Italians are known for opening home and heart to visitors. And Italy’s wine cellars will be opening their doors and vineyards to visitors the last week-end in May. Bottles of crisp whites and robust reds will be uncorked for the thousands joining in on the festival, Cantine Aperte (“Open Cellars”). Launched in 1993 by the Movimento Turismo Vino, Cantine Aperte aims at the diffusion of the culture of wine and the promotion of familiarity with Italy’s great wine regions. Bringing to life the slogan “Vedi che bevi” (“See what you drink”), last year over nine hundred Italian wine cellars – nearly fifty just in Umbria – welcomed more than a million visitors. at the end of May. In Umbria, le cantine welcomed an estimated 70,000 visitors over two week-ends rich in events.
Umbria’s cantine offer guided vineryard walks with an agronomist, jazz concerts, literary events with wine themes, art shows, tastings of local foods best paired with their wines, helicopter rides over the vineyards at one Umbrian cellar and a bocce tournament in the vineyards of another.
We headed to Cantine Zanchi, outside of the medieval walls of Amelia, southern Umbria (close to the Latium border) where brilliant green vineyards fanned out downhill in front of the cellars in stark contrast to a slate gray sky that day.
We lined up with a few others at the entrance table, paying a small fee for the wine glasses tucked in a cloth bags which we’d use to taste wine varieties (and then take home) and for our enometro (literally, “wine measure,” i.e., chits for wines we’d taste). Nearby, a clutch of animated young people – black cloth wine pouches around their necks – shared chuckling chats between wine sips and all shouted an enthusiastic “si!” when I asked for group photo. While I was taking a photo of the emerald green vineyard expanse below us – a red tractor adding a color splash – a young couple from the group brought me a goblet of red wine with a smiling “grazie della foto.”
Feeble attempts to decline the wine offer proved useless: refusals refused. “Devi assaggiare questo passito,” curly-haired Alessandro insisted, urging me to taste the vineyard’s sweet wine. His companion, Paola, nodded as Alessandro added, “You shouldn’t start a wine-tasting with a dessert wine, but we’re leaving now and we wanted to share a taste of our last wine, a cantina specialty.” Chatting about wines with this amerino (“from Amelia”) young couple, we learned they’d known the Zanchis and appreciated their wines for years.
We discovered why inside the cellars, where sommeliers poured wines, backdropped by huge casks and wine vats. We sipped an Umbrian white, trebbiano, tried the malvasia and then moved on to the indigenous red of the Amelia area, the ciliegiolo. And no better way to appreciate it than while munching a grilled sausage: Ennio, who’s worked the Zanchi vineyards for over forty years, was on the grill that day, handling the sausages. Young Erica served them up with slices of bread, 1 Euro apiece – and a sign on her table showed that the fee was a fund-raiser for sustenance of Kosovo orphans.
Before leaving, we chatted with Lores Zanchi and her papa’ Leonardo whose own father had cultivated their vineyards over forty years ago. Lores led us through ancient wooded doors to the immense French oak casks in the underground cellar, home to the most prized aged wines. And she talked enthusiastically about the family wine research project: Cantine Zanchi are still cultivating Nonno’s grape varieties but since 2008, the family has joined with the agronomy faculty of the Universita’ di Perugia in experimental cultivation of ancient grape varieties of the territory as well. Their focus: restoration of ancient varieties unknown (until recently) among the over six hundred varieties raised in Italy.
This year at Cantine Aperte (runs this weekend, May 28th and 29th), we might be lucky enough to try one of their “resurrected” varietals. Those ancient wooden doors at Cantine Zanchi will soon be wide open.