It has been two weeks of delicious Umbrian wines and rich dishes… and I still haven’t had enough of the region’s cured meats, aged pecorino, aromatic truffles, and robust wines. Although I recently gave a brief overview of the region’s wines, I would like to go into more depth and share the history of my new-found love: the red grape Sagrantino, and its subsequent wines, Sagrantino di Montefalco and Montefalco Rosso.
Sagrantino is special because it really isn’t grown outside of Umbria (there are only 20-something producers of this wine, and all are in this region!). It is one of the most tannic varietals in the world, yet these huge tannins are often rounded out with big, ripe fruits like blackberry. The wines can be quite complex, and open up beautifully and evolve throughout a meal. I think anyone who enjoys the big Cabernets of California or the juicy Malbecs of Argentina will revel in powerful Sagrantino and enjoy it as much as I have.
The history of the grape
The history of Sagrantino is not clear. Some say it came from Spain, others claim it was imported from France by the first Franciscan friars, others still claim that it was brought into Italy by the Saracens, and many believe that it is native to Umbria. Whatever its origin, one thing is not disputed: the grape has been grown in Umbria for centuries, and had a particular following during the Renaissance.
Sagrantino is primarily produced in a city in Umbria called Montefalco, which has DOCG status. It was once made almost entirely in the sweet passito style (explained below), but today it is produced as a typical secco (dry) style and in the passito style, and as a blend with Sangiovese, called Montefalco Rosso… but more on its different forms and the Italian labeling system later. We’ll start with the way Sagrantino was made for nearly all of its existence: passito.
In the passito style, grapes are picked at their ripest, and then laid out on bamboo mats to dry in the sun for no less than two months. As the grapes dry and turn into raisins, they lose their water content, and their sugars are concentrated. The dried grapes are then pressed, yielding a small amount of very intense juice that produces a wine with flavors of plum, fig, and jam. They are called “meditation wines” by Italians because they were meant to be drunk slowly, and were perfect “thinking” wines.
Sagrantino Passito Pairings
In America, when we think “sweet red wine”, we tend to think of port. It is important to mention that Sagrantino passito is not a port: ports are fortified (additional alcohol is added to them) and Sagrantino passito is not. Sagrantino passito is more like a wine made from raisins, but is still a wine just the same: many pair this sweet wine with sharp, aged pecorino (a delicious combination), while some enjoy it with a tender piece of steak. The pairing options are quite fun with this complex and unique wine.
In the past Sagrantino was primarily made in the passito style, but today most Sagrantino is made in a dry style… although this is a fairly “new” way of making Sagrantino (it became popular in the 70s). These wines are fairly high in alcohol for an Italian varietal (roughly 14%, minimum of 13% by law), are full-bodied, with ripe fruits like blackberry, and then a very long, very tannic finish.
Sagrantino Secco Pairings
Sagrantino needs the robust dishes of the Umbrian region: lentils with sausage, game, wild boar, and rich, truffle-laden pastas.
Now that we’ve learned about the grape and its styles, let’s move on to the region that it grows, and how the wine is labeled in Italy. Admittedly, this can be a bit confusing! But that’s why we’re here.
Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG
Sagrantino is primarily grown around a city called Montefalco, which is in Umbria, although it is also produced in Bevagna, Gualdo Cattaneo, Castel Ritaldi, and Giano dell’Umbria, which are all in the province of Perugia. The Sagrantino from Montefalco is called Sagrantino di Montefalco or Montefalco Sagrantino. Both are entirely Sagrantino (well, by law, they must be 95%, so nearly entirely) and produced in passito (sweet) as well as the secco (dry) style that New World wine drinkers are used to.
In 1992, the region of Montefalco received a DOCG certification. This means that this area and the techniques made to produce Sagrantino were deemed of the highest quality by the Italian government (read more on the Italian classification system here). Provided that the winemaker followed particular practices in the vineyard and throughout the winemaking process, the wine receives this certification, usually seen on the label and then as a sticker wrapped around the neck of the bottle. Both the secco and the passito style receive this designation.
Part of the requirements for a Sagrantino di Montefalco is that the wines are aged for a significant amount of time (30 months!) before being released. A wine with such large tannins needs that much time to “settle down” before it can be drunk… this is why we’re currently drinking the recently released 2007 Sagrantino and what’s left of the 2006 vintage: definitely worth the wait!
Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG Pairings
Follow the pairings suggested above for the Sagrantino Secco, since the Sagrantino di Montefalco is 95% Sagrantino.
Montefalco Rosso and Montefalco Rosso Riserva DOC
Sagrantino is also used in a blend from Montefalco called Montefalco Rosso. It is 60-70% Sangiovese and 10-15% Sagrantino, and 30% of “other” varietals are allowed. The wine must be aged for a minimum of 18 months, 30 months for a Rosso Riserva.
Montefalco Rosso DOC Pairings
Because Montefalco Rosso and Montefalco Rosso Riserva are predominantly Sangriovese, both are lighter than a Sagrantino di Montefalco. A Montefalco Rosso is great with pork, stewed lamb, grilled and braised red meats, game, and the aged pecorino cheese Umbria is known for. Personally, I enjoy it with truffle dishes: I love how the aromatic nose from the Sangiovese pairs with the fragrant truffle.
I hope that this helps my readers become acquainted with the Sagrantino grape and how it is made in Italy, and I certainly hope that it inspires some of my readers to try it! Tasting notes are to come on some of the Sagrantinos I sampled during my stay in Umbria, but for now, I suggest checking out Antonelli, a larger producer, Di Filippo, which makes a great Sagrantino, or, if you’re lucky and can get your hands on a bottle, the wine from “garage winemakers” Antano or Paulo Bea.