Sagrantino


The red wines of Montefalco are becoming better known on these shores, a move that I heartily endorse. Ever since visiting the charming and minuscule hill-town in eastern Umbria in 1996, I ac-nv-montefalco-rosso-bottle-pphave loved the wines of the surrounding region. This area used to be pretty monocultural, that is the wines were made from one dominant grape, the sagrantino, hence the wines were officially designated Sagrantino di Montefalco. Sagrantino produces a fairly tough and tannic wine that needs years to come around, but a Montefalco Rosso is also made, the motivation being to offer a more immediately drinkable (and less expensive) version of the region’s wine. The interesting aspect is that Montefalco Rosso consists primarily of sangiovese grapes. Hmmm, you think, so Umbria becomes an outpost of Tuscany? Not only that, but there’s the international touch of merlot, making Montefalco Rosso more of a hybrid but one that’s unique. One of the best examples is the Arnaldo-Caprai Montefalco Rosso 2013, a dark savory red wine perfectly appropriate for the full-flavored foods of Autumn. The blend is 70 percent sangiovese and 15 percent each sagrantino and merlot; the wine aged one year in 70 percent Slavonian oak barrels and 30 percent French barriques. The color is deep ruby, opaque at the center and shading to a slightly lighter rim; aromas of black cherries and raspberries are permeated by notes of sour cherry and cherry pit, bolstered by bass-tones of graphite, sage and heather; a few moments in the glass add hints of leather and tar, violets and lavender. The wine possesses acidity in spades for buoyancy and layers of dusty, fairly rigorous, briery-brambly tannins for structure, but on the whole it offers an appreciably softer, more fruit-forward experience for the consumer, that fruit consisting of spicy black and red cherries and plums feeling a bit macerated and stewed. The finish remains austere at this point, so open the wine an hour before serving and drink with braised short ribs and veal shanks, roasted venison and boar or robust pasta dishes. Now through 2020 or ’23. Excellent. Prices range from about $19 to $24.

Imported by Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, Calif. A sample for review.

Bill Mosby is probably weary, weary of people describing his winery as “a little bit of Italy in Santa Ynez Valley,” but that’s the price you pay for adhering to a strict regimen of Italian grape varieties along California’s Central Coast. Today I write about four of his wines, from a roster of 17, as well as grappa, plum brandy and other distillates, all of which he produces in minute quantities. Mosby and his wife Jeri purchased property on the old Rancho de la Vega land grant in 1976, on the Santa Rosa Road south of Buellton — population 4,828 and home of OstrichLand USA — now somewhat a center of the winemaking industry in the valley. The winery features an adobe house built in 1853, the home of the Mosby family, and a carriage house from the 1880s, the winery’s tasting room.

We have to approach the problem of what wines should be like when they’re associated with a geography and climate far away, as in thousands of miles and different longitudes and latitudes. Santa Barbara County doesn’t much resemble, for example, Italy’s chilly mountainous Alto Adige or the hilly Piedmont, but here we are, with the Mosby family, growing gewurztraminer and dolcetto. Do we judge these wines on how closely they align with a sort of ideal version of those grapes grown in their homeland or on how “good” they are, relatively speaking, considering their Central Coast origin? We have to account for these immense variations yet also consider varietal character and integrity. I blow warm and cool of these four examples from Mosby Wines, which in several cases are quite enjoyable but don’t much conjure their regions in Italy. Still, what do we expect? The one I would go back to is the Dolcetto 2012. By the way, I admire Mosby for employing large oak barrels and a minimum of new oak in making these wines. The attractive labels were designed by Robert Scherer.

These wines were samples for review.
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traminer2010
Mosby Traminer 2014, Santa Barbara County, made completely in stainless steel. The color is pale straw-gold; the bouquet is intensely floral, with notes of jasmine, honeysuckle and camellia highlighting aromas of lemon and pear, quince and ginger. The wine is clean, bright and lively, with soft peach flavors and a snap of grapefruit bitterness on the finish. The wine is very dry
and quite earthy, more loamy, in fact, than is good for a great impression. Still, an enjoyable version of the gewurztraminer grape. 13.6 percent alcohol. Production was 158 cases. Drink up. Very Good+. About $18.
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sagrantino
The sagrantino grape is indigenous to the region surrounding the incredibly quaint hill-town of Montefalco, in eastern Umbria, where it makes powerful, tannic wines with guts and grit. The Mosby Sagrantino 2011, Santa Barbara County, doesn’t measure up in that sense, though it’s pleasant enough in its way. The wine aged in large French oak barrels, 20 percent new. The color is dark ruby with a garnet rim; enticing aromas of ripe black cherries and raspberries are tinged with violets and lavender and a hint of graphite, while elements of briers, brambles and underbrush gradually emerge. What the wine lacks is sagrantino’s tannic pith and vigor. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 309 cases. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Very Good. About $38.
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dolcetto
The Mosby Dolcetto 2012, Santa Barbara County, is a lovely expression of the grape’s character. It aged in large French oak barrels, 20 percent new. It offers a dark ruby-purple hue with a magenta rim and a full-blown bouquet of ripe black currants, raspberries and plums permeated by notes of loam, forest floor, violets and oolong tea. These qualities segue seamlessly to the palate, where the wine is dense, intense and velvety and delivers very ripe, sweet black fruit flavors marked by sufficient tannin for structure and acidity for balance. 13.5 percent alcohol. Production was 302 cases. Drink through 2017 to ’19. Very Good+. About $28.
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seduzione
Lagrein is one of those grape that is fairly specific to a country or region, like poulsard in the Jura or zweigelt in Austria. Lagrein is native to Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige area, in the mountainous northeast. The Mosby La Seduzione Lagrein 2011, Central Coast, is not as seductive as its makers would like it to be, being deep, dark, inky, tarry, dense and concentrated, with intense scents and flavors of black currants, cherries and plums, dusty and velvety tannins, notes of smoke, tobacco and cedar, and not quite enough acidity to shore up all these elements. If this personality sounds enticing to you, go for it. Again, the regimen is large French oak barrels, 20 percent new. Production was 206 cases. Now through 2020 or ’21. Very Good. About $38.
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In the heart of eastern Umbria, lying in a vast bowl-shaped valley of the Apennine range, are the vineyards that harbor the indigenous red sagrantino grape. These vineyards surround the hill-town of Montefalco, one of the smallest and most charming of all of Italy’s quaint and charming hill-towns, population 5,702 (in 2007). Sagrantino has been grown here for a thousand years, used by monks for making sacramental wine — hence sagrantino. The grape possesses the thickest skin of any grape devoted to table wine and was out of favor for a great deal of the 20th century because of its reputation — well-earned — for producing hard, tannic, austere wines that would not be ready to drink for decades. The 1970s brought a revival, however, with more knowledgeable and slightly gently vinification making slightly more amenable wines, but no mistake, Sagrantino di Montefalco, now more often called Montefalco Sagrantino, is no babe-in-arms. Italian wine law dictates that the wine, consisting of 100 percent sagrantino grapes, must age 30 months before release, in some combination or sequence of oak barrels (one year required), concrete vats and bottle. The size and composition of barrels is the choice of the producer; many still lean toward the traditional large Slovenian oak casks, but as in much else of Italy, the small French barrique has made inroads.

I first encountered Sagrantino di Montefalco on a vacation to Umbria in 1996. The friends we were sojourning with near Todi suggested a day-trip to this medieval hill village in the commune of Perugia, where we would find interesting wines and a good restaurant. The town was exceptionally sweet and historic, the restaurant was indeed good, and the wines were more than interesting. They were, actually, brooding, feral, ferrous and sanguinary, meaty, deeply fruity with a tinge of black cherry and balsalm and, yes, quite dense and tannic. We bought several bottles and took them home on the airplane; remember those days?

It’s difficult to make a living from wines that consumers can’t drink for 10 or 15 years — see Brunello di Montalcino — so the powers that be in Montefalco concocted a Rosso version of the wine, but instead of simply being a cadet rendition — see Brunello di Montalcino — the Montefalco Rosso uses the region’s principle grape in a minority status. The rules for Montefalco Rosso are 60 to 70 percent sangiovese, borrowing from neighboring Tuscany, with 10 to 15 percent sagrantino and the rest red grapes of the producer’s choice, usually merlot and/or cabernet sauvignon. The wine must age 18 months in barrel, vat or bottle, meaning typically a year in oak and four to six months in bottle. More accessible, perhaps, but still a potentially formidable wine.

Today I offer brief reviews of four examples of Montefalco Sagrantino and four of Montefalco Rosso. These were sampled in what’s called a virtual tasting, me (and others) at home with the wines, connected on the Internet with the producers who were on camera in Italy. We tasters submitted questions and comments via Twitter. I have included what technical information is available.

Image of the Montefalco piazza from trekearth.com.
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Montefalco Rosso:
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Antonelli Montefalco Rosso 2010. 14% alc. 70% sangiovese, 15% sagrantino, 15% merlot. Nine months in 25-hectoliter (660-gallon) casks; three months in cement vats. Medium ruby color with a garnet rim; cloves and nutmeg, macerated red and black fruit; leather, smoke, oolong tea; dried fruit and flowers; slightly exotic, quite earthy; swingeing acidity and an austere finish. Very Good+. About $18.
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Arnaldo-Caprai Montefalco Rosso 2010. 14.5% alc. 70% sangiovese, 15% sangrantino, 15% merlot. A year in wood (70% Slavonian oak, 30% French barriques), plus four months in bottle. Deep, dense ruby hue; very sangiovese-like, with pure penetrating elements of graphite, tar, spiced tea and orange rind, currants and plums; spanking tannins and acidity; very dry; dusty loamy minerality. Cries out for braised short ribs or veal shanks. Excellent. About $22.
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Lunelli Ziggurat Montefalco Rosso 2010. 14.5% alc. 70% sangiovese, 15% sagrantino, 15% cabernet sauvignon and merlot. A year in a combination of barriques and tonneaux, that is, 225 liters and 500 liters, plus six months in bottle. Dark to medium ruby color; fleshy, meaty, spiced and macerated black and red fruit scents and flavors; a lithe, muscular and tannic wine, a little brusque now; give it a year or two. Very Good+. About $18 to $20.
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Le Cimate Montefalco Rosso 2010. 14.5% alc. 60% sangiovese, 15% sagrantino, 15% merlot, 10% cabernet sauvignon. Precise information on aging unavailable. Intense dark ruby color; very dark, spicy, tarry, dusty, iodine and iron; glimmers of deeply macerated black cherries and plums, with hints of prunes and black olives; quite tannic, dense, tense with acidity, fairly austere finish; needs a year or two. Very Good+. About $20.
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Montefalco Sagrantino:
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Scacciadiavoli 2008, Montefalco Sagrantino. 15% alc. No information on aging. Dark ruby color; deep, dark, spicy, tarry, brooding; dust, leather; fiercely tannic, ferocious acidity; earthy and loamy, iodine and iron; yes, a tinge of black and red fruit, but needs three or four more years or serious decanting before you drink. Very Good+. About $40 to $45.
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Tenuta Bellafonte 2009, Montefalco Sagrantino. 14.5% alc. This wine spent 36 months in large Slavonian oak barrels and 10 months in the bottle. Dark ruby; ripe, meaty and fleshy; prunes, black olives, balsamic character; quite dense, chewy and tannic; opens slowly, showing hints of black and red cherries, currants and plums, but overall dry, austere, demanding. Try from 2016 or ’18 through 2026 to ’30. Very Good+. About $50 to $55.
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Romanelli 2010, Montefalco Sagrantino. 15.5% alc. Dark to medium ruby; prunes and plums, spice box, tobacco leaf. rosemary and its resinous quality; spiced and macerated black and red currants, touch of blueberry; smoke and leather; brutal tannins, soaring acidity; you smell and taste the wood from 18 months in barriques and large casks; still, displays innate balance and integration. Needs four to six years before drinking or decant at least an hour before a hearty meal. Tremendous power and character. Excellent. About $40 to $45.
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Perticaia 2009, Montefalco Sagrantino. 14.5% alc. One year in French oak barriques; one year in steel vats; one year in bottle. Quite deep ruby fading to garnet at the rim; dusty graphite, iodine and iron; resinous and balsamic; tar, black olives, smoke, fermented tea; deeply macerated black currants and cherries; dense but sifted tannins, resonant acidity; dry austere finish. Excellent potential after 2016 or ’17 and developing through 2025 to ’30. About $49.
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