Thu 13 Nov 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.