Antiprima Sagrantino 2011 Vintage in Montefalco, Umbria:
While I understand reasonably well what the launch of a new Vintage entails, I was a little mystified by an invitation to the Anteprima Sagrantino 2011. This preview of the vintage before it is truly ready for drinking was curious on two counts. Firstly, I’d never heard of Sagrantino wine. Secondly, a 2011 vintage that was a ‘great Umbrian wine’ but that wouldn’t be ready to drink for at least another year? The lure of Umbria, though, was enough to get me packing my passport.
Montefalco is a small town in Umbria right in the heart of Sagrantino country. If you’ve been to Tuscany you might just wonder whether you’ve stepped back in time and traveled to that part of the world before it was discovered by the British, the Germans and the Americans. Refreshingly though, although fortified Montefalco has pretty cobbled streets, a charming town square and a scattering of boutique hotels , at least in February it felt authentically rural Italian; unspoilt, earthy and with a local population carrying out their normal daily business as they had done for centuries.
I walked into the specialist meat and sausage shop hoping to be able to buy some vacuum packed sausage and ham that I could bring home through customs. They didn’t have the technology…I left empty handed and instead bought beans, lentils and some local olive oil.
Of course what we were really there for was the wine. Sagrantino, as suggested by it’s name, originated as a sacred sweet wine. The grape was oroginally cultivated by monks to produce a wine used in church. So, although as far back as 1088, vineyards existed in Montefalco, the product was probably closer to the Montefalco Sagrantino Passito DOCG which is still produced by many of the wineries in the region for both sacred and secular use. The dry version of the wine was first produced in around 1976 and the DOCG granted in 1991. Sagrantino wine must be made with 100% Sagrantino grapes and the DOCG requires at least 29 months aging. The grape is full of tannins and only with proper aging does it soften to make a robust and drinkable wine. The region produces other wines – DOC Montefalco Rosso for example is a pleasant blend of Sangiovese, Sagrantino and the wine-maker’s choice of grape, while DOC Montefalco Bianco is 50% Grechetto and between 20% to 25% Trebbiano Toscano. Both are good wines, easier on the palate without food than a young (2010) Sagrantino.
Apart from visiting a number of local wineries and attending the Gala dinner for the wine consortium, we were given the chance to taste some of the ‘old vintage’ wines and to meet the producers at a showcase in the Chiostro Sant’ Agostino to learn more about their 2011 Sagrantino.
Tasting the old vintages at another event in the Sala Consiliare Comune di Montefalco was perhaps the highlight of the programme for me. While I’m no wine expert, sipping on the Tenuta Rocca Di Fabbri 2001 transported me into another world, with that kind of depth that only comes from beautifully aged wines. I tried the Scaccadiavoli 2002 and 2004 vintages, hoping that I’d be able to spot the difference, but my palate is clearly not refined enough. Both were fine and fruity with a much lower tannic intensity. Caprai ’25 anni’ 2004 was complex and challenging. Later, at their winery, we tried more of this particular wine, paired with home made local dishes it worked better for me than sipping in the tasting room.
From a small handful of producers in 1976, the total wine business of the Montefalco DOC and Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG has grown to a value of around 35 million euros. Over thirty new wineries have been built in the last decade and the area of land recorded as DOCG has quintupled in the last 15 years, to 650 hectares. Each of the producers I visited had their own passion and direction; each seemed to be thriving with the support of the Consortium. Many seemed to have skipped a generation, learning their skills from grandparents. Some had travelled widely and brought back some of the production concepts from the New World wineries. This is a business which has surely revitalised an Italian rural community. Wine making appears to have brought economic freedom to the region; more than that it has been the catalyst for a passionate and inspired group of individuals crafting wines for the quality of life they enjoy rather than for fame or wealth. More on the winemakers later – this is just a thank you to the Consorzio di Montefalco for introducing me to their wines and for hosting the trip.