In 2009, about six years after David and Chrissie Lang bought and restored their 16th-century ruin, Casa San Gabriel, in the hills north of Perugia, Umbria, a local came knocking on their door with a question. Would they like to buy the valley?
“At that time, I was teaching at the university and at schools,” reminisces David, an affable and easy-going Australian. “I sort of had to explain that teachers don’t buy valleys – that’s not what we do – but that I could perhaps talk to a couple of neighbours to see if they’d be interested.”
The Langs had ended up in Italy to establish a geographical “middle ground” between their families, somewhere they could encourage family and friends from both sides to visit (Chrissie is from Cambridge in the UK, while David grew up on a sheep farm near Beeac, Victoria, an hour west of Geelong). “My wife obviously won,” he laughs. “But we were both quite keen to move somewhere, where if we had children (they now have two daughters), they would learn a language other than English.”
The plan was to renovate a farmhouse in the Italian countryside and open a plush but rustic B&B – which they did within just a few months of taking over the property. They could have done worse than land in this valley; set on around 350ha of what was up until recently abandoned farming land, it’s about as idyllic as rural Italy gets, replete with olive trees and vines, and surrounded by native woodland.
Their neighbours are Jeremy and Jacqueline Sinclair (founding director of M&C Saatchi, and renowned book illustrator, respectively). In 2005, the pair fell in love with the valley and bought the rundown property next door to David and Chrissie. They agreed to the local’s proposal and purchased the front part of the valley, initially as a preventive measure against another buyer doing something they didn’t like.
But it was also an opportunity to fix up the derelict 12th-century church that sat in centre of the valley. Chiesa del Carmine was surrounded by vineyards – dilapidated, but living proof nonetheless of the calcareous, quartz-laden soil’s ability to grow wine grapes. Jeremy was keen to resurrect them.
“I had read about two white wines from Umbria,” says Lang. “One was the great Orvieto Classico and the other was produced in this valley.” That other wine was a blend based on the rare and rather obscure trebbiano spoletino, a late-ripening, high acidity white grape native to this part of Umbria and perhaps best-known for forming the acid component in the local Spoleto DOC wines. Lang talked to the Sinclairs about the region’s heritage of making very good white wine and suggested planting grapes wouldn’t be completely out of left field. It became clear that growing grapes wouldn’t just be enough, either; they needed a label, too. They named it Chiesa del Carmine (chiesadelcarmine.com).
That the vineyards were there at all was a stroke of luck. The surrounding area was once home to some of the most important tobacco farming land in Italy. So much so, says estate winemaker Giovanni Dubini, that in the 1970s, when agriculture was being resurrected after years of what was essentially a feudal system between the church and the farmers, new landholders were destroying grapevines to make way for what was a far more lucrative crop.
“Wine and agriculture were abandoned,” Dubini explains. “The story of wine in Umbria was very important but they lost out to a very simple but more profitable production.”
Considering the history, there is a faint irony in the fact that the Sinclairs and Langs ripped out the estate’s old, neglected vineyards to plant new ones (the vines, along with most of the property, had been abandoned in the ’50s.). But lucky for us they did – it meant they were able to implement best-practice principles, essentially starting from scratch. They established just over 6ha of vines, close-planted at 5,000 vines per hectare; a little under three of those hectares are dedicated to trebbiano spoletino and the rest to sangiovese and sagrantino, along with small amounts of merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Chiesa del Carmine’s first vintage was in 2013.
“When we eventually had grapes in production, we interviewed a number of winemakers,” says Lang. “Some had rather aloof ideas about making the best wine imaginable.” Lang introduced the Sinclairs to Giovanni Dubini. “Giovanni told them, ‘I’ve done more than 30 vintages and I know less now than when I started’,” Lang recalls. Dubini made them a deal: “If you can focus on the vineyards and produce the best quality fruit, I’ll do my best in the winery. But, if you can’t provide good fruit, I can’t do much.”
Dubini outlined the kinds of wines to expect from Chiesa del Carmine’s unique terroir. It wouldn’t be anything like New Zealand sauvignon blanc, he warned. The rocky, calcareous soils of their vineyard would produce a very particular type of wine.
“Wines from Umbria are usually a blend of different grapes, to show more terroir than varietal character,” he says. “But because part of the viticultural history, from this part of Umbria was lost, we’re trying to rebuild the story and tradition of wine in this valley.”
And that, Dubini believes, can be done with trebbiano spoletino, the estate’s hero variety. So much do the team value the grape that they’ve chosen not to relegate it to blends, but rather let it shine in a beautifully textural varietal wine. And they’ve built their reputation on it, he says.
“We want to find the character of this place, through this kind of grape. There’s great potential – the soil is very good, and the grape characters, both white and red, are very unique.”
One of the first points of business after the restoration of the vineyard and church (it took 2.5 years to even start the paperwork on the church) was to convert the farm to organics. Lang explains: “Part of the reason we did it was because most of the properties in the valley rely on well water, so it seemed crazy to be using pesticides – and then showering in it. But I’d also read an amazing paper by Vanya Cullen, talking about the benefits of biodynamics and the increase in water retention, when you convert to organics.” For him, it was a no-brainer. “So, with Italy and the world getting hotter, we needed to make that conversion – not necessarily for the stamp but definitely for the health of our vines.”
For a boutique business, they haven’t been without a hurdle here and there. One of their organic applications only works properly when the mercury is below 30 degrees – which is limiting during Umbria’s typically scorching summers. “You need to be starting at 5am, which isn’t ideal for guests trying to enjoy a sleep-in and enjoy the quiet of the countryside,” says Lang. “So, there’s a constant balance you’re trying to find.”
But that’s expected with such a commitment to organics. During winter, they sow fava beans in the vine rows and spend hours working the soil, to the extent, says Lang, that people from local vineyards come to admire the manicured vineyards. “We’ve tried to put all our energy into the vineyard, because if we have great quality fruit we can rely on Giovanni.”
Dubini is one of central Italy’s most celebrated winemakers, white wines his specialty. His family are custodians of the historic Palazzone estate (
palazzone.com) in Orvieto, one of the few remaining small, terroir-focused producers of the region, which is where most of his time is spent.
A native Umbrian, he has worked the world over, including Australia’s own Tyrrell’s and Crittenden Estate, although he is quick to admit those vintages were “many, many years ago.” He is stoic in his philosophy: rather than attempting to make the world’s best wine, he says he aims to encapsulate and perpetuate the culture that embodies the history of winemaking, in not only Umbria or Italy but Europe in general, in his wines.
“The life of the winemaker is too short to understand the wine at the end,” Dubini muses. “So, we must realise that the true meaning of wine is not just the liquid; it’s also the culture, the tradition, the story.”
Throughout his career, he’s found that the emphasis on winemaking, as opposed to the vineyards, was too great. “The land is probably the most important part of the wine. Producers want to make something as good as Gevrey-Chambertin, but that’s not possible; I can’t take the soil from Burgundy and put it here in Umbria. It might be easier to plant to pinot noir, but it’s not the same.”
It needn’t be the same, anyway. Chiesa del Carmine is an extraordinary, singular place – restored from ruins, flaunting ever so humbly the former glory of this stunning part of Italy; the modern interpretation of an Umbria that once was. Perhaps the most important thing to remember was this project was never intended to make just wine – let alone great wine – the centrepiece; rather, the wine was meant to be a respectful complement to the food, people, land and overall experience in one of the country’s most idyllic settings. Which is, come to think of it, exactly what wine is supposed to do.
Native to Umbria, trebbiano spoletino is undergoing a renaissance. While there’s no evidence to suggest it’s related to the trebbiano toscano grape (known as ‘ugni blanc’ in France), spoletino can produce everything from classically crisp whites to rich, balanced wines of texture and complexity; the latter is how Chiesa del Carmine has chosen to express this unique variety. It’s also incredibly food-friendly – for an ideal pairing, see chef Masha Rener’s recipe below. The Umbrian native and head chef at Soho’s Lina Stores, joined forces with Chiesa del Carmine in 2021.
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Masha Rener's Cappelli d'alpino al tartufo
50g baby spinach, washed
300g ‘00’ pasta flour
40g semolina, plus extra for dusting
2 medium eggs
1 tsp salt
600g cow’s milk ricotta
30g black truffle, grated
20ml truffle oil
100g Grana Padano
1 Blanch spinach in boiling salted water. Refresh in iced water, and blend to a purée in a food processor.
2 Mix the 00 flour with the semolina and salt.
3 Mix egg into spinach purée.
4 Make a well in the centre of the flour and semolina, add egg and spinach. Mix together until you have a smooth dough, around 5-8 minutes.
5 Let the dough rest for 30 mins at least.
6 Mix all the filling ingredients together and season. Place in a disposable piping bag.
7 Roll out dough to around 1mm. Cut into squares 7x7cm.
8 Pipe 15g of filling in each square, fold pasta over and pinch together to seal. Pinch together the two smaller corners to create a little hat.
9 Cook pasta for 2 mins in boiling salted water. Remove into another pan, add butter* and Grana Padano to emulsify.
10 Season and transfer to a bowl. Top with freshly sliced black truffle and serve with 2018 Trebbiano Spoletino.
* For homemade butter, whip 500ml cream until separate and leave the fat in a colander for few hours.