Taming the beast
Producers in the small Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG in Umbria have developed an approachable modern style for their notoriously tannic native Sagrantino grape. Susan Hulme MW charts their progress and recommends eight wines to try
IN THE THROWAWAY consumer culture of the modern world, Sagrantino is an anomaly. This thick-skinned, extremely tannic black grape is difficult to tame in both vineyard and winery. It needs five years or more in bottle to come around, but when it does, it’s a wine of great character and personality with an enviable capacity for long ageing. It is worth the wait.
Sagrantino grows almost exclusively around the town of Montefalco, Umbria. The region is best known for its white Orvieto wines and is called the Cuore Verde (‘green heart’) of Italy, due to its central location and its very green landscape. Having no sea access, Umbria has always been a little hidden. It is quieter and less touristy than its more famous neighbours, Tuscany to the north and Lazio to the south, but it is more mystical and somehow more authentic.
A dramatic Apennine Mountain skyline borders the region’s beautifully undulating
hillsides and wide, generous valleys. Its lower valleys are shrouded in early-morning mists and dotted with olive groves. Hilltops are crowned with medieval walled towns like Todi and Montefalco, the bustling university city of Perugia and Umbria’s jewel, glimmering Assisi, birthplace of St Francis. The area is dominated by its historic connection to the church and a sense of spirituality; quiet contemplation still lingers in the stillness of the landscape.
Indeed, the name Sagrantino comes from the Latin word sacer meaning ‘sacred’. Its tannins were so dense and chewy that the grapes were often left to ripen late on the vine, making a sweet passito wine of dried grapes to use as a sacramental wine during mass, with the tannins giving a balancing, almost bitter finish. Traditionally it would be paired with roast lamb at Easter celebrations, with the fatty richness of the lamb being balanced by the contrasting sweet and bitter flavours of the wine, almost like a vinous redcurrant sauce. The sweet passito version of Sagrantino makes the perfect partner for salty cheeses such as Pecorino, or dark chocolate.
Dry Sagrantino wines are a relatively recent creation. First produced experimentally in the 1970s, the style was taken more seriously in the 1980s and 1990s. For a long time, however, consumers did not take an interest in Italy’s more obscure native grapes. Montefalco Sagrantino was almost extinct; as recently as 2000 there were only 10 wineries producing Sagrantino wines, illustrated by producer Giampaolo Tabarrini trying to find another producer from just outside the zone to make up the numbers for a tasting he was organising.
A new dawn
When Sagrantino di Montefalco achieved DOCG status in 1992 (it was renamed Montefalco Sagrantino in 2009), vineyards
totalled only 66ha. Since then, plantings have increased to 760ha. Although the total is still relatively small, it represents a dramatic increase. In the same period, the number of producers has increased from 10 to 60. Some of the growth has come from existing growers becoming wine producers, such as Tabarrini and recently Bernadetti & Grigi. There are also producers who have moved in from other Italian regions, seizing the opportunity to invest in a characterful grape variety with such untapped potential, including Tuscanbased Cecchi and Trentino’s Lunelli. Foreign investors are also showing interest.
Taming the tannins
The big issue with Sagrantino has always been how to tame its rustic tannins and make the wine more approachable, without losing its character. It is famously late-ripening and in an ideal world would be harvested at the end of October. But in the past it was often picked earlier to avoid bad weather, meaning tannins could be unripe and hard. However, picking late risks raising alcohol levels to around 16%, resulting in a loss of freshness and vitality. It is a constant balancing act.
Some producers feel that climate change has had a positive effect: warmer, drier autumns mean Sagrantino can be picked when both fruit and tannins are mature, but without excessive alcohol. Factor in better vineyard management and this has all allowed producers to obtain better fruit concentration and overall ripeness plus better balance.
The story of Sagrantino’s renaissance is not complete without mentioning the Caprai family. Since taking over the running of his
father Arnaldo’s eponymous winery in the early 1990s, he has been at the forefront of Sagrantino research. In collaboration with the University of Milan, he sought to identify the variety’s optimum yield, vineyard spacing, planting density and training methods. The research has also developed the best clones, three of which – Collepiano, 25 Anni and Cobra – are now commercially available.
In the winery, tannins are better managed by more careful pressing, cool fermentations, gentle extraction and larger, older oak barrels. But Sagrantino’s high tannic content brings some side benefits: it is extremely high in polyphenols, the compounds which impart colour, aroma and texture but also one of our modern health obsessions, antioxidants. ‘Sagrantino has the highest quantity of polyphenols in the world,’ explains Caprai.
Other producers do not want to overemphasise the powerful, tannic nature of Sagrantino. Giampaolo Tabarrini, who has
‘Sagrantino has absolute originality. Once upon a time, that was a limitation. Now it is a blessing’ Amilcare Pambuffetti
been fervently developing single-vineyard wines, accepts the challenges of the variety.
‘I don’t see Sagrantino as a big monster… and I am not impressed by sweetness and richness. I like freshness.’ He tries to keep pH levels relatively low to achieve freshness, as well as prioritising more fundamental choices, such as selecting the right vineyard site. For Tabarrini, terroir is key. ‘Sagrantino is not something you can produce all over [the world]. You have to treat it right in the vineyard and winery to coax the best out of it.’ The fact that it does best in its homeland, rather like Nebbiolo in Barolo, only adds to its allure.
It takes great people to turn grapes into fine wine and the Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG has a dedicated and passionate group of producers who are willing to work together for the common good. Amilcare Pambuffetti, head of one of the area’s oldest estates, Scacciadiavoli, and former president of the consorzio explains: ‘Sagrantino has a characteristic of absolute originality. Once upon a time, that was a limitation. Now it is a blessing.’
Today, people are more willing to celebrate unique, individual and authentic qualities in both food and wine. As the quality of Sagrantino wines improves, it is time for Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG to take its place among the great wines of the world.
Below: autumn colour in the vineyards of Montefalco Sagrantino
Above: Arnaldo Caprai, a pioneering producer and researcher of Montefalco Sagrantino
The cellars of Benedetti & Grigi
Above: Liù and Iacopo Pambuffetti of Scacciadiavoli