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Must-Visit Small Wine Towns in Italy

By Laura Giantemppo

11.26.19

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Montefalco is less than a one-hour drive from Perugia, Umbria’s capital city.

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Montefalco is less than a one-hour drive from Perugia, Umbria’s capital city.

Surprise: They’re not all in Tuscany.

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A quarter of the world’s wine comes from Italy, and practically every Italian region makes (good) wine. Yet wine travel is still heavily concentrated in one region: Tuscany. It’s for a reason, of course—all of those great chianti and brunellos against a backdrop of dreamy, cypress-lined hills. But if you want to see more of the country, start with any of these small towns, where you can get your fix of local history, scenic vineyards, amazing food, and wines you’ll linger over.

Gavi, Piedmont

A two-hour drive from Turin and only an hour from Genova, the small town of Gavi and its surrounding wine country are somewhat of a secret—even for locals. This area has long been overshadowed by the neighboring Langhe and Monferrato, where some of Italy’s noble wines like barolo and barbaresco hail from, despite Gavi’s obvious appeal. Due to its proximity to Liguria, the town is painted in the same pastel colors that are so pervasive on the Italian Riviera. But the real reason to visit is the peaceful, unspoiled countryside and crisp, floral white wines produced in the region. 

What to Drink

There’s really only one wine to drink here: gavi (yes, it takes its name from the town). Made from cortese grapes, gavi is a dry, clean, fruit-forward white—both still and sparkling—that pairs perfectly with local dishes influenced almost more by Liguria than Piedmont, like stuffed vegetables and ravioli di Gavi (filled with meats, borage, and perfumed with marjoram, and served with a Genovese meat sauce called tocco).

Where to Taste

Start at La Raia Azienda Agricola Biodinamica, a beautiful estate known for its high-quality biodynamic wines, sustainably built winery, and outdoor artwork interacting with nature. Nearby Villa Sparina is both a winery and a lovely boutique hotel within restored 18th-century farmhouse buildings. Its on-site restaurant, La Gallina, is very good—try its bubbly gavi for aperitivo.

Colli di Luni, Liguria

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At the border with Tuscany is the small Colli di Luni wine region, where tiny medieval towns like Castelnuovo Magra, Nicola, and Isola dot the hills just inland from the Mediterranean. Besides delicious vermentino white wines, this area is noteworthy for its savory cuisine blending aspects of traditional Ligurian flavors with Tuscan influences. Don’t miss testaroli—fresh, spongy (in a good way) pasta made with whole-wheat flour and water (no eggs), often served with rabbit and taggiasca olives. Colli di Luni is only a half-hour drive from La Spezia, so it’s an easy day trip if you’re visiting Cinque Terre or other towns on the far eastern Italian Riviera.

What to Drink

The reigning grape here is vermentino, which makes a crisp, citrusy white wine with a touch of minerality. Vermentino and the light seafood dishes so pervasive in Liguria are a match made in heaven. But under the Colli di Luni DOC, you’ll also find a sangiovese blend that resembles neighboring chianti wines.

Where to Taste

The best winery to visit in the area, by far, is Ca’Lunae, a family-owned experience housed in a lovely old farmhouse that’s been completely remodeled and expanded. It’s a great place for tasting vermentino paired with local snacks. Check out the small museum dedicated to the culture of wine and featuring the family’s personal collection of agricultural tools and period photos spanning 30 years. There’s also a small distillery that makes traditional Ligurian liqueurs.

Vittoria, Sicily

Most people talk about Mount Etna as one of the most exciting places for wine right now, which makes sense—Etna reds, in particular, can be extremely elegant wines, often compared to Burgundy pinot noir or even nebbiolo. But other parts of Sicily are also making waves in the wine world. One of them is the southeastern area around Vittoria. The town itself is charming in the way most baroque towns in Sicily are, but the attraction here is the noble cerasuolo di vittoria wine, made with a blend of two native grapes, nero d’avola and frappato. Vittoria is only 40 minutes west of Ragusa, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one hour from Modica, known for its grainy chocolate—so there’s plenty to do and see in the area when you’re not winetasting.

What to Drink

Cerasuolo di vittoria all the way. This is the only wine in Sicily to have DOCG status, the highest designation of quality among Italian wines. The fresh, young fruit of frappato combines with the richer, more structured nero d’avola for a fine blend brimming with red berries and cherries. This is definitely an age-worthy wine.

Where to Taste

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Arianna Occhipinti has been a trailblazer of Sicilian wines for 10 years. As Joe Campanale, owner and wine director at Fausto in Brooklyn, puts it: “She made the frappato grape famous and was one of the first to believe that Sicily could make elegant wines.” So plan a stop at Azienda Agricola Arianna Occhipinti and taste her wines, including the iconic SP68 red and white. Azienda Agricola COS is a pioneer winery in the Vittoria area and another winery worth checking out for elegant cerasuolo wines. Both are biodynamic.

Montefalco, Umbria

Overshadowed by Tuscany, its famous neighbor to the west, much of Umbria flies under the tourist radar. The town of Montefalco and the surrounding medieval hamlets of Bevagna, Spello, and Gualdo Cattaneo in the middle of the Umbrian hills are even less traveled than better-known wine regions, like Orvieto. Yet Montefalco is less than a one-hour drive from Perugia, Umbria’s capital city, and it produces two of the region’s most prestigious wines: sagrantino di montefalco secco—a dry red wine that’s a perfect match for the area’s rich food, including pappardelle with wild boar and strangozzi pasta with black truffle sauce—and sagrantino di montefalco passito, a sweet dessert wine.

What to Drink

Sagrantino di montefalco rosso is the top wine in the area. Made with 100 percent indigenous sagrantino grapes, it’s a silky, full-bodied, well-balanced red with lots of black fruit flavors and aging potential. It’s often compared to brunello and barolo. The area also produces a less prestigious wine, montefalco DOC, which is a blend of sangiovese (the grape used in chianti) and sagrantino.

Where to Taste

Check out the historical Cantina Scacciadiavoli winery, named after an exorcism in the 17th century that involved wine to chase the devil away (the name literally means “chase devils”) and now owned by the fourth generation of the Pambuffetti family. Besides sagrantino, you can also taste montefalco DOC reds and montefalco bianco DOC and grechetto DOC, both whites. Lungarotti is another great place for tasting sagrantino. You can have lunch at the winery and stay at the Tre Vaselle Resort & Spa, also owned by the winery.

>> Next: The Next Great Wine Regions Are Not Where You’d Expect

Laura Giannatempo is the founder of ViaVai Travel, a company that creates immersive food and wine travel experiences to less-traveled regions of Italy. She divides her time between Brooklyn and her native Italy. Follow her on Instagram @ViaVaiTravel.

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