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

Decanter - - MONTEFALCO SAGRANTINO - Susan Hulme MW is a wine writer spe­cial­is­ing in Ital­ian wines. Since 2016 she has writ­ten reg­u­larly for De­can­ter and De­can­ter.com

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.