The fine wine world is increasingly taking stock of the great Italian white wines that are on offer, as their quality improves. One case in point is Verdicchio which often used to be just about the Anfora bottle and nothing else – this was a white wine that punters used to chill with ice cubes. One of Italy’s leading Verdicchio producers, Sartarelli, showed its latest vintages to wine consultant Douglas Blyde, who explains the background to the wines and why this Marches-based producer is consistently picking up the major gongs at the wine competitions.
The finest examples of Verdicchio can improve in the bottle for “at least as long as the average white Burgundy,” according to Peter McCombie MW.
In the run-up to its 50th anniversary which occurs next year, wine consultant Peter McCombie MW hosted a tasting of a quartet of wines crafted by Italy’s family-run Sartarelli winery. Summing up their unwavering focus to cultivating exceptional renditions of the grape, the Marches producer’s memorable motto is: ‘In Verdicchio Veritas’.
In his introduction, McCombie, who has visited the estate with fellow Masters of Wine, singled out Sartarelli’s late harvest Balciana Castelli di Jesi Verdicchio Superiore 1997 which, he said, helped put the variety on the world stage when in 1999 it was awarded both the White Wine Trophy and Italian White Wine Trophy at the International Wine Challenge. In 2020, and 20 vintages later, the 2017 rendition once again earned Sartarelli the trophy for the Best Italian White Wine at the International Wine Challenge – and was named as one of Decanter’s Top 35 White Wines of the Year.
Of the ‘highly adaptable’ variety, McCombie referred to author, Ian D’Agata who, in his comprehensive book, ‘Native Wine Grapes of Italy’, described Verdicchio as “arguably Italy’s greatest indigenous wine grape,” praise, said McCombie, which “might surprise people who only came across watery or neutral Verdicchio in those rather improbably anfora-shaped bottles.” It is a grape, participants of the Zoom event learnt, which ripens evenly and slowly while retaining a high level of freshness, with a marked lemon acidity and classic bitter almond twist on the finish. The finest examples can improve in the bottle for “at least as long as the average white Burgundy,” he added. And while skin contact added undeniable gravitas, the results, said McCombie, could tend towards being ‘coarse’, hence the practise has “by and large been abandoned.” Given Verdicchio takes its name from verde, expect green hints in both grapes and wine.
Verdicchio for ageing
Sartarelli was founded by one Ferruccio Sartarelli, a popular baker (one imagines Hovis in scale) turned entrepreneur, and, from 1972, vigneron. The business is today run by Ferruccio’s daughter Donatella, her husband Patrizio, and their children, Caterina, who is in charge of export markets while brother, Tommaso became the chief oenologist in 2017. As well as some 55 hectares of Verdicchio, the family tend six acres of olive groves. Since 2013, the nattily branded ‘Zero’ policy has been applied to the holdings, ensuring that no residues of synthetic chemical molecules can be found either in grapes nor wines. “In 2013, our company started our path of research and development applying it, at first, on a small plot until we have gradually extended it to all of our vineyards,” said the precise and rapidly-talking Caterina.
While Sartarelli has long focused on quality wines, the majority of other producers drenched albeit willing markets from the 1980s with unmemorable Verdicchio into which consumers could add ice to slake their thirst. However, such gentle examples became forgotten as Pinot Grigio from the Veneto inexorably rose in popularity. Thankfully, since 2006 “the Consorzio encouraged modern viticulture, lower yields and discouraged bottling by producers outside the area,” said McCombie. And by 2017, 66% of Verdicchio was “made by individual producers.” Coincidentally, wine lovers began to appreciate that good examples are capable of ageing which, said McCombie, “is one of the markers of fine wine.”
The Sartarelli estate is located in the tiny, sheltered, hilly region of Marches in central Italy between the Adriatic sea and the Apennines. Here, the focus is on Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi which, said Caterina, takes its name from the property which conquered 18 castles on 18 hills in the Middle Ages. Rather than its landlocked DOC neighbour, Verdicchio di Matelica, which is one tenth of the size, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi gains nautical influence in wines which are more likely to retain a higher freshness and lower alcohol.
Classico Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, 2020
‘An impressive vintage in terms of quality and quantity, a mild winter gave way to perfect flowering followed by heavy rain in June which was useful because of the dry winter,’ said McCombie. ‘Pleasing fruitiness, greenish stone fruit on nose, savoury, hint of spice, sapidity, olive juice on the nose, super fresh on palate, more exotic than the nose with a lively acidity and a bit of grip.’ This, said Catarina, was ‘an immediate wine.’
Tralivio Verdicchio dei Castelli dei Jesi Classico Superiorie, 2019
A gentle pressing from a ‘complicated growing season,’ said McCombie. ‘The dry winter wasn’t super cold, followed by a mild March. The warmth of April was interrupted by the switch into early summer which didn’t get super hot. There was hail but no loss of quantity.’ McCombie noted more colour than the first wine. ‘More intensity, ripeness, acacia, medicinal florals, broom, then a rich, full palate with power, substance, good acidity a longer finish and balance.’ It is a wine with staying power. ‘I would like to keep it.’ Catarina noted that rules state a Verdicchio can be termed a Classico until yields of 14 tonnes per hectare, while Superiore is registered until 11 tonnes per hectare; Tralivio however is harvested at a maximum of nine tonnes per hectare.
Next two vintages of Balciana Castelli di Jesi Verdicchio Superiore which is from a single 9.5 hectare vineyard producing a maximum of 15,000 bottles from advantageous years only. The first vintage in 1994 resulted from an experiment by Ferruccio Sartarelli to leave the grapes on vine longer, “to see what would happen,” said Catarina. The vineyard is harvested over 14 or 15 passes from September into November, with approximately 5-8% of grapes showing noble rot, “though we try to avoid it.”
Balciana Castelli di Jesi Verdicchio Superiore, 2018
The vintage was characterised by rain, snow, late frosts, and a very hot and dry August. Showing “extraordinary colour,” said McCombie, this was honeyed, exotic, smelling sweet: apricot, membrillo with an impression of botrytis, then rich, full, fruity, complex, musky but with a dry and interesting palate. 14.8% abv.
Balciana Castelli di Jesi Verdicchio Superiore, 2017
From “high temperatures – a long period with no rain which led to a drop in yield of up-to 25%,” this wine showed lower acidity, a bit higher alcohol at 15.5% abv, balsamic spice, exotic woods, power and weight, but balance.
Oak is not the Sartarelli style…
One key feature of all Sartarelli’s “five distinctive, unforgettable wines,” said Caterina, ranging from Brut to Sartarelli Classico which was first made in 1981, to Tralivio in 1990 from the oldest vineyards, single vineyard Balciana, whose first vintage was 1994 and the Passito, which was first released in 2006, is the total avoidance of oak. “It’s not our style,” said Caterina. “We did try using oak internally, though it covered the aromas, flavours and sapidity of our wines.”
Better instead to find the truth of the wine naked of wood.