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Taming the Beast

Posted on  | January 19, 2015   Bookmark and Share
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Montefalco is a very old wine region with a very new story to tell. The main character in that narrative is a single grape—Sagrantino. Although winemaking has been happening in this part of Umbria for over 2,000 years, and Sagrantino (which means “sacred”) has long been crafted by Franciscan monks into sweet passito wine, it wasn’t produced as a serious dry red wine until about 40 years ago.

In fact, the grape had all but disappeared by the 1970s when a few committed producers resurrected it. Awarded DOCG status in 1992, the past few decades have seen a massive transformation. Outsiders have flocked to this once-sleepy region in Central Italy, bringing investment and know-how from other parts of Italy and beyond. Just 15 years ago there were a mere six wineries; now there are 74.

With quality up dramatically in the last decade, as producers learn how to harness the grape’s legendary power, Sagrantino di Montefalco is currently responsible for some of the most stunning wines in Central Italy.

One of a Kind Grape

Despite the medieval walls and 12th century cobblestone streets, Montefalco vibrates with a youthful energy—and is dotted with new construction. The most visible symbol of the region’s renaissance is the ultra-modern Castelbuono winery, built by the Trentino-based Lunelli family, owners of the sparkling wine brand Ferrari. The structure, designed by the famed sculptor, Arnaldo Pomodoro, is a massive gleaming copper tortoise shell—the symbol of patience, power and longevity.

Most of the conversation in Montefalco revolves around how to bring out the best in Sagrantino, a monster of a grape. There is literally no other grape like it: miraculously, Sagrantino is not related to any other known varietal. A small berry with lots of skin and large seeds, it’s one of the most tannic grapes in the world, and controlling those tannins—not to mention all the polyphenols, sugars and alcohol—is incredibly tricky. (Sagrantino’s tannins have intimidated man for centuries: There was a law against picking it too early in the 1500s for fear that unripe tannins would render the wine undrinkable.)

There are no shortcuts to ripe tannins, believes Devis Romanelli, whose family has farmed olives in Umbria since the late ’70s and began bottling their own Sagrantino in 2007. Romanelli was the only producer I visited who still had grapes on the vine at the end of October; he sometimes harvests into November, he told me, convinced that Sagrantino can handle the extreme ripeness because it retains naturally high acidity: “Some producers pick early and use oak and battonage [stirring the lees back into the wine] to soften the tannins, but if you want the seeds to be mature, the grapes need that extra time on the vine.”

Achieving the right kind of ripeness isn’t simple, says Falesco’s Riccardo Cotarella, who consults throughout Umbria and Lazio and made his first Sagrantino in 2006. “Extreme attention to vine management is the key to obtaining grapes that have polyphenolic ripeness without an excess of sugar ripeness,” he explains. “We need to guide the grapes so everything happens in the right time.” Both Romanelli and Cotarella agree that stressing the vines—which brings about extra sugar and flavor concentration much desired in most wine regions—would be a disaster for Sagrantino.

Sagrantino Finds its Footing

“My first glass of Sagrantino was one of my worst memories ever,” says Roberto Paris, wine director at Il Buco, in downtown Manhattan. “It was the harshest wine I’d ever tasted.” Paris has since become Sagrantino’s most important ambassador in the U.S., turning Il Buco into a destination for Umbrian wine (in the early ’90s when he began, Paolo Bea and Arnaldo Caprai were the only Sagrantinos imported). “It used to be a lottery to drink Sagrantino; what has happened in the last 15 years has been astounding.”

“Sagrantino was not ready for the spotlight 15 years ago,” says Filippo Antonelli, who runs his family’s winery. “It was too tannic, too green and often too oaked. It’s very different today and we see it can be truly elegant.”

The Antonelli family, which purchased this 13th century estate in 1881, was instrumental in Sagrantino’s revival, yet Filippo himself admits the learning curve has been steep. When he took over in 1986, he replanted the vines to higher density and reduced the use of new French oak in favor of large vats for aging. Like most of the best producers I’ve tasted, Antonelli hand-picks and only gently presses. He also pumps over during fermentation in his gravity-fed winery, in order to avoid excess tannin extraction. Steps like these are just now being practiced on a wider scale
in the region.

One advantage to having so many newcomers in Montefalco is that producers’ hands aren’t bound by long-held
traditions, and there is a great willingness to experiment. At the sustainably-run and solar-powered Perticaia, which just completed its 11th vintage, young winemaker Alessdandro Meniconi is working with small oak barrels and micro-oxygenation to create wines that are softer and more approachable young. At Le Cimate winery, 32-year-old Paolo Bartoloni proudly lays claim to “the most high-tech winery in the region,” complete with touch screen panels. Though the Bartoloni family isn’t new to the region, their winery is just three years old, and in addition to planting unorthodox grapes like Viognier and crafting a rosé of Sagrantino, Bartoloni constantly experiments with a wide range of French and Slovenian barrels with a variety of toasts, sizes and age.

Even Montefalco’s most historic wineries are revamping their winemaking. Scacciadiavoli (which means “Devil Banisher” for an exorcism which took place here in the 17th century), one of the oldest wineries in Montefalco, switched gears in the late 90s, embracing technology, temperature control and French oak. “We decided to restart and take a more modern approach,” says Liù Pambuffetti, whose family owns the estate. “We are still a traditional winery and believe in long bottle aging, but wanted our wines to be friendlier and less rustic.” The Pambuffettis also craft two unusual yet tasty Sagrantino Spumantes. “We thought, ‘what do we do with young Sagrantino vines with northern exposure?’ The grapes have the perfect pH and acidity for sparkling wine,” she says.

The Style Spectrum

Discussion over the distinct Sagrantino styles which have emerged tends to position Arnaldo Caprai and Paolo Bea at opposite ends of a spectrum. Caprai is widely credited with reviving Sagrantino in the late 1970s, and campaigning for its DOC status in 1979. Run by son Marco today, Caprai is the largest vintner in the region, producing 800,000 bottles a year. His style is unapologetically modern, right down to his sleek tasting room, the first of its kind to host visitors in the region.

A whirling dervish of energy, Marco himself is a tireless promoter for Sagrantino on the global stage, and his precise, muscular wines are some of Montefalco’s most awarded. The family has spent millions on research, and it was Caprai’s experiments with clonal selection that has provided the region with much of the Sagrantino vines now cultivated. In the winery, Caprai is experimenting with new squat tanks which give the grapes 250% more skin contact.

Caprai’s ambition for the region goes far beyond winemaking at this point; his New Green Revolution aims to transform Italy’s approach to agriculture, with an emphasis on institutional and environmental sustainability, and he has opened a technical school at his winery. Caprai has invented trucks which reduce spraying by 95%, weather stations to track mold in the vineyard, and GPS devices to monitor workers. “We must become more efficient and learn how to produce more with less,” he explains.

At the other end of the style spectrum is Paolo Bea. While most producers debate how to harness, tame or control the wily Sagrantino grape, Bea takes a hands-off approach. The family has farmed this land since the 1500s, but didn’t produce wine until 1980. Paolo’s son Giampiero is at the helm today, and has pushed the estate even father in the non-interventionist direction as an active member of the Natural Wine movement, which believes in using organically-grown grapes, and adding nothing and removing nothing once in the cellar.

“I want to taste the identity of the land,” he tells me. “In every wine, you have 80% water, 12-15% alcohol—that last 5-8% is the identity of the land, and it comes from the seeds, the skins and the juice of the grapes.” Bea uses only natural yeasts present on the grape’s skins to kick-start fermentation, leaves his wines to macerate with their character-imparting skins and seeds far longer than conventional winemakers, and won’t fine or filter before bottling. “Most wines are a construction,” Bea describes. “They may be good, but they are a
man-made construction.”

“Bea is like the Taliban—he won’t compromise,” says Giuseppe Rosati, wine director at NYC’s The Lamb’s Club. And there is a high price to pay when things go wrong: in 2013 and 2014, Bea, who refuses to spray copper, watched all his Sagrantino grapes rot on the vine. His conviction—and ethereal wines—have made Paolo Bea one of the most coveted producers, particularly within the American
sommelier crowd.

One of my favorite discoveries was newcomer Bellafonte, where Milan-businessman Peter Heilbron hews a middle ground between modern and traditional—embracing technology, while using Bea-like techniques (no filtration, native yeasts, large Slovenian barrels, no filtration) to achieve Sagrantinos of rare complexity. “I wanted to push Sagrantino farther in terms of elegance and refinement; coming from the north, I brought a different sensibility,” Heilbron told me. His solar-powered winery is constructed with metal crates filled with stones to ensure natural humidity, an idea he took from Montalcino.

 “People from this region don’t know how special it is—it’s still a very hidden part of Italy,” Heilbron describes. Two big advantages Umbria has over its far more famous neighbor, Tuscany: “Tremendous biodiversity—it helps to not have a concentration of vines. And land prices are much less than Tuscany.”


Blockbusters with Grace

While big-boned, blockbuster wines are out of fashion with the sommelier set today, Sagrantino walks the line where refinement meets power, offering nuance, minerality and even grace. “It is a muscular wine, but that doesn’t mean it’s not elegant,” describes Rosati. “My mission is to design wines that fit our restaurant’s food and with dishes like ragu pasta and braised lamb, you need a wine with some power.” Still, Sagrantino is not an easy-drinking wine, he maintains: “If you have not tasted a wine like this, you need to spend time to understand it. Sagrantino will not always win you over on
the first time.”

“There is no other wine exactly like it, which can be disorienting at first,” says Raphael Ginsburg, wine director at Manhattan’s Ai Fiori and Costata. “It’s full in body, tannin and fruit yet still shows terroir and a funky earthy quality which make it quintessentially Italian.”

Sagrantino was a hand-sell in the early days at Il Buco, notes Wine Director Roberto Paris, but with 10 producers on his list and two by-the-glass offerings, the wine today is a signature of the restaurant. “I recommend Sagrantino for someone who likes a big, fleshy Syrah but wants something with more interesting layers and flavors,” he says. “Almost 100% of the people who try Sagrantino will reorder.”

Ginsburg lists 15 different Sagrantinos—two by the glass—and they represent one out of every 25 bottles sold at Costata, proof that “if you build it they will come,” he says. “Most importers and distributors are afraid to take on more than one or two, but I have found if you offer more the market is there.”

Plus, they are competitively priced, he believes. “Compared to other full-bodied Italian wines, Sagrantino offers great value,” says Ginsburg. “A bottle might cost $100 on a list; but you would pay at least $200 for an Amarone, Brunello or a Super Tuscan for the same profile.”

Just one more reason that of Italy’s thousands of indigenous varieties, Sagrantino is currently generating some of the most excitement. “Producers here today place more emphasis on crafting Sagrantinos with a greater expression of place and territory, and you can taste this in the wines,” says Cotarella. “This is ultimately what will give Umbria the dignity it deserves.”


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