Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi: one of Italy’s finest white wines

From crisp and gluggable entry-level wines to complex and earthy Riserva, characterful Metodo Classico, and luscious sweet wines, Verdicchio, the shining star of the Marche region in Central Italy, gives a plethora of different styles of whites suiting all palates.

Extreme heterogeneity within the Castelli di Jesi and Matelica areas, where the variety thrives, is the main factor behind its almost unparalleled versatility. When visiting Castelli di Jesi earlier this year, I couldn’t stop thinking about the connections between this region and Chianti Classico: exactly like in Tuscany’s most excitingly diversified denomination, dramatic variations in altitude, exposure, and soil composition result in wines that often convey a specific sense of place. If you are a savvy wine geek with a penchant for terroir-driven wines, then you will find plenty of excitement in discovering the different shades of Verdicchio! 

For sure Verdicchio hasn’t always been this exciting. The difficulties producers still face in earning the recognition they deserve derive from the common association with cheap and unpretentious wines retailed in glamorous amphora-shaped bottles that became wildly popular from the 1970s onwards (especially in the United States). 

While approximately four million bottles of such wines continue to hit the shelves of convenience stores every year, most wineries have at least partially moved on from that model. Even cooperatives from the area have undertaken the qualitative revolution, and make technically impeccable wines that often stand out for their excellent quality-to-price ratio. But the real stars of the local scene are the dozens of talented small producers who make tiny volumes of characterful wine –  attractively bright and zingy in their youth but also prone to aging gracefully. 

(Credits: Visit Montecarotto)

Discovering Verdicchio 

The name Verdicchio derives from the word “verde” (green) and refers to the greenish color of the bunches. It also seems to hint at the profile of the wine, which often displays delicate herbal aromas deriving from thiolic compounds. Synonyms of Verdicchio include Trebbiano Verde in the Lazio region and Trebbiano di Soave in Veneto region. Recent studies have also proved Verdicchio to be genetically identical to Turbiana, the grape that gives Lugana in the surroundings of Lake Garda.

As mentioned above, what the grape stands out for is mind-boggling versatility: no other Italian native variety is equally capable of giving any kind of white wine. 

According to Daria Garofoli, the co-owner of one of the most famous wineries in the area, this is due to the intrinsic features of the grape: “ the thick skin and sparse bunches of Verdicchio minimize disease pressure and allow the grapes to ripen slowly – explained she – you can harvest them in late August and make sparkling wine, or wait until noble rot affects them in late September or early October and make sweet wines that still retain noteworthy acidic grip.”

Equally surprising is the fact that such wines also manage to exude varietal character in the face of enormous stylistic differences: defining Verdicchio as an aromatic grape would be a bit misleading yet you always get a distinct almondy, leafy and slightly nutty character that results in the wines being different from anything else made with the same techniques at a global level. Not even Metodo Classico bottle fermentation undermines varietal character: the strength of Verdicchio-based sparkling wines lies precisely in their ability to go beyond the usual notes of autolysis and speak of the grape rather than the process. 

Another strength of Verdicchio is tremendous longevity, which has long been disavowed due to producers preferring to cash in quickly.Only a few wineries boast a historical archive with old vintages, although in recent years an increasing number has begun to set bottles aside. Some of them also release the wines later than before, seeking more balance and aromatic breadth.

 From my experience, I can say that most quality Verdicchio reaches its peak between seven and ten years after harvest. Riservas continue to drink well for at least five years from then before beginning to oxidize. 

The vineyards at Santa Barbara

Discovering Castelli di Jesi 

Lying right in the middle of the Marche region, Castelli di Jesi and Matelica are the main production areas for Verdicchio.  Divided by San Vicino, the easternmost mountain in the central Apennines, these two denominations provide completely different growing conditions making for radically opposite wines. 

During the first edition of the anteprima held by the Istituto Marchigiano di Tutela, we took a trip to Castelli di Jesi, so I am going to stick to that area in this article. But you can find some information on Matelica in the Marche section of the website. 

Castelli di Jesi stretches along the banks of the Misa and Esino rivers, the vineyards lying on verdant hills degrading towards the Adriatic coast. With 2,230 hectares scattered across twenty-five townships, this area makes the lion’s share of the total production: the sole Classico area, which covers the historical core of the denomination, accounts for roughly 80% of the total Verdicchio output.

Maritime influence is the key factor that shapes the climate of Castelli di Jesi:winds blowing from the Adriatic sea make for a temperate and healthy growing environment. As you go towards the Appennine chains to the west, rolling hills give way to steeper slopes that rise all the way up to 600 meters above sea level (1968 ft).  In the farthest inland areas of the denomination, you will often find yourself surrounded by a mountainous landscape dominated by oaks yet the blue waters will often glimpse on the horizon, reminding that the coast lies no more than an hour drive away and the breezes reach even the most remote corners of the valleys, ensuring perfect maturity. 

Outlining an archetypical profile for Verdicchio dei Castelli Jesi is far from easy: perhaps the entry-level segment offers the greatest stylistic consistency. Leaving amphora-bottled wines aside – even though they contain considerably better-made wine than in the past – wines labeled as “ Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi” (and usually referred to as “Annata”) are usually bright and easygoing, offering flavors of lemon zest, bitter almond, nectarine or honeydew melon allied to an appealing herbal quality. Delightfully crisp – but rarely too tart or too light – they are extremely versatile with seafood cuisine.

The variability is considerably greater in the upper tiers of the qualitative pyramid. Harvesting period, lees aging and oak influence are just some of the factors that must be taken into account when assessing Verdicchio dei Castelli di Superiore – technically only defined by slightly higher alcohol than the Annata category but usually coming from better vineyards – and Verdicchio dei Castelli Riserva (requiring minum 18 months’ aging).  Fermentation in oak may result in creamier and velvetier wines recalling old world Chardonnay, while examples that refine in stainless steel or larger oak often bear more resemblance to riper and drier styles of Riesling. And we are not even considering dry versions from late-harvested grapes – at times even affected by a little noble rot – which boast Auslese-like honeyed and spiced complexity while retaining a bone-dry and mineral-driven structure. 

Anyways, the best examples owe their distinctive personality to the site of origin, regardless of winemaking style. For instance, the most successful versions from higher elevation vineyards (500-550 meters) in the villages of Montecarotto, Arcevia, Apiro or Cupramontana display more pronounced herbal aromas and a slim mouthfeel lifted by sharp acids. By contrast, the wines from the town of Morro d’Alba closer to the coast are considerably richer and more textural. Unfortunately, though, the only way to understand such difference without uncorking the bottles is looking at the address of the winery and trying to find its location on a map. Luckily that is likely to change in the upcoming years: “ We are conducting studies together with the Universities of Ancona, Milan, Bordeaux and Brescia with the aim of mapping the vineyards in this area – explained Alberto Mazzoni, the president of Istituto Marchigiano di Tutela, the body that rules wine production in the Marche region – this will eventually lead to the creation of Additional Geographic Units.”

Ampelio Bucci (credits: FIVI)

Pioneers of Verdicchio

With over 500 active producers within the denomination, tracking everything that is going on in the Castelli di Jesi area is very different. However, a few stars shine in this fragmented galaxy: 

  • Bucci: Credits for kick-starting the qualitative revolution go to Ampelio Bucci, a visionary producer who left the fashion industry to rescue the winery previously run by his parents in Ostra Vetere, a little town on the banks of the Misa River, no far from the Adriatic coast. From the very beginning, Ampelio promoted a shift in viticultural practices by drastically cutting yields, retrieving old vines and embracing organic farming. Along with winemaker Giorgio Grai, he conceived Villa Bucci Riserva, the first Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi to earn international accolades (starting from the 1983 vintage). Still to this date, this is one of Italy’s one best white wines : traditionally-styled, with aging occurring in large oak casks, incredible age-worthiness is its main calling card: it starts out slightly reductive and a bit shy, then blossoms with cellaring. During a retrospective held in 2018, I had the privilege to taste back vintages that could be easily mistaken for top-notch Burgundy.
  • Santa Barbara: Stefano Antonucci is another pioneer in the Castelli di Jesi area. His highly successful wines are more modern than those by Bucci, drawing inspiration from international styles and usually showing a touch of well-integrated oak influence, which accentuates the textural richness given by the mild growing environment of the township of Barbara. Roughly 50% of the production is sold internationally. 

Other pioneering wineries include Sartarelli, Umani Ronchi, and Garofoli. The wines by the latter producer showed especially well this year. Born as a supplier of bulk wine to osterie welcoming pilgrims visiting the sanctuary of Loreto, Garofoli has become one of the big names in the regional wine scene. While they still produce amphora-bottled wines for some markets, their top-notch expressions of  Verdicchio, Podium, Serra Fiorese and Selezione Gioacchino Garofoli, deserve a spot among the best wines of the denomination. The Garofoli family also does a great job in holding back top-shelf wines and releasing them when they are ready to drink. 

As I already said in the introduction, some of the regional cooperatives are doing a great job in shifting from producing large volumes of uninteresting wine to pursuing higher quality. Just to make an example, Colonnara makes a top-notch Metodo Classico, the name of which, Ubaldo Rosi, hints at the long tradition of making sparkling wines from grapes on cooler sites in the surroundings of Cupramontana: a land surveyor by profession, Rosi was was the first to employ Verdicchio grapes in the production of Metodo Classico sparkling wine in 1843.

The nouvelle vague of Verdicchio

The beauty of Castelli di Jesi lies in the wide variety of options for those seeking little-known gems from artisanally-minded producers. On this occasion I was especially impressed by the wines of the following producers: 

  • Broccanera: farming only 5.5 hectares in the township of Arcevia, where vineyards peak above 600 meters and are surrounded by a mountainous landscape, Giorgio Santini produces tiny volumes of characterful low-intervention Verdicchio, including a delightful bottle-fermented sparkling wine that spends a whopping 65 months on the lees and still exudes varietal freshness. 
  • Buscareto: Owners Claudio Gibellini and Enrico Giacomelli quit a successful career in the IT sector to become full-time wine producers. With the aid of Umberto Trombelli, an apprentice of the late Giacomo Tachis, they produce Verdicchios endowed with staggering precision and laser-like tension, reflecting the cool growing environment of their forty-hectare-estate in the township of Arcevia. 
  • Col di Corte: The four co-owners of this tiny estate are hard-knocks vignerons, farming vineyards organically and opting for spontaneous fermentation, aging in concrete and bottling without filtration. Even so, the wines are absolutely flawless and especially captivating.
  • Marotti Campi: Lorenzo Campi is the benchmark producer in the town of Morro d’Alba. Beside critically-acclaimed Verdicchio, he also crafts top-notch Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, a quirky red wine made with the namesake aromatic grape. 

Vintage assessment

While the vast majority of the denomination’s production continues hitting the market no later than six months after harvest, quality-oriented producers have acknowledged the importance of longer aging in recent years. In fact, most of the Superiore wines tasted during the event – which was held in the second half of June 2023 – belonged to the 2021 and 2020 vintages. Making general statements about the outcome of a vintage in such a fragmented area is always difficult yet the 2020s are showing really well right now. The best example from this vintage owe their overall poise to a balanced season, while the 2021s are slightly richer and sometimes a tad simpler. 2019 was an excellent vintage all over Italy, and the late releases boast terrific balance between ripe fruits and acids. 

Check out the best Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi to try from recent vintages