Landlocked Umbria has long been thought of as Tuscany’s little sister, a hidden treasure housing such jewels as Orvieto’s cathedral, and ancient Etruscan ruins. Having spent several days here on my (only) trip to Italy several years ago, I feel in love with the unique culture that Umbria’s landscape provides, with a distinct culture of wine, food, and people. One thing I did not experience however, until now, is the sultry allure of the local red wine: Sagrantino.
While this small province in central Italy is dwarfed in wine production by Tuscany, Umbria offers a unique wine culture. While Tuscany prides itself on wines based on the Sangiovese grape, Umbria in general, and Montefalco and it’s environs in particular, focus on the indigenous Sagrantino grape. Sangrantino is purely Umbrian, ancient, smoky, sultry, tannic, and entirely unique. With only 250 acres planted, the hill towns of this area are the geographical center of the Umbrian Valley, and you can see the hill of Montefalco from nearly anywhere. This is one of the few locations where wine was made inside the city walls, and there is still evidence of that to this day.
Here in the heart of Umbria, the Montefalco production area is tiny, approximately 250 acres of rolling hillsides, and only 25 or so producers. While it’s origins are still unclear, it is clear that it has been cultivated in Umbria since at least the Middle Ages. Here in Italy, where the laws are strict, the yield must not be over 8,000kg per hectare, and the vilification must be done within the specific towns in the production area. Since this area is so small, that doesn’t lead to a large production. These rules can be tricky to adhere to, but the results are pure magic, and wines that can be aged for as long, if not longer than Sangiovese due to the high tannin and strong fruit characters.
After enduring a quiet period in history, where winemaking was largely forgotten, Sagrantino di Montefalco finally claimed DOC status in 1979, and was promoted to DOCG in the early 90s, piquing the interest of Italians and the export market alike. Now, I am excited to explore two wines of the region, after having my appetite whet by Nello Olivio Wines in El Dorado County earlier this year.
The DOCG Montefalco Sagrantino must be 100% Sagrantino, and the specific yield limits make it a challenge to grow and produce. In the 2010 Perticaia Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG, they have achieved this with balance and elegance. Azienda Agraria Perticaia prides itself on maintaining the traditions of the past, and is careful to be a thoughtful steward of the land and the ancient grapes.
Today, Perticaia holds over 7 hectares of Sagrantino, which makes them one of the largest single growers in the area. Because the Montefalco DOCG must be 100% Sagrantino, this is a labor of love. Grapes are hand harvested, and fermented with native yeast, after a long maceration (3 weeks). Aging continues for at least 30 months, as per the DOCG rules, and in the case of the Perticaia, small French oak barrels for 12 months, followed by 12 months in stainless steel, and 12 months in bottle for a total of 36 months prior to release. The intensely floral aromas have strong tannins that are made more silky by the additional bottle aging, and can age for at least another 10 years. Rich plum notes and smoky leather work well with hard cheese and rich meat dishes, and the spice box has been opened for this beautiful wine.
2011 Colpetrone Rosso di Montefalco DOC – In contrast to the 100% Sagrantino in the Montefalco Sagrantino, the Rosso di Montefalco is required to have at least 60% of Sangiovese, as well at least 10% Sagrantino. Colpetrone, one of the most important wine producers in the Montefalcto DOCG, also hopes to maintain history, and showcase the power and finesse of the Sagrantino grape.
The Colpetrone Rosso di Montefalco is a blend of Sangiovese (at least 60%), Sagrantion (at least 10%) and Merlot, which rounds out the edges with a softness. This was fermented in stainless steel and then aged in stainless steel (60%) as well as French Oak tonneaux and barriques (40%), and blended before bottle aging for four months. Brilliant notes of anise, cracked black pepper and chocolate shine through dark berries and hard spices. The rich black fig flavors make this a natural pairing for hard cheeses as well as blue cheese, and the medium tannins work well with sausages, and red meat. This is a more casual wine, but still holds the essence of the Sagrantino grape and tipicity. The Rosso is a wine that can be enjoyed ina more causal environment, but is well poised for aging for another five years.
While difficult to find, these wines are a true taste of Umbria, and are great with hearty pasta dishes, meats, and convivial meetings in the piazza. While I haven’t’ visited this particular area of Italy (yet), I hope to explore more of this unique grape and taste the flavors that it can offer.
Special thanks to the Consorzio Montefalco for providing these two examples of Umbria’s signature grape, a Rosso (blend) and Sagrantino (stand alone).