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March 7, 2010

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White charmer from Umbria

IN the center of Italy between Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, and Lazio, the pastoral rolling hills of Umbria quietly offer some of the country's greatest gourmet treats.

Since pre-Roman times when the ancient Etruscan civilization settled in modern day Umbria, this region has been one of Europe's great food and wine centers.

The Etruscans are often referred to as the original gourmets of Italy who would gather in large groups and feast on local delights for days without stop. Some historians cite an overindulgence in food and wine as a contributing factor in the premature downfall of this great ancient culture.

Today it is famous for black truffles, superb olive oil, cheese, pork products, chocolate and wines.

The best-known Umbrian wine is Orvieto, a simple yet charming white very often misunderstood and under-appreciated in Asia. It is made with the trebbiano, grechetto, drupeggio and other Italian white grapes cultivated on the hills surrounding the hilltop village of Orvieto and adjacent towns.

Though sweet, semi-sweet and even red Orvieto wines are also made, the most famous is a light to medium body, dry white. Orvieto whites typically feature a straw-yellow color, enticing fruity and floral aromas and crisp peachy flavors. While not considered a serious or great wine, a good Orvieto white is an extremely pleasing and food friendly wine.

The fresh, clean nature of Orvieto whites make them natural companions to many Chinese seafood dishes including shredded jelly fish, Shanghai-style chilled crispy carp and deep fried squid. Many pork and chicken dishes also pair well. Orvieto whites make an ideal aperitif as they won't fill you and their good acidity is sure to stimulate the appetite.

In Shanghai or anywhere in Asia, I suggest choosing an Orvieto Classico instead of a standard Orvieto. The classico comes from the most select vineyards near the town of Orvieto and tend to have more concentration and structure.

This is important because the basic Orvieto, while charming when enjoyed in Umbria, does not travel as well as the weightier classico. All Orvieto wines should be consumed young while their aromas and fruity flavors are still fresh. These wines don't age well.

Several Tuscan producers make Orvieto Classico wines from their own or cooperating vineyards in Umbria.

These include Ruffino, Antinori and Carpineto and they're easy to find in Shanghai. Harder to find are those by smaller Umbrian producers like Barberiani and Conte Vaselli.


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