The region of Umbria sits landlocked in the center of Italy. With Tuscany to the Northwest, the Marches to the East and Latium with Rome to the South West, it is a beautiful region that sometimes gets lost in the conversations about Italy. Umbria has one wine that gets some international recognition; their famous white wine Orvieto. In fact, many agri-tourismo wineries surround the quaint medieval town of Orvieto which has become something of a destination for a few relaxing days while touring Italy. But, there is also a red, Sagrantino di Montefalco, which also hails from Umbria that is worth putting on your radar.
Sagrantino is grape varietal that grows only around the hilltop town of Montefalco. In fact, it is grown nowhere else in the world (although lately there have been some experiments with it in Tuscany). Its origins are mysterious. Whether the grape is indigenous to the area or not is up for debate. Some theorize that it was brought to Umbria by the Greeks, while others say it was brought by the Franciscan (French) friars. Another theory has St. Francis of Assisi bringing it from the Middle East to be used as a sacramental wine. Among the wine cognoscenti though, it is now Umbrian at its soul.
What makes this wine so special? Well to start with, the geography. The vineyards sit in a bowl surrounded by the Apennine Mountains. The soil is mostly clay with limestone and sand. The climate gets very hot in the summer (and cold in winter), but the clay soils keep the roots cool as they search for water deep in the ground. The mountains provide cooling breezes especially at night. During the hot days a drying breeze called the Tramontano comes from the north limiting rot. The growing season, like much of Italy, is lengthened by the Mediterranean. This climate results in a grape that has lots of tannins yet also sweet dark fruit.
Sagrantino has a long history in Italy. The first official mention of Sagrantino was by the Ampelographic Commission of the district of Foligno in 1879. There are recordings of vineyards in Montefalco going back to the 11th century. Pliny the elder mentions wines grown from Montefalco. There is no way to know if these were Sagrantino though. The grape fell into obscurity by the end of the 20th century and was well on its way to extinction. Only a few growers still cultivated the grape, most notably perhaps Fratelli Adanti. Then in 1971, with the founding of the Caprai winery, a renewed interest was found in Sagrantino. It has only been in the last 30 years that the combination of scientific research, care in the vineyards as well as the winery, and finding a vigneron to champion the grapes has resulted in wines of such grandeur.
In 1979, Montefalco was granted DOC status. This area is located south of Perugia and comprises the towns of Montefalco and Bevagna. The main wine produced, however, is Montefalco Rosso, primarily a blend with 60 to 70 percent Sangiovese (the grape made famous in Tuscany with Chianti and Brunello), 10 to 15 percent Sagrantino and the remainder other red varietals. Interestingly, Sangiovese is still the most planted red varietal in Umbria. Used for making Torgiano Rosso, which has traditionally been the “luxury” red of Umbria.
One year later, in 1980 Sagrantino di Montefalco was given its own DOC status. Sagrantino di Montefalco wines are 100% Sagrantino and are aged for 30 months (12 of them in wood barrels) before being released. The quality of these wines soared as wineries such as Arnaldo Caprai invested time and resources into making the greatest wines possible. As a result, in 1992 Sagrantino di Montefalco was elevated to DOCG status. Sagrantino can be used to make both dry and sweet red wines. There is not a lot of Sagrantino produced. Presently there are about 250 acres planted in the DOCG. Although this article is discussing the dry red wines, the sweet red wines can also be ethereal and are priced accordingly.
Sagrantino produces tannic, heavy masculine wines. It is a powerful wine deep in purple and ruby colors. The better versions are almost unapproachable in their youth as they are tight and tannic. These wines appear to be able to age effortlessly for decades. The simpler varieties have a sweetness to them from the ripe fruit and a complexity from the soil.
There are a variety of producers who make these wines. Two in particular stand above the rest. Their differences illuminate the modernist versus traditionalist debate going on in much of the wine world.
Paolo Bea makes some of the most intellectually interesting and deliciously tasting wines to be found anywhere. In his 70’s, he is the man in charge at his family’s winery in Umbria. The family can, in fact, trace its Umbrian roots back to the 1500’s. His son Giuseppe now grows the grapes while his other son Giampiero handles the commercial aspects for the winery. They pride themselves on natural and organic methods to make their wine. In fact this is a working farm with livestock and other products for sale including olives, vegetables and fruits. Five Hectacres are devoted to the growing of grapes and 60% of that is devoted to Sagrantino.
The Bea wine is made in the traditional manner. The grapes are harvested by hand. After harvesting, the grapes are allowed to stay in contact with the skins and seeds for up to a month. The wine goes through full malolactic fermentation in stainless steel and is then racked into large oak barrels. The wine is left in barrel for a couple of years before bottling without filtration or fining. The resulting wine is thick, dark and tannic and in need of seven or more years of bottle age to really show what it is about. After that though, it is good for the next twenty (at least). The Bea Sagrantino is considered by many to be among the best in the world.
At the other end of the spectrum is Marco Caprai. The Arnaldo Caprai winery was founded in 1971 with only five acres. Arnaldo’s son, Marco eventually took over management. His work in the 1980s and 1990s led to a scientific examination of the clones of Sagrantino used with help from the University of Milan. At the same time he invested in the winery itself utilizing modern techniques. In fact, the winery was completely redone in 1997. Marco became the chief proponent of Sagrantino wines from Umbria. The Caprai Estate has now grown to 90 acres. While they make whites and Sangiovese based reds, the Sagrantino is the star of the show. The top of the line wine is called the 25 Anni. It was first released in 1996 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the winery. This is a brooding dark wine that takes years to reach maturity. Drunk young, the wines simply are so tight that they cannot reveal all the potential the wine contains.
So, for those of you enticed by this wine, the question in making a purchase is where to start. The two best wines are the traditionally styled Paolo Bea Sagrantino di Montefalco and the modernist Arnaldo Caprai 25 Anni. The Bea wine is the more difficult to find. It usually retails for about $80 a bottle. Occasionally, one can find an older bottle in a good wine store or restaurant as these are wines not known to even to the average connoisseur. Ideally a Bea wine should be at least seven years from the date of vintage before opening. Even older is just fine. As long as these wines are stored properly, they can last for 30 years. It is earthy and complex; with great fruit exhibiting exotic spices, cherries and black raspberries. A friend in Rome opened a bottle of the 1999 for me last year. An incredible wine! I have never found so many different aromas in a glass. I detected scents of plums, cotton candy, iodine, seaweed, bacon fat, black raspberries and cherries. Upon tasting it there were flavors of boysenberries, cherries and some raisins. Still on the young side, it was just extraordinary. This wine goes well with a wide variety of foods because while being a large wine, it does not dominate the food.
The Arnaldo Caprai 25 Anni usually retail for about $90. It is much more available than the Bea and often older vintages can be found. It is a beast of a wine. I have heard some lovers of this wine complain, only half in jest, that they have never tasted a mature bottle of this wine. Truth be told, I have only had one that I thought was ready to drink. A 1997, bought in a restaurant in Sorrento, Italy last year, was absolutely fantastic. This dark opaque wine had an aroma to it that I could sniff all night including cocoa, cherries, smoke and currants. The flavor was dominated with cherries, black raspberries and a bit of raisins. This wine was decanted for an hour before serving and was still quite young. I doubt it will reach its peak for ten years. On the other hand, a bottle of the 2000 that I opened not too long ago required much more air. I decanted it for 10 hours prior to drinking. Even then it was still so young and tight with lots of tannins. That did not stop anyone at the table from appreciating it. It was fantastic. I would like to revisit the wine in another 10 to 20 years. As such a large wine, this needs serious food to stand up to it. No delicate flavors for this wine. Treat it like you would a young Californian Cabernet of young Bordeaux.
There are other less expensive Sagrantinos that mature more quickly and are worth seeking out. Caprai makes a wine called Collepiano that is reasonably priced and rather accessible for Sagrantino. Collepiano is ready to drink now but can be aged for a few years and available for around $50. Other Sagrantino di Montefalcos that I have found to be worth trying include Milzade Antano (around $50), Colepetrone (about $40), Antonelli (about $30), Adanti (about $30) and Terre de Trinci (about $30). All of these provide authentic drinking pleasure. These are intellectually interesting wines that will please your fruit loving friends too. If you should happen to also see the dessert wine from any of these producers, and are feeling wealthy that day, try one of those too!
Sagrantino di Montelfalcos are food friendly wines that match nicely with most Italian foods. They have the tannins to hold up to a nice steak or lamb. They go nicely with pastas or pizza. Add some truffles if available for a great match.
I hope you all go out and try a bottle or two and let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.