How native grapes are putting Marche back on the map

Italy's ancient wine region might be best known for Verdicchio, but increasing interest in two of its indigenous grapes – Pecorino and Passerina – is further raising Marche's profile

Words by Club Oenologique Editors

Marche wine region at sunset
A sunset view of the Tenute Recchi Franceschini estate in the Italy's Marche region


Marche is one of Italy’s ancient wine regions, with a vinous history dating back to the Etruscan era, yet it is still relatively unknown to many of us. Bordering the Adriatic, to the east of Umbria, Marche is off the beaten track, bypassed by the central axis that runs down the country’s western side from Milan to Naples.

Popular with Italian tourists, who relish its unspoilt landscape, it rarely features on the itineraries of international travellers, and until now its wines have been more synonymous with quantity than quality – but there are signs that its fortunes are changing, with a new generation of producers determined to put Marche back on the map.

Marche has 15 DOCs and five DOCGs, the most famous of which is Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Riserva, a citrus-fresh, faintly herbal wine once sold in amphora-shaped bottles that are now firmly out of fashion. Verdicchio is still the most planted white variety, although arguably not the most interesting, as two indigenous grapes – Pecorino and Passerina – are making a slow but scintillating comeback, having come close to extinction.

Peccorino vineyards in Italy's Marche wine region
Organic farming in Marche's vineyards is driving great results, particularly with the Pecorino grape

“The secret to putting an area on the map in vinous terms is finding what they do best and excelling at it. For me, in the Marche it is all about crisp, refreshing yet textured Pecorino and I feel this can be its calling card,” says Mick O’Connell MW, an Italian specialist and member of the IWSC judging committee. “The best examples I have tasted have been organically farmed and great value – two unique selling points that can pique consumer interest.”

Pecorino delivers a distinctive, lemony, mineral-driven, layered character

Pecorino is, confusingly, both a grape and a sheep’s cheese – pecora is Italian for “ewe” – with the variety delivering a distinctive, lemony, mineral-driven, layered character that is increasingly being appreciated for its quality, thanks to a concerted effort by producers to reduce yields and unleash its potential.

“It is called Pecorino because the grapes were once eaten by the sheep, then they [the producers] discovered how good they were, so they decided to make wine and the variety got the name Pecorino,” says Mario Antonio Recchi Franceschini, whose organic-certified Petraiae Pecorino Offida DOCG 2018 won an IWSC bronze.

“We want to show the capacity of Pecorino to really express the terroir, so we use cold maceration, to bring flavours from the skin, then we let it develop sitting on the lees, with very little movement for 10 months,” says Recchi Franceschini, a qualified pharmacist who took over the family estate in 2014, deciding to produce wine rather than selling the grapes as his parents did.

white wine from the marche region
Tenute Recchi Franceschini's organic-certified and award-winning Petraiae Pecorino

Although far from ubiquitous, even in Marche, Passerina is another ancient variety enjoying a renaissance at the hands of a dynamic new breed of producer. Named after a sparrow – passero in Italian – because the bird apparently enjoys its berries, it has a floral character that offers a light, charming alternative to the more serious Pecorino. “It is a very particular wine, very aromatic, like Riesling, with a little spritz,” he adds.

Like other regions of central Italy, Marche’s red wines are dominated by two varieties: Sangiovese and Montepulciano. They are blended together for Rosso Piceno, which also gives its name to one of the region’s larger DOCs.

“We are trying to create what I believe to be the true Rosso Piceno, more elegant, less astringent,” says Recchi Franceschini, whose Donna Eugenia 2015 also won a bronze medal at the IWSC, along with a commendation for its striking artisanal bottle design.

“In Italy, we have a saying that it is very difficult to sell cheese to the shepherd, and we initially had difficulties in selling our wines within the region, but now it is very gratifying to see so much demand from local restaurants.”