Wines from the heart of Italy’s Umbria region are capturing increased attention as international awareness grows in tandem with rising quality. At the symbolic and geographical center of the Umbrian Valley is Montefalco. The city is surrounded by 12th century walls and designed so that all roads lead to the beautiful Municipal Square.
The jewel of the Montefalco wine region is Sagrantino, a grape variety that grows only in this region of Umbria. How old and how native Sagrantino is has always been subject to debate.
The name can be traced to the word “sacraments” (from the Latin “Sacer” – “Sacred”) as the wine was cultivated by monks to make a wine for religious rites. Some say that the Franciscan brothers of Assisi imported the grape variety from Asia Minor in the 14th-15th centuries as they returned from missionary trips. Others claim that the grape is native to Spain and that the Saracens first brought it to the region.
The grape almost completely disappeared in the 1960s, but it was revived by a dedicated band of wine producers. In 1979 the DOC (Controlled Denomination of Origin) label was obtained and in 1992, the DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Denomination of Origin) label, reserved for Italy’s premium wines, was secured.
Sagrantino is an inky, purple grape, with one of the highest tannic levels of any in the world. Due to the massive tannins, the wines need three to four years to mellow. The wines are bold and heady with blackberry, plum and earthy qualities.
In 1998 the few Sagrantino vines in Montefalco were labeled and classified. It was found that some dated back to between 1700 and 1800. Between 2000 and 2008 the production of Sagrantino quadrupled and today totals more than 2.5 million bottles.
The medieval hillside town of Montefalco is also embracing the newfound interest. Wine tourism is up 20% since 2013 and travelers can choose from winery tours, gastronomic adventures such as truffle hunting or pasta making, hiking or visits to their beautiful churches or Museo Civico di San Francesco.
Montefalco gives its name to a red DOC blend that is 60% to 70% Sangiovese and 10% to 15% Sagrantino. The remainder of the Rosso blend is from other grapes. There is also a fresh Bianco (white) DOC blend that is at least 50% Grechetto and 20 to 25% Trebianno. The DOC wines must age for 18 months while the Riserva DOC get 30 months of aging with at least 12 months in oak.
There are two varieties of Montefalco di Sagrantino DOCG: the dry red and the traditional Passito (sweet) wine. For the Passito, grapes are left to dry on mats for two months and then pressed. The must (pulps, skin and seeds) is left to ferment together with the grapes. The result? A sweet and unique “vino da meditazione” or meditation wine.
The main attraction is the immense and powerful Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG. To get to the heart of these wines, our culinary team (that is to say, my wife and daughter) decided to prepare an Umbrian dinner for us to enjoy the Arnaldo-Caprai 2012 Montefalco Rosso DOC and the Scacciadiavoli 2008 Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG.
We began with olive bruschetta served with Pecorino Romano cheese and Heirloom tomatoes. This paired with the Arnaldo-Caprai Montefalco Rosso.
The Rosso is light garnet in color and sparkled like a jewel in the glass. The Pecorino is made from sheep’s milk and is hard and salty. It was a spot on pairing with the Arnaldo-Caprai, which exhibits a beautiful balance between fruit and earthiness. It is a blend of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino and 15% Merlot. Soft and inviting, it has a medium body and lasting finish.
Arnaldo-Caprai has been a trailblazer in the production of top quality Sagrantino. In 1971 Arnaldo Caprai founded the winery in order to produce unique, high quality Umbrian wines. That quest has become a family enterprise.
In 1988, Arnaldo’s son Marco began managing the family business. His determination led to new acquisitions, scientific research and technological innovation. A collaboration with the University of Milan and other research institutes led to the identification of new clones of Sagrantino helping to propel production of the Arnaldo-Caprai’s awarding winning wines.
I savored each drop of their handiwork as Green Dragon (my wife) and daughter Rachel worked on the main course. Rachel is a hospitality management graduate from Kent State and has been working in ski resort restaurants, so her culinary skills were on display.
Knowing that Montefalco Sagrantino are big, bold wines, I started decanting the Scacciadiavoli two hours before dinner. Scacciadiavoli means “drives away devils.” The ladies decided on a rustic Umbrian meal of Salsicce con Lenticchie e Salsa di Pomodoro, a hearty lentil stew topped with a tomato sauce and Italian sausages. You can find Jamie Oliver’s recipe for the dish here. Our chefs added rainbow chard since they had harvested it that afternoon from our garden. Strong cheeses or meats are good choices for food pairings with Sagrantino.
Scacciadiavoli is the oldest winery in the Montefalco appellation. It was built in the second half of the 19th century when Prince Boncompagni-Ludovisi left Rome to dedicate himself to the art of wine production. The winery covers 321 acres, 86 of which are covered with vineyards. With sand, schist and clay soils, it is well suited for late maturing varieties like Sagrantino.
Sitting down at the dinner table, this is what I imagined Italy’s la dolce vita to be: family, delicious food and exquisite wine. The aroma of the Scacciadiavoli is intense with earth and leather mingled with red fruit and spice. The wine is aged in new oak for 16 months and the tannins pack quite a punch. The sausage and spice in the dish combined to dial back the power of the wine to a forceful elegance. For me, the wine offered freshness and red berry flavors in addition to a dash of spice.
These wines evoke a sense of discovery. They embrace a tradition that flourished in the 1500’s yet taste fresh and exciting. To experience Montefalco wines is to not only discover the heart of Umbria, but the soul of Italy.
Acknowledgements: Photos by TWAV, photo styling by “Green Dragon,” video photos by: HrodebertRobertus via Compfight cc ho visto nina volare via Compfight cc and diego_pino_garcia via Compfight cc . Grazie a Consorzio Tutela Vini Montefalco for providing the wine.