Verdicchio's shapely bottle may once have signalled low quality, but it is a great Italian grape, writes Christine Austin

When was the last time you went out to buy a bottle of Verdicchio?  Maybe you only bought it because it was on offer in a supermarket? The main problem with Verdicchio is that it is one of those Italian white wines that is light, refreshing and delicate, priced somewhere between £6 and £8 and is occasionally on special offer. It goes well with fish and salads and can be enjoyed on its own.  In short, once you have mastered saying the name, it is an easy, fairly innocuous choice for dinner.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise to me that Verdicchio is regarded as one of Italy’s greatest white wine grapes, capable of ageing for ten or more years and developing serious complexity.  Having only come across the light, lemony style of Verdicchio I set out to find out more.

The first thing to deal with is the name, which translates as ‘little green one’. It is pronounced ‘Vair-deek-io’ and it is usually described as Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, which is a mouthful even before you have opened the bottle.

The second part of the name translates as ‘castles of Jesi’ which refers to the many pretty hilltop towns, villages and castles that dot the region, surrounding the main town of Jesi.

Viewed from above, this part of the Marche – the calf of Italy’s boot – looks like a hair comb, with a series of valleys and rivers running east from the Apennine hills to the Adriatic sea.  Sea breezes blow in from the coast, keeping temperatures down and allowing the grapes to stay fresh and crisp.  At the head of the comb lies the hill of Matélica at around 400 metres high, where the geography changes, and this valley runs north south.  This hill has its own designation, Verdicchio di Matélica which is just a fraction of the size of its more famous neighbour, although the quality is high.  The style is different here because of Matélica’s altitude and distance from the sea.  Here the wines have more minerality and a more refined flavour.

Despite all those rivers and substantial hills, this whole area was once under the sea and so the sub soil is essentially limestone with clay more evident in the valleys.

One characteristic that makes Verdicchio stand out on the shelves is the bottle shape. Back in the 1960’s someone thought that Verdicchio should have a distinctive bottle and so the curvy amphora-shape was designed.  This easily-recognised shape was a key factor in driving the popularity of Verdicchio, but it has also been its downfall.  Just like the straw-wrapped Chianti bottle of old, the amphora shape became an indicator of low-quality Verdicchio.  Now the division is not so clear.  Some supermarkets have retained a version of the curvy bottle while others focus on the wine, not the bottle.  These days you need to pull the cork to discover the quality of the wine inside.

1960’s Verdicchio bottles – distinctive and curvy

Quality has been on the minds of Verdicchio producers for some time.  In recent years yields have been reduced and there is a new Riserva DOCG category that needs to spend time in oak as well as ageing in bottle. There is also a move to identify top quality zones and vineyards although this will take some time.  In a large region dominated by co-operatives, most of them making good wines, it is difficult for small producers to have an impact but it is well worth checking out the styles of Verdicchio on the shelves and finding out how they compare.

The key flavours of Verdicchio are light and lemony with mandarin zest notes and a touch of rosemary-type herbs with a definite minerally bite on the finish. Depending on the quality level there is also a textural quality, akin to biting the skin of a peach.  This texture gives the wine its affinity to pair with food, standing up remarkably well to all kinds of dishes, from creamy pasta to the fabulous stuffed, deep-fried olives that are a traditional dish of the Marche region.

If you haven’t tasted a Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC or its more elusive companion, Verdicchio di Matélica DOC for a while, these are some you should try. Once they become regulars on your table then it is time to move up to the aged versions of Verdicchio that qualify for DOCG status.

Moncaro Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi 2017, Waitrose £5.99

This is the wine to help you get acquainted with Italy’s best white grape variety.

Light and fresh with citrus, almond and greengage notes.  Team this with chicken and fish.

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico 2016, Marks and Spencer £8.50

This comes in a curvy modern version of the amphora bottle, but don’t let that put you off, the quality is high.  Definitely fresh and lively with a real sprinkle of herbs making this one to line up with a crisp, green salad.

Villa Bucci 2016, Verdicchio Classico Superiore, The Wine Society £6.75 for a half bottle

A fine wine to show the top echelons of Verdicchio.  Owned by the Porta family, this property has been organic since 2000 and they not only rely on cool breezes to keep flavours fresh, they spray clay on the vine leaves to act like a sun block.  I tasted through the whole range of these wines and carried one of them home to enjoy in sunshine.  Sensational wines with a real herbal, salty tang.  Once you get the taste, head to www.tannico.co.uk for a fuller range.

Caudia Porta at Villa Bucci

 

La Monacesca Verdicchio di Matélica 2014, Winearray, Boroughbridge £14.50

From a small producer on the hill of Matélica, based in an old monastery that was built 1200 years ago.  I tasted several vintages of this wine, all of them good, but the revelation was the 1997 wine.  It was still vibrant, with spiced nectarine fruit and a definite salty edge.  Served with a dinner of marinated rabbit and aubergines it was fabulous.

 

Visiting the Marche region

Unlike Tuscany, the Marche region is remarkably free of tourists.  You can wander around the hilltop villages, eat really well in the local restaurants and enjoy the coast without crowds. There are also the sensational Frasassi caves to explore.  If your Italian holiday takes a detour to the Marche, contact me and I will give you some pointers of what to do and where to eat.

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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