All right, I’ll admit it: the comparison with Egypt, jewel of the Nile, may be excessive or even disrespectful (towards Egypt, I mean). But after spending a few days in the village of Torgiano (maybe at the Hotel Le Tre Vaselle) you are left with a strong sense of the intimate and undeniable interdependence between the town, the land and the most famous wine label in Umbria. It is almost as though one could not exist without the others – and vice versa – and they interlock like the cogs of a wheel, the edges of each identity blending into the next until each returns confidently into the foreground to reassert individual roles, history, and essential roots. First things first, though!
During the weekend of January 10-12, the gentle Umbrian hills were disturbed by a strange group, half gypsy, half trendy-intellectual: the gluttonous Slow Food circus had come to Torgiano.
The town consists of a cluster of twelfth and thirteenth-century houses clinging to the last rocky rampart before Assisi to the east and the noble Perugia to the north. Two rivers, the Roman Tiber and the sullen Chiascio, embrace in the valley to the south and become one in the Tiber. This is the setting, these are the players: we should add here that this is a troupe of ‘super-experts’ of taste (or so the local and national newspapers were to proclaim in the days to come, though, of course, it’s a well-known fact that journalists have no sense of restraint!) and Torgiano’s piazza had been chosen as the venue for a Master of Food oil and wine summit. Which is where the Nile—or rather Lungarotti—comes in: as the host (or sponsor, we might say in other circumstances), guide (or perhaps nursemaid) and any other appropriate term which conveys the friendly and efficient welcome extended to the Slow Foodies, enabling them to work smoothly. Not that I want to talk about work here.
The Torgiano seminar allowed us to discover the wonderful cultural and rural world which revolves around the Gruppo Lungarotti, like a planet round a star. To retain that astronomical metaphor for a moment, if the Lungarotti group is a galaxy scattered across the sky of the Torgiano-Earth, the shining sun was its founder Giorgio Lungarotti, who died in 1999. The chronicles of Giorgio the pioneer tell of an impressive basic intuition in the early Sixties; these were years of exodus for the closed Umbrian countryside and obvious hardship in the wheat-oil-grapes triad of the agricultural sector. Giorgio realized that the time had come to change and specialise: in other words it was time to promote Torgiano and its surrounding area in a single high quality product, and he chose grapes, in a revolutionary and, for the time way. Clearing the decks of outdated systems, prejudices and attitudes, he introduced the concept of modern rational winegrowing in Umbria. Torgiano became a DOC in 1968, two years after Barolo and a year after Chianti Classico. This marked the beginning of a climb up to DOCG status, achieved in 1990 by the Rosso Riserva. Bear in mind though that these wines are produced mainly—if not exclusively—by Lungarotti. Torgiano became synonymous with wine, and wine in Torgiano is synonymous with Lungarotti.
But let’s return to Giorgio’s exuberant character. In 1974, Torgiano opened its doors to a richly stocked museum whose cultural value makes it unique in the world: the Museum of Wine, situated in the sixteenth-century Palazzo Graziani Baglioni. The museum tells the story of 5,000 years of wine and vine culture through an unparalleled archaeological-historical-artistic collection. These were not the ‘drinking years’ typical of our own period but the museum was an immediate and huge success and Torgiano was instantly invaded by tourists. As we all know, behind a great man there is always a great woman and this is true of Giorgio. His wife, art historian Maria Grazia Marchetti, became artistic director of the museum and gave it a style and character that go far beyond mere exhibition. Lungarotti became a trademark and a philosophy: behind the Museum project was a precise support strategy for the environment and the local winemaking economy. This was also the period in which the Lungarotti Foundation was created: this small private institution organises conventions, exhibitions, publications, events, as well as running the Museum. The winery work and the family’s prolific, patronly cultural activities remain separate, although the same figures work together with a common aim.
While the Gruppo Lungarotti gradually asserted itself in the world of wine, Giorgio’s mind was looking further ahead, to the lush Umbrian hills and slopes dotted with olive trees: “This is the other half of Umbria,” he thought. “Oil!” Thus Torgiano, acclaimed as the seat of the first Museum of Wine, doubled its historical achievement with the Museum of Olives and Oil, even more singular and innovative (if possible) than its winemaking twin. The ten rooms of the Museum are a historical digression into olive cultivation and the uses of oil, past and present, in the kitchen, in sport, in mechanics, cosmetics, medicine and symbology. Once again we find Maria Grazia behind the scenes, an increasingly iconic figure for the cultural and intellectual movement embodied by Lungarotti.
Talking of women: as the years passed Giorgio handed over the running of the winery to his two daughters, Chiara Lungarotti and Teresa Severini, to provide continuity with a fiercely defended past, but with eyes and energy firmly fixed on the future. Roles and responsibilities were established and the Group picture was completed with the opening of the Albergo-Ristorante-Centro Congressi “Le Tre Vasselle”, a five-star hotel in the heart of the old village of Torgiano – another miracle, by the way. I won’t waste time talking about the Spola—a delightful treasure chest of Umbrian arts and crafts—and Osteria del Museo, which complete the overview of Via Garibaldi in the town centre. The English would probably name it ‘Lungarotti Street’, given that most of the buildings, services and businesses are owned by the family. Anyway among the events I like to remember are the Banco d’Assaggi (Tasting Table) at Vini d’Italia, a winemaking contest to promote quality for young wine producers from all over the country, and Vinarelli, an artistic summer event which attracts groups of even stranger people than those found in the Slow Food circus (which is saying a lot!), and lastly the Compagnia dei Vignaioli e Tavernieri della Communità di Torgiano, a food and wine confraternity formed with the aim of reviving the spirit of the fourteenth-century guilds of Perugia.
All these ideas, challenges (sometimes), huge risks (more often than not) and, more generally, professions of love for their own land, have enabled the Lungarottis to trace an extraordinary arc over 40 years, and we are far from seeing the end, considering the brilliance with which the Lungarotti daughters and first-class staff took up the challenging legacy left by Giorgio when he died.
This, in short, was the discovery we made in that first working weekend of January 2003. A lively village in the heart of Umbria, which time and the intelligence of one of the most far-sighted Italian winemaking families have made into a laboratory of resources, ideas and projects, changing its face but never its skin, and remaining true to the style of the thousand little towns that stud the universe of the Italian countryside. Torgiano, Lungarotti, wine, oil, history—one large mosaic, one single basic line of thought, one single hand. A bridge between a land and a dynasty. A gift, a jewel.
No offence to Egypt, by the way.
Tiziano Gaia is a member of the Slow Food ezditore staff and a contributor to the Italian Wines 2003 guide, published by Slow Food Editore-Gambero Rosso
Translation by Ailsa Wood