The Obscure Whites Of Orvieto

12 May 2012
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The region around the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto produces Italy’s most famous white wine, found on Italian restaurant menus everywhere. What about Orvieto, that ubiquitous, innocuous dry white, possibly be considered unusual or obscure? As is so often the case, we must look back to the 1960s to find the answer.

Before then — indeed, ever since the Etruscans carved wine cellars out of the tufa underneath the city — Orvieto primarily produced sweet wines. These wines were not immune from the tradition-averse 1960s, and as tastes drifted towards dry whites, Orvieto winemakers drifted as well. Today, just 5% of Orvieto’s wine production is sweet.

As their wines became drier, winemakers moved away from the Grechetto variety which had given Orvieto much of its character, using ever more Trebbiano in their blends. And, as The Oxford Companion to Wine notes, “Like most blends with a Trebbiano base produced in substantial quantities…dry Orvieto tends to be a bland, pedestrian product.” Ouch.

But it’s not all bad news. The pendulum has begun to swing the other direction, and in the last 20 years, some Orvieto winemakers have been experimenting with using Grechetto blended with well-respected international varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

On a recent stay in the area, I had the opportunity to taste some of these newer blends. They weren’t your mama’s Orvieto.