smile that she had after warning me about Umbrian reticence: "We need to wait for what is in the bottle."

I wondered if her father would have said the same thing to Robert Mondavi.

Published May 2002
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