Of course, there’s not much to see at this time of year. In the vineyards currently stand row upon row of what look like muscular brown forearms thrusting up from the winter soil. Each is topped with a gnarled, chunky fist that still holds last year’s long, thin branches in its grasp. Now leafless and lifeless, they cling to the rows of horizontal wires among which they wove last season; like musical notation on a stave from which the notes have been plucked, the song of summer now just an echo.
Something is stirring, though. With this unusually mild winter already on the wane, preparations for the coming season are getting underway. Scattered across the vineyards, groups of hunched figures slowly work their way up and down the rows, laboriously snipping away the dead branches that bore last year’s crop. They let each fist hold onto just one, maybe two strong slim branches, the torchbearers for this season’s growth. For in just a few weeks, a delicate frill of zingy green will sprout from those slim branches, the fragile young leaves shivering in the chill of early spring. Within a few more weeks, whole new branches will burst forth and race along the wires, and the tender frills will thicken into bright green jagged-edged bunting fluttering in the breeze. And as spring progresses, that bunting will grow into extravagant garlands that loop in and out among the now invisible supporting wires, creating palisades of rich green within which will nestle the flower clusters that will later develop into fruit.
Even though practically any and every view of the region’s undulating patchwork of fields will include at least one large vine-striped oblong, Le Marche is not one of Italy’s primary wine-growing regions. That honour goes to the likes of Tuscany (and its world-famous Chianti), Piedmont (and its aristocratic Barolo) and Veneto (with its all-conquering Prosecco). But like the other seventeen ‘also-rans,’ Le Marche nonetheless has its own vigorous wine industry made up of myriad small-scale wine co-operatives and family-run vineyards that between them produce a range of wines that are unique to the region and that reflect the local terroir, climate and cuisine, with only a small proportion of their output destined for sale beyond the region, and an even smaller proportion destined for export. That is not to say, mind you, that the wines from these lesser-known regions are automatically of poorer quality. After all, Italy has been producing wine since pre-Roman times and in 2018 was the world’s largest wine producer (beating both France and Spain by a considerable margin) so it seems safe to conclude that they have got the hang of it.
So while you are unlikely to find Le Marche wines on the shelves at Tesco or on restaurant wine lists, the region, which the New York Times has coined ‘the new Tuscany’, still has plenty to offer the more curious wine-lover. The three best-known are Rosso Piceno, Rosso Conero, and Verdicchio. The first is made predominantly from the Sangiovese grape that is cultivated on the slopes around Ascoli Piceno in the south of the region. The second is made predominantly with the Montepulciano grape which is cultivated on the westward facing slopes of the Conero promontory near Ancona. And the third, a pale and citrussy white (and a personal favourite) is produced in two principal areas around Jesi and Matelica, and is the region’s rising star and trailblazer: it is this now prize-winning wine from the centre of the region that you are most likely to come across in the UK.
Just as popular locally, though, are the ancient Passerina, and Pecorino (my preferred accompaniment to fritto misto and a simple green salad eaten at a beachfront restaurant), which has enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity in recent years. When it comes to reds, other local favourites include Lacrima di Morro d’Alba and Vernaccia Nera, which is also the grape used in the ancient and idiosyncratic sparkling red wine, Vernaccia di Serrapetrona, which features in Dante’s epic ‘Divine Comedy’. Another regional oddity is vino cotto, which literally translates as ‘cooked wine’. This intense, ruby-coloured, port-like sweet wine dates back to the pre-Christian era and is made from boiled down and fermented grape must. For many years it was regarded as a clandestine local hooch, but is now officially recognised – and celebrated – as a traditional Italian local food product. Indeed, the present-day centre of production is Loro Piceno (the village near Macerata where we once thought we might live, incidentally) which holds an annual Sagra del Vino Cotto.
So, in fact there is much to see at this time of year. For those muscular forearms with their chunky fists poised ready for the start of spring are the continuation of the same cycle of cultivation that has been repeated for generations and that has sustained local culture and community for more than two thousand years.