One of the best things about the most unique Italian wines – and perhaps the reason I love these wines so much – is the fact that they are made with indigenous varieties. These grapes are what identify the Italian wine industry; how nice that we can still enjoy so many different regional wines from all over the country. There may be excellent examples of Cabernet Sauvignon from many corners of the globe (including a few in Italy itself), but where else can you find great bottlings of Nebbiolo, Fiano, Dolcetto or Falanghina?
Today’s post is about one of the best and most distinct of these indigenous varieties, Sagrantino. This variety has beautiful red fruit with a good amount of spice, but what it is most known for is its tannic quality; Sagrantino has higher tannin levels than almost any other variety, including Nebbiolo. Thus a well made Sagrantino has excellent aging potential; indeed, given its firm tannins, Sagrantino demands some time in the bottle before it is consumed.
Few wine lovers know of Sagrantino as it is found in only one small area – the Montefalco zone of central Umbria. This is not an area like Chianti Classico in Tuscany, which is only a short drive from a tourist mecca such as Firenze (Florence); rather this is a destination, a good distance south of Perugia, the region’s capital and a few miles east of two famous local towns, Assisi and Spoleto.
There are only a few hundred acres of Sagrantino in this area; fewer than three dozen producers work with this variety. Sagrantino di Montefalco – also known as Montefalco Sagrantino – must be produced exclusively from Sagrantino and must be aged for a minimum of 12 months in wood.
As with other reds of Italy, there are different schools of thought regarding the aging of Montefalco di Sagrantino. Some producers age the wine in French barriques, with a high percentage of new oak. This adds a certain flashiness to the wine along with deepening the color, but it also accentuates the hearty tannins already present (barriques actually increase tannins in red wines; these are wood tannins, not grape tannins).
Other producers believe that it is a mistake to highlight the tannins, so they use large casks – grandi botti – to soften the wine and decrease the effect of the tannins. Antonelli and Antano are two producers that work with large oak casks while Arnaldo-Caprai and Colpretone are two of the more famous modern style producers. Most bottlings of Sagrantino di Montefalco, whatever the aging method, tend to be at their best from 7-10 years, though some drink well for a few years longer.
A lighter red made in this district is Montefalco Rosso, which is primarily Sangiovese (usually 60-80%) with the remainder Sagrantino (or perhaps a bit of Merlot). This is a much lighter wine that is released about a year earlier than Sagrantino di Montefalco, has higher acidity and lighter tannins. This is a wonderful food wine, especially with the local pork (maiale) that Umbria is so famous for.
The most renowned producers of Sagrantino di Montefalco (and Montefalco Rosso) include
There is also a wonderful dessert wine here called Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito. This is produced from grapes that have been dried in boxes or on mats in a special temperature controlled room for several months. During this drying process, much of the water in the grapes evaporates, which intensifies the berries and shrivels them (much the same as when Amarone from the Valpolicella district in Veneto is produced).
These passito wines are medium sweet with notes of bitter chocolate and delicious black raspberry fruit and contain about 14.5% to 15% alcohol. They are wonderful on their own or with a raspberry or blackberry tart. These should generally be consumed within 5-7 years of the vintage date.