Sagrantino: the holy wine

The neat rows of multicoloured vines in the Umbrian landscape in autumn are not only an inspiration for painters, but also tell the oenologist much about the flavour of the wines created in Montefalco: the leaves of Sagrantino turn bright red, yellow the rows of Sangiovese vines, and green those of Merlot. The best blends obtained from these grape varieties, with their delicious flavour and aroma of wild berries with a slight hint of pepper, are unique and incomparable. It would be impossible to reproduce the same complex blend of flavour and aroma in any other part of Italy, or any other wine-producing area in the world, for that matter. And if grape varieties can be compared to notes of music, then alongside the familiar refrains of a Merlot and a Sangiovese, for many the melody of a Sagrantino remains unknown.

“Holy” wine and wine for “celebration”. Defining the unique nature of this wine grown exclusively in five communes in the area of Montefalco, a village that dates back to Roman times, requires more than a single word, however well-chosen. The secret lies in the charisma, the intrinsic essence and the mystery behind the history of this wine. And perhaps also its brilliant future. The cultivar of the Sagrantino grape, like its sensory properties, cannot be linked to any other Italian grape varieties. It seems its origins are to be traced back to Georgian ancestors beyond Caucasus in Asia Minor, from where the grapes may have been brought by certain Franciscan monks who had been able to appreciate the high sugar content and excellent rot-resistant capacity. Incredible as it may seem, laws existed in Montefalco already back in the fourteenth century similar to the current appellation system established by the French, and these laws were designed to protect the local “holy wine”! Wine producers who did not possess their own vines, but who combined their harvests were subject to the same punishment destined for thieves, while in the seventeenth century, any person who cut a piece of vine belonging to another was condemned to death. Very strong measures for a wine which, at the time, was rarely sold: it was reserved for religious and family celebrations, and for priests for communion wine. It is by no means accidental that the name “Sagrantino” has its origins in the two Italian words “sacro” (holy) and “sagra” (celebration).

Holy wine: Dry and … sweet! The dry Sagrantino wines of Montefalco are relatively new in local wine production. Previously, Sagrantino existed only as a sweet wine. After harvesting, the bunches were left to dry on racks for several months to obtain a special partially dried grape for wine-making. The reason for this choice is simple: this variety has rather small grapes which do not provide especially high yields. This particularity gives Sagrantino an exceptionally high tannin content which is not easy to “balance”. The solution discovered in the Middle Ages was to balance the tannins by drying out the grapes, a process that concentrated their natural sugar content. The resulting wines were generally very full-bodied, rich and with great depth. With time, it was possible to produce dryer wines which make it possible to achieve exceptional results with this unique grape variety. Like the sweet wine (passito) the dry wine is also aged for 30 months, 12 months of which in oak barrels whose choice, age and capacity depend on the personal philosophy of the winemaker and his preferred method. The minimum established legal alcohol content is 13% vol. for dry wines, and 14.5% vol. for the passito sweet wines. Dry Sagrantino wines have a deep ruby colour, and are intense on the nose with long-lasting notes of wild fruit, truffle and blackberry. They are dry and well-structured on the palate, with constantly evolving flavours. These wines always surprise for the strong difference in flavour between the first sip and the second, which changes again for the third, and so on until the very last drop. A masterpiece in the art of transformation! And it is for this reason that it is generally considered as a wine for experts able to appreciate its refined and varying nature. There is no doubt that this is an intellectual wine that enjoys being analysed in an intelligent manner. The passito desert wine, obtained from overripe Sagrantino grapes left to dry for a further two months, has a brilliant garnet red colour, and is sweet but well-balanced on the palate, ending on a drier final note. The harvest yield (2 million bottles, 40% of which are sold in the Umbria region) is extremely low when compared to the wine production in other Italian regions. For this reason, not every wine expert can boast that he has tasted a Sagrantino at least once in his career; those who have had this pleasure are sure to have taken careful notes in some notebook now jealously preserved like a religious relic.

Paradoxical aspects of Sagrantino. In recent years the interest in this variety has resulted in painstaking research into its unusual properties. Perhaps the most unexpected result of these investigations has been the discovery of its sensational polyphenol concentration. In other words, compared to the 25 most common varieties of red wine, Sagrantino has a record-breaking polyphenol concentration which is not only responsible for the colour, aroma, body and dryness of the wine, but also the fact that it has an efficient anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial action. It contains 4174 mg/kg, which is double the level of most other varieties that reach a maximum of 2500 mg/kg. As an example, Cabernet Sauvignon, which is considered the best red in the world, has a polyphenol content that is half that of Sagrantino. As recently as the 1970s, only 60 hectares in the Montefalco area were used for growing Sagrantino. Today this has reached 600 hectares (plus another 300 planted with new vines) divided among 50 estates, and the production volume has tripled in the past three years. This gives Sagrantino di Montefalco a certain advantage for the future. For example, the opportunity of increasing the volume of quality wine production to a level to satisfy demand while consolidating a personal niche in international markets at the same time. Furthermore, Sagrantino is a difficult species which will not give the expected results without the intervention of an expert oenologist. Much has been achieved in this direction. Sagrantino di Montefalco obtained DOC status in 1979 and DOCG in 1992.

Victory! These efforts rapidly brought excellent results. A wine made with Sagrantino grapes was awarded a prize for the first time at a professional wine tasting in 1993. It was the famous “25 anni”, (25 years): a Sagrantino di Montefalco of the purest quality, produced from very carefully selected grapes for the twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations of the Podere Caprai estate, and which was awarded three Gambero Rosso bicchieri which it still maintains. For several years, the “25 anni” Sagrantino di Montefalco has been constantly rated among the top 10 Italian wines, and has become one of the country’s cult wines. Every “thoroughbred” stands out for its own particular characteristics. The essence of Sagrantino lies in its intense aroma, concentrated flavour, remarkable tannin structure, full-bodied texture and fairly high alcohol content. Despite the fact that these distinctive characteristics are common to all good quality Sagrantino wines, every oenologist in Montefalco carries out research and invents a personal interpretation of this incredible variety, with results that are often particularly intriguing.

Gastronomical combinations. The ideal food to serve with a Sagrantino di Montefalco is the truffle, a main ingredient in many local dishes, as it enhances the flavour. This is a wine that is especially suited to grilled meats (mutton or lamb chops!), chickpea soup seasoned with a “sprinkling” of sharp flavoured local Umbrian olive oil (!), and matured cheeses (such as pecorino that has been aged for two years!). Sagrantino di Montefalco sweet wine is delicious with biscuits, chocolate, and the traditional local cake called rocciata, as well as… the same mature cheeses served with a dry Sagrantino.

Arnaldo Caprai, the “Father” of Sagrantino. Restige, much of the merit goes to Arnaldo Caprai Val di Maggio, whose main professional activity had nothing to do with wine-making, but with… the textile industry. However, he had always dreamed of creating a wine all his own. In 1971 Caprai purchased 42 hectares of land near Montefalco, which he knew well, just as he knew all there was to know about the “holy grape” and the wine it produced. His love for this ancient species led him not only to allocate his best slopes to Sagrantino vines, but also to gradually purchase pieces of land best suited to this grape. In 1988 the management of the estate was passed on to his son Marco, who had just graduated in… Political Science. This decision also proved to be an excellent choice and was destined to make Sagrantino and the region famous. A third step was just as successful in making history: Marco Caprai managed to enlist the collaboration of two great oenologists, Attilio Pagli, the creator of many award winning wines, and Professor Valenti from Milan university, renowned geneticist specialised in vine cloning, who was charged with tracing and identifying the Sagrantino mother vine. Selecting the 60 clones from small vineyards that had always belonged to the same families for hundreds of years, or others which were “orphans”, was the first step towards saving the Sagrantino variety and preparing its return to former glory. Today about one million plants of Sagrantino are sold every year in Italy. Unfortunately most of these are produced abroad because of the lack of regulations and standards to protect the legitimacy of its appellation.

Inga Vajšlja

Vip Longue

Raccontami l’Umbria

20 August 2012 Inga Vajslja ,

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