Any conversation about Umbria and her wines must necessarily begin at the very heart of this region, both geographically and historically, which is to say at Sagrantino.
This hearty dry red (and honeyed sweet) is made primarily (or exclusively, in the case of the DOCG) from the indigeneous Sagrantino grape varietal—though indigeneous is relative for a plant that has probably been growing in this area for centuries. Did it come from Greece? Did French friars import it? Did, as the legend goes, Saint Francis bring back a cutting from the Middle East to use for sacramental wine? No matter, it’s Umbrian now.— which is cultivated in a limited geographical area surrounding the hill town of Montefalco. The micro-climate in this undulating valley is marked by hot, dry days, interspersed with nights cooled by the Tramontana breeze from the north, a long Mediterranean growing season, and clay soil…all of which form a perfect storm to turn out the dark, tannic grapes which define Sagrantino.
Which is where we hit our first glitch. Because I am about to commit the biggest blasphemy any lover of Umbrian wine can—a stab in her heart, so to speak—and admit that Sagrantino is not my favorite wine. It’s not the complex, earthy flavor—marked by dark red fruit, spice, and smoke—or the masculine boldness (these are big wines, but I’m a big girl) that I find unapproachable. It’s the incredible, suck-your-tongue-dry, let-age-a-minimum-of-a-decade, decant-for-at-least-twelve-hours-prior-to-drinking tannins. And by tannins, I mean Tannins. Sagrantino is one of the most tannic grapes in the world, and many young Sagrantino labels are lip-puckeringly tight and really only show their true colors after almost ten years of aging…and even then, the tannins don’t beat around the bush.
Which is cool if you are drinking Sagrantino with what it is meant to be paired with. Like marinated lamb chops. Or steak. Or a big chunk of braised cinghiale. It is not so cool if, like me, you are a vegetarian (another blasphemy in the region where Pork is King) and are limited to a thick bean soup dressed with peppery olive oil or hard aged cheeses. Which may keep the tannins at bay for while, but they are still nipping at you through the bars of their cage.
The tannin question may also be behind the rise in popularity of this wine over the past generation. The traditional diet in Umbria—indeed in most of Italy, a poor, rural country until the 1960s—was light on meat and heavy on grains, legumes, and vegetables (none of which are particularly suited to a beast of a wine like Sagrantino). What is known here as la cucina povera and in the rest of the world as The Mediterranean Diet gradually began to change with a rise in standard of living through the 1960s and 1970s, with the consumption of meat moving to center stage rather than being limited to once a week or, the in poorest areas of Italy—including Umbria—feast days.
And, parallel to the growing frequency of strong meat-based dishes came the rise of Sagrantino, a wine that needs a plate of grilled sausages as its foil. Though Montefalco has a history of grape cultivation mentioned by Pliny, the Sagrantino grape itself had fallen into disuse and was on its way to extinction until the 1970s, when a number of cantinas around Montefalco “rediscovered” this historic varietal and embarked on a campaign of scientific research, rivitalization of both vineyards and wineries, and—most recently—savvy marketing and promotion. Sagrantino di Montefalco became a DOC in 1980 and a DOCG in 1992, and the prestige and quality of the region’s labels continues to grow. Combine that with the fortuitous economic reality of the rise of a meat-based cuisine well-paired to this robust wine and, voilà, a Cinderella story.
If you are like me, you may find yourself the ugly stepsister, but the meat eaters out there will probably discover themselves Prince Charming to this Princess of a wine.
Here are a few of my favorite cantine which offer visits and tastings: