Le Marche occupies the central slice of the Adriatic coast of Italy. It is bordered to the north by San Marino and Emilia-Romagna, to the east by the Adriatic, to the south by Abruzzo, to the south-west by Lazio, to the west by Umbria, and to the north-west by Tuscany. It forms the knee of the Italian boot, between the aforementioned Adriatic to the east and the higher Apennine Mountains to the west. In terms of surface area, Le Marche is Italy’s 6th smallest region.
The name: Le Marche is the only Italian region with a plural name. ‘Marche’ or Marches derives from the German term for a border area.
History in brief: ‘Fossils of Vitis vinifera dating to the Iron Age have been found around Ascoli Piceno. Etruscan-style agriculture thrived here before the Roman conquest of the third century BC,’ says Burton Anderson (1990: p.171). ‘Previously the Senone Gauls occupied the territory north of the Esino [River] and the Piceni dominated the south. The Romans, who admired the wines of Picenum, especially the Praetutian made in the southern Marches and northern Abruzzi, marvelled over the productivity of the chalky clay soil. The Greeks, impressed by the natural harbour, founded what is now the capital of Ancona,’ Anderson adds. Later, the majority of the Le Marche came under Papal influence (the Catholic shrine at Loreto still attracts pilgrims today), and was an important source of grain. In 1860, after the Unification of Italy, the Vatican sold off its land, leaving farmers to work under a system of sharecropping or mezzadria. This system came to an end after the Second World War.
Ancient history: Scienza & Imazio (2019, p.193) suggest that viticulture in Le Marche may have coincided with the arrival of the first people here, who crossed the Adriatic from Dalmatia around the second millennium BC. The most reliable information dates from the 10th-9th–centuries B.C. when the Piceno civilisation, which had settled in the southern part of Le Marche, promoted viticulture, financing this with commercial exchanges, first with the nearby Etruscan populations, from whom they learnt cultivation techniques; and then with the Balkan and Greek populations. This demonstrated how the Piceno people exploited the strategic position of the territory, between either shore of the Adriaticand between the north and south of the (Italian) peninsula through what was called the Adriatic bridge, the connection with the Dalmatian islands where there were numerous Greek colonies.
Evidence of ancient wine-growing in the region is evidenced by the tomb found in the Matelica region that belonged to a well-to-do person dating from the 8th–7th century BC. It had over 200 grape seeds in it.
After the Second Punic War, the Roman presence on the western (Italian) shore of the Adriatic grew, and the most reliable archeological finds from this period date back to the Piceno people. This southern part of Le Marche is fertile, and where the vines grew luxuriantly, as described by the Latin Georgics, such as Columella, and Pliny the Elder. The latter wrote that Le Marche was a source of food and generous wines for the Roman legions along the course of the Rhine. The wines that passed from Aquilea in the 2nd–3rd centuries AD to the north were blends of Piceno red wine with alcoholic Istrian wine used to reinforce the low quality wines in Padova. Grapes from Piceno and neighbouring Umbria had names, such as Iziola and Hirtiola.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, much land was abandoned, and forests grew back. The lush tree-lined vineyards that had marked the era of the Piceno and Romans gave way to small vineyards, often close to villages, closed by fences, and densely planted as bush vines or alberello. The few cultivated vineyards occupied small gardens where they shared space with other fruit crops.
Viticulture had to regroup again in the wake of the Barbarian invasions. It did so with the Longobard edict of Rotari in 643 AD (kept in the Abbey of San Gallo in Switzerland). This established rules and rights for the protection of vineyards meant severe fines for those that damaged them. Monastic orders, who had the right to grow wine for mass, could cultivate vineyards. Wine’s symbolic role was preserved, even if winegrowing remained small scale.
Plague epidemics in the 14th and 15th centuries brought depopulation and locals left the Marche. They were replaced by migratory flows from Verona, who settled around the town of Jesi. They brought with the Trebbiano di Soave, which is linked to Verdicchio. The Renaissance brought new opportunities for trade from which the wine market benefitted, with renewed interest in it from the social classes. Andrea Bacci (born 1524 in Sant’Elpidio a Mare), who was physician to Pope Sixtus VI dedicated his final years to a vast treatise on all known wines. His 7-book long De naturali vinorum historia dealt with all aspects on contemporary viticulture and oenology, and he linked his tasting impressions to specific territories: Piceno, Ripatransone, Fermo, Offida, Macerata, Cluana, San Ginesio, Osimo, Recanati, Ancona, Sirolo, Senigallia, Fano and Gradara. He also cited which grapes wines were produced from: Vernaccia, Greco, Lacrima, Trebulani, various Malvasia, Moscatello, Vissane and many (unidentified) others.
In 1890 phylloxera was first reported in the Marche, 22 years after its accidental introduction to France from America. This was not long after Le Marche transitioned from being a Papal State to being part of the Kingdom of Italy. And saw its vineyard (also in mixed cultivation decline from 170,000 ha in 1880 to just 60,000 in 1913. At this time many vines still grew up trees, the so-called promiscuous culture, rather than as part of specialised vineyards, as most vineyards made wine for domestic consumption. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, Le Marche’s vineyards continued to favour mixed rather than specialised production. This did though allow a degree of preservation of ancient biodiversity.
In the 1950s Fazi-Battaglia helped give Verdicchio an international impact by designing a green bottle shaped like the clay amphora the Greeks used to ship Le Marche wines from what is now Ancona. Nick-named ‘La Lolla’, the Fazi-Battaglia bottle had a paper scroll or ‘cartoglio’ tied around the neck.
In the early 1970s vineyard modernisation began to gain traction in Le Marche. This saw varieties like Verdicchio, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Biancame and Vernaccia Nera coming more to the fore, with little or no penetration of the international grape varieties that were being adopted more freely elsewhere.
Terroir: Le Marche comprises a strip of hills about an 18.6 miles (30km) wide which is compressed between the high ridges of the Umbria-Marche (Umbro-Marchigiano) Appenines in the west, down to the Adriatic coast and its sandy beaches in the east. The latitude and physical topography combine to create warm summers and night-day temperature variations, with constant air and movement and a diversity of meso-climates. The hills, comprised of marly- or sandy clay, are well-drained by around a dozen, evenly spread rivers. These run from the high mountains east to the Adriatic Sea, dividing the region into a series of transversal, west-east valleyed strips. Only two of Le Marche’s regions lie apart from this strip, Verdicchio di Matelica DOC which lies within a pocket of the Apennines and thus with no direct maritime influence, and the Rosso Cònero DOC and Cònero DOCG on the coast at Ancona.
Topography: Hilly (60%), mountainous (30%) and flat (10%), along the coastal strip (Scienza & Imazio, 2019, p.198).
Geology: Le Marche was seafloor which was pushed upwards out of what is now the Adriatic Sea over time, Italy being near the boundary between the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, whose movements led to the creation of the Alps and more importantly for the Le Marche, the Apennines, which form the region’s high western flank. The Adriatic left behind sedimentary deposits containing chalky limestone, clay and sand. Scienza & Imazio (Positive Press, 2019, p.198) point out that both the Le Marche and neighbouring Umbria regions have many similarities in terms of their geology, as both lie on the same geological plate. The difference between them is how their respective mountain ridges are positioned, transversally (east-west) or longitudinally (north-south), as are the river valleys with respect to the Adriatic sea.
Soils: Mainly limestone, marl, sandstone, and gypsum deposits; permeable, so well suited to the cultivation of vines and olives (Italian Wine Unplugged). Soils are almost entirely clay-based, the sole exception being Mount Cònero which is calcareous in composition (Italian Wine Guide, 1999, p.356).
Climate: Scienza & Imazio (2019, p198) divide Le Marche in two groups as far as climate is concerned. Inland areas experience harsh winters, with frequent snowfalls, with cool summers. In contrast, the Adriatic coast strip gets a beneficial temperature-regulating influence from the Adriatic Sea. The coastal strip has a sub-continental climate north of the port city of Ancona, and sub-littoral with more distinctly Mediterranean characteristics, south, along the Riviera delle Palme or coastal strip.
Topography: Thirteen major rivers running through the region that help create many specific microclimates, which are mostly mild with low humidity. Rainfall is concentrated in autumn and spring and snow is common in winter.
Vineyard area: 24,000 hectares of vineyards are almost entirely in hillside areas (see topography above).
Grape varieties–White: 60% white. The characteristic grape of the region is Verdicchio. The Castelli di Jesi is the home of Verdicchio (Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC and DOCG Riserva), as well as Matelica. The latter area is much cooler and mountainous, hence Verdicchio di Matelica is a much steelier and less floral wine than the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. Instead, Alta Val Camerina wines are rarely seen outside of the immediate production zone. Dr Ian D’Agata (2014, p.42) says Verdicchio is arguably also the best in Italy for white wine. Burton Anderson (1990, p.171) says the legend of Verdicchio in Le Marche was ‘built around Alaric, king of the Visigoths, who in the fourth century AD encouraged his troops with the wine as they crossed the Apennines to sack Rome. More credible accounts trace Verdicchio’s origins to the fourteenth century, after the feudal domaines known as marche had been unified under the Holy Roman Empire.’ Dr Ian D’Agata (2014, p.42) sees Pecorino and Passerina (both of which are also found in neighbouring Abruzzo) and Cococciola as Le Marche’s up and coming white varieties. Other white grapes: Biancame. | Garofanata.
Grape varieties–Red: 40%. The main varieties are Montepulciano and Sangiovese. Le Marche’s best known red grape, Sangiovese, is found in red blends like Rosso Piceno and Rosso Conero, which also contain Montepulciano. Aromatic reds come from Lacrima (see Lacrima di Morro d’Alba DOC) and Vernaccia Nera (see Vernaccia di Serrapetrona DOC). Ciliegiolo and Pinot Noir are also found.
From the north to the south, the first wine-growing zone is that of the Metauro (Biancame variety and Bianchello Metauro DOC) and Colli Pesaresi (DOC), where mainly Biancame and Sangiovese grapes are used. The coastal area around the headland of Conero is instead suited to red wines made from Montepulciano (Conero DOCG) and Sangiovese. The Apennines area of Serrapetrona is known for sparkling wines made with Vernaccia Nera (Vernaccia di Serrapetrona DOCG). Further south of the Macerata area (Colli Maceratesi DOC) white wines are made of grape Maceratino (also called Ribona). The Colli del Tronto and Colli Ascolani are known for Rosso Piceno DOC (Montepulciano grapes) and Falerio DOC (Trebbiano, Passerina, Pecorino). In total, the region includes five DOCG, 15 DOC and one IGT (IGT Marche).
DOC (15): Bianchello del Metauro DOC. | Colli Maceratesi DOC. | Colli Pesaresi DOC. | Esino DOC. | Falerio (Dei Colli Ascolani) DOC. | I Terreni di San Severino DOC. | Lacrima di Moro or Lacrima di Moro d’Alba DOC. | Pergola DOC. | Rosso Cònero DOC. | Rosso Piceno or Piceno DOC. | San Ginesio DOC. | Serrapetrona DOC. | Terre di Offida DOC. | Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC. | Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore DOC. | Verdicchio di Matelica DOC.
IGP: IGP Marche.
Wine production: 2018 Valoritalia’s Annual Report April 2018 estimated Le Marche wine production at 706,000hl. | 2014 Le Marche produced 915,000 hectolitres (down 12% on the previous year) of which 51.9% (475,000hl) was white and 48.1% (441,000hl) was red. However, the average production over the previous five years was between 880,000 and 890,000hl. Nearly half (45%) of the production (418,000hl) was taken by Vino da Tavola. DOC wine accounted for 35% (328,000hl). IGT wine accounted for 18.4% (169,000hl). | 2013 Le Marche produced 1,039,000 hectolitres (ISTAT). | 2012 Le Marche produced 918,000 hectolitres (ISTAT). | 2011 Le Marche produced 741,000 hectolitres (ISTAT). | 2010 Le Marche produced 927,000 hectolitres (ISTAT). Of this 427,194hl was DOC/DOCG wine (Federdoc). | 2009 Le Marche produced 782,000 hectolitres (ISTAT). Of this 385,816hl was DOC/DOCG wine (Federdoc). | 2008 Le Marche produced 871,000 hectolitres (ISTAT). Of this 437,293hl was DOC/DOCG wine (Federdoc). | 2007 Le Marche produced 757,000 hectolitres (ISTAT). Of this 427,049hl was DOC/DOCG wine (Federdoc). | 2006 Le Marche produced 1,090,000 hectolitres (ISTAT). Of this 463,385hl was DOC/DOCG wine (Federdoc). | 2005 Le Marche produced 1,206,000 hectolitres (ISTAT).
Wine & food: See Le Marche gastronomy.
Attilio Scienza & Serena Imazio, Native Grape Odyssey Vol.1, p200 (Positive Press, 2019).
Burton Anderson, The Wine Atlas of Italy, Mitchell Beazley, 1990 p171-179.
David Gleave, ‘The Wines of Italy‘ (Salamander Books, London, 1989).
Dr Ian D’Agata, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, University of California Press, 2014.
Richard Baudains, ‘Local hero’, Decanter, April 1997, p73-76.
Italian Wine Guide (Touring Club of Italy, 1999).
Native Grape Odyssey, Europe. Quality. Wine. Vol 1. (2019, Positive Press).
Aggiornamento Marzo 2019 as reported by Valoritalia Annual Report April 2018.