Sagrantino may only constitute a small percentage of Umbria’s total production, but this vibrant red grape is punching way above its weight, writes MICHELE SHAH.
Of the many native red grape wines to be recently rediscovered in Italy, Sagrantino di Montefalco – Umbria’s ‘blue chip’ wine – has to be the most unique. Trendy, exciting and vibrant, with amazing depth and longevity, it has the driving force to be considered the area’s flagship wine, despite the fact that the small, tough Sagrantino grape constitutes little more than 5% of Umbria’s total production.
Sagrantino production has doubled over the last two years, while its bottle output has tripled to some 1.7 million bottles of ‘secco’ and 120,000 bottles (375ml) of ‘passito’. The production of Sagrantino’s dry version has by a long way overtaken that of passito, which was the main focus until the mid-1980s, and which still remains a living tradition.
‘Sagrantino was mainly vinified as a passito because the tannins are notably harsh and difficult to tame,’ says Filippo Antonelli, president of the Montefalco Consorzio and owner of San Marco, one of Montefalco’s historical estates. ‘I like to think of passito as a “desert” wine – a wine to be enjoyed on its own – and not as a “dessert” wine,’ he jokes.
In the passito, it is the contrast of the sweetness with the dry tannins that makes it unique in style and traditionally paired to savoury foods such as seasoned cheeses, roast lamb and wild boar.
Due to the rapid surge of small estates over the past decade, 90% of Sagrantino’s vineyards are under five years old. The DOCG granted in 1992 encompasses five communes (Montefalco, Bevagna, Castel Ritaldi, Giano dell’Umbria and Gualdo Cattaneo), 200 grape growers, 44 estates and 550ha (hectares), with an additional 300 hectares currently being planted.
Sagrantino is a low-yielding variety with a high sugar content, which, when fermented, is transformed into an average 14–14.5? alcohol. In a good vintage, this powerful wine, which ages some 30 months (a year of this in oak) before being released on the market, has a life potential of 30 years or more.
Like many indigenous varieties, Sagrantino is a temperamental grape. By nature, it is characterised by large pips and a thick skin, the latter being high in phenolic content, which constitutes its tannic, astringent structure and muscle. Moreover, as a late-ripening variety, it needs to reach perfect phenolic ripeness.
‘Today, we have a much better understanding of the variety and of the importance of the phenolic ripeness,’ says Arnaldo Caprai producer Marco Caprai, who is credited with placing Sagrantino on the global map. Caprai was one of the first producers to commercially embrace the production of the dry version. The estate is one of the largest in the area, comprising some 150ha and a total production of 600,000 bottles, of which 260,000 are Rosso and 120,000 Sagrantino.
‘We began in the 1990s with massal vineyard selections, followed by clonal selections in 1991. We have collected some 60 different clones, three of which are officially registered,’ explains Caprai, who continues his in-house research in a 25ha experimental vineyard, planted to different clones and a range of high-density growing systems.
The first estate documented to have made a secco version was Scacciadiavoli, founded in 1884 and with records of Sagrantino exports to USA and Japan dating back to 1925. Purchased by Pambuffetti di Amilcare in 1954, it is considered one of Montefalco’s historic estates, alongside Antonelli’s San Marco, Adanti and the cooperative, Terre de Trinci, which started bottling the secco in the 1970s.
Filippo Antonelli recognised the potential of Sagrantino back in the late- 1980s, when he started bottling his secco wine. His style is appreciated for its classic elegance and longevity. Similarly, Adanti’s wines, launched by Montefalco-born Alvaro Pallini, have always shown balance. Pallini, a Paris-based tailor, knew little about winemaking when he started out – he was the personal tailor to Giacomo Tachis, then winemaker to Antinori, who exchanged invaluable advice on winemaking and barrel ageing for impeccably made suits. Adanti’s winemaking has since been inherited by Alvaro’s son Daniele, with the assistance of consultant oenologist Graziana Grassini – also a pupil of Tachis.
Over the last 10 years, about 20 new estates have come into their own, including big names and recent investments from outside, such as Cecchi’s Alzatura, Livon’s Fattoria Colsanto, Ferrari’s Tenuta Castelbuono and Torgiano’s Lungarotti.
With such a small area of production, individuality is important, and the personality of the wine should tell us something about the producer. Salvo Ferrado’s Madonna Alta and Giampaolo Tabarrini are both young, dynamic estates producing a new-wave style of Sagrantino; this is characterised by fruit-driven ripeness, concentration, firm tannins and a vibrant, peppery and fresh finish.
‘There’s room for everyone,’ asserts Guido Guardigli, owner of the recently born Perticaia estate, and previously consultant to Scacciadiavoli and Colpetrone. His vineyard has expanded tenfold, from 1.5ha in 2002 to 15ha today, of which half is currently in production.
Terroir and Sagrantino’s geographical uniqueness are two values at the heart of Francesco Antano’s 10ha estate and Giampiero Bea’s 5ha estate. Both like to categorise their production under vini veri – true wines, made with little cellar technology, showing the ‘individuality’ of their producers.
For a small, focused area, Sagrantino’s producers are a far-sighted lot. Future plans include an ageing project in conjunction with San Michele dell’Adige’s research institute, to determine the optimum ageing method and vessel, with the aim of making Sagrantino a more approachable wine at an earlier age, but without compromising its longevity. Research is also being carried out on the grape’s unique polyphenols. Initial results based on the 2003 vintage will be available in 2006.
‘Sagrantino has great potential and layers of mystery still to be uncovered,’ contemplates Antonelli. ‘Slowly but surely, we’re getting there.’
Adanti Passito 1999 *****
Ripe, complex and aromatic, with persimmons, figs, plums, cinnamon, balanced sweetness and acidity, plus a long, moreish finish. Drink now-2022.
N/A UK; +39 0742 360 295
Adanti Sagrantino 2000 *****
Individual in style, with intense, spicy aromas; full and round on the palate; balanced, elegant finish. Drink now-2020. N/A UK; +39 0742 360 295
Antonelli San Marco Sagrantino 1998 *****
An exceptional vintage; powerful, complex notes of plum and blackberry; sweet tannins; long, sapid finish. Drink now-2018. N/A UK; +39 0742 379 158
Caprai 25th Anniversary Sagrantino 1998 *****
Creamy, raspberry, with layers of cedar and leather; full on the palate; tight-knit tannins; fine finish. Drink now-2022. N/A UK; +39 0742 378 802
Adanti Sagrantino 2000 ****
Floral, herbal bouquet with layers of complexity; structured and full on the palate, with a long, fresh finish. Drink now-2015. N/A UK; +39 0742 360 295
Fattoria Colle Alodole Sagrantino 1999 ****
Slightly austere, but with great character and personality; fine core of fruit, and ripe, firm tannins; persistent, fresh finish. Drink now-2015. N/A UK; +39 0742 360 371
Adanti Sagrantino 1995 ***
Herbal notes mingle with redcurrant, mint, cedar and leather; firm tannins, good acidity, medium body and length. Drink now-2010. N/A UK; +39 0742 360 295
Antonelli San Marco Sagrantino 1985 ***
Gracefully aged; ruby red with evolved notes of tobacco, leather and berries; layers of complexity. Drink now. N/A UK; +39 0742 379 158
Madonna Alta Sagrantino 2002 ***
Difficult vintage, showing vibrant fruit character and ripe tannins; balanced and persistent.
Drink now-2012 N/A UK; +39 0742 378 568
Scacciadiavoli Passito 2001 ***
Explosive, ripe, red berry fruit; weighty, with
silky tannins; very long finish. Drink now-2020
N/A UK; +39 0742 378 272
Tabarrini Giampaolo Sagrantino 2001 ***
Captivating, brambly nose; spicy and fresh, with impressive structure; persistent. Drink now-2015. N/A UK; +39 0742 379 351