Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Umbria, Montefalco & Sagrantino: Wine Rising From The Shadows

Montefalco is referred to as the "balcony of Umbria." Does that mean Sagrantino is beautiful Juliet, poised on that balcony, and that lovers of this grape are Romeo?

It begins with the compelling food of Umbria, a cuisine of the earth that beckons to you. Cinghiale ("wild boar") prosciutto. Black truffles. Strangozzi (“strangled priest”) pasta, with Spoletina sauce. Zuppa di farro. Pecorino cheese. Simple and seasonal, bursting with the fresh flavors of the field. Who can resist such a bounty?

A necessary accompaniment for all of these dishes is wine. In Italy, as in much of Europe, wine is considered to be food, an integral element with their meals. You don't decide whether to serve wine with dinner or not. It is simply a given that wine will be on your table. More Americans need to adopt this attitude, and consume more wine with their food, to make it a necessary element of their table.

With the Umbrian delights listed above, it makes sense to select a wine from this region as well, such as those red wines made from the indigenous Sagrantino grape. Its taste profile pairs superbly with many of those dishes, from umami-rich truffles to the strong taste of wild boar. Have you ever tasted a Sagrantino wine, especially with any of these foods? For too many Americans, the answer is likely in the negative.

The problem is that Umbria often seems to get overshadowed by other regions, such as neighboring Tuscany. It remains relatively obscure to many though it is more than worthy of much greater attention. It produces great food and wine, yet it hasn't garnered the fame it deserves. The same applies to the small town of Montefalco and the fine wines made from the Sagrantino grape. They all need to rise from the shadows, to let a radiant light illuminate their wonders, and become better known all over the world.

The Italian region of Umbria is unique and fascinating, and is sometimes referred to as il cuore verde d'Italia, the "green heart of Italy," a phrase that was coined by a famous poet and Nobel Prize winner, Giosuè Carducci. It is the only Italian region which both lacks a coastline and lacks a common border with any other country. In addition, it is also one of the smallest regions in the country, bordered by the Italian regions of Tuscany, Latium and Marche. Maybe this is part of the reason it has remained relatively obscure.

The name of the region derives from the Umbri, an ancient Italian tribe which once inhabited the area about 2500-3000 years ago. The Umbri are sometimes said to have been the first inhabitants of this land, though there is archaeological evidence that the Ligurians might have actually been there first. The term "Umbri" is alleged to mean "people of the thunderstorm" because the ancient Greeks thought they had survived a great deluge.

Eventually, in the 3rd century B.C., the Romans took control of the region, incorporating some Umbri tribes into their Empire. Wine making extends back to these ancient times though it is difficult to determine exactly which people first started producing wine. Some claim it extends back to the Umbri while others believe the Romans were the first to make wine in this region. Whatever the case, we know wine production in Umbria extends back over 2000 years.

During the Middle Ages, it would be monks in this region who would be at the forefront of planting vineyards and producing wine. Umbria is sometimes referred to as la terra santa, the "land of the saints," because of the large number of saints that come from this area. For example, the small town of Montefalco is the birthplace of eight saints. How many other small towns, anywhere, can boast of that many saints? As there have been only about 810 saints, having 8 from one town is quite significant.

Two of the most well known saints from Umbria include St. Benedict of Norcia (480-547 AD), known as a Patron Saint of Europe,  and St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226 AD), a patron saint of animals and the environment. Both saints had their own connections to wine, and maybe it was Sagrantino.

Once, St. Benedict, upon the death of a abbot, was asked by the local community to lead the monastery. He did so reluctantly, and the monks seemed to have a significant disagreement with how he led the monastery. It was so bad that a conspiracy of monks decided to try to poison St. Benedict. They offered him a glass of tainted wine but he allegedly made the Sign of the Cross over the glass, which then shattered, spilling the deadly wine upon the floor and saving his life.

St Francis, who spent much of his life caring for animals, used to bring wine and honey to bees to help them survive the winter. He may have given wine to other animals as well. What type of wines do animals prefer? Maybe a sweet wine from Sagrantino? It is also ironic that Umbria, a region known for the gentle, animal-loving St. Francis, would also become famous for its Norcinos, pork butchers. Pork is certainly something to love.

In central Umbria, you'll find Montefalco, a small town and comune that was allegedly founded during the time of the Umbri, and its ownership has changed hands numerous times over the centuries, including Romans, Lombards and the Papal States. During the Middles Ages, the town was known as Coccorone and the origin of that appellation is in dispute, with one theory claiming it was named after a Roman Senator, Marcus Curio, who owned estates near the city. In the 13th century, the town would receive another name change.

In 1249, Frederick II, once the Holy Roman Emperor, sacked the city of Coccorone, allegedly because it had rebelled against his authority. When the city was later rebuilt, its name was changed to Montefalco, the Mount of the Falcon, and some historians believe it was because Frederick II was an ardent falconer, while others claim it was because of the numerous falcons native to the region. This name has remained to the present.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, possession of Montefalco passed through several different hands, with various factions either sacking or capturing the city. For example, in 1414, King Ladislas of Naples sacked  the town while in 1424, Francesco Sforza seized control of the town from the Trinci. In 1527, the Black Bands, a mercenary group sacked Montefalco and maintained control for at least a month. These would be tumultuous centuries, though wine production continued throughout these centuries.

Today, Montefalco is still surrounded by stone walls from the 12th century, and other artifacts from the Middle Ages, such as frescoes and churches, can still be found within its boundaries. As Montefalco is perched atop a high hill, it has an excellent view of the rest of Umbria. It is also known as “Oil City” because of its renowned olive oil, which has been produced in the town for many centuries. In addition, it is one of the few Italian towns where wine was produced even within the city walls.

I haven't visited either Montefalco or Umbria, but I have read much of its beauty, and the photos I have seen have shown the aesthetic appeal of this area. It reminds me of the lands of Tuscany, which I have visited, and that isn't surprising due to their proximity. It is a land rich in history with a strong foundation of agriculture. It seems to be a more tranquil area than some of the more popular Italian regions, which is another compelling reason to visit. I want to sip a glass of Sagrantino at a small cafe in Montefalco, snacking on some cinghiale and watching the people of this small town walk by the cafe..

The primary grape of Montefalco is Sagrantino, whose reputation, like Umbria, has been overshadowed by many other Italian red grapes and wines. You've heard of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, Chianti and Barolo, but Sagrantino remains obscure despite its potential to produce great wines. The exact origin of Sagrantino is unknown, though there are multiple theories. Some believe it is an ancient grape, and might even be the grape which Pliny the Elder, almost two thousand years ago, referred to as Itriola. Others speculate that during the Middle Ages, the grape was brought by monks, either Byzantine or Franciscans, from either Greece or Asia Minor.

The derivation of its name is also in question, though many believe it is based on the Italian word sacro meaning “sacred,” which could be due to monks in the 16th century using the grape to create a sweet sacramental wine. Another authority claims that the grape's name derives from the word sagra which means "feast," because the wine was most commonly drunk on feast days, though most of those were religious holidays. Beside being a "holy wine" or "feast wine," it is also a wine of mystery, with an enigmatic origin, though it seems to be at least five hundred years old.

About 2400 acres of Sagrantino are now grown in the area of Montefalco, as well as part of the municipalities of Bevagna, Giano dell’Umbria, Gualdo Cattaneo and Castel Ritaldi. This wasn't always the case, as by the early 1970s, the grape was nearly extinct, with few,producers seeing any value in it, Sagrantino almost took up permanent residence in the shadows, if not oblivion. As a brief aside, outside of Italy there are a few plantings of Sagrantino in California and Australia.

Fortunately, the potential extinction of Sagrantino was stopped by a few wise people who realized that Sagrantino possessed vast potential and helped to resurrect the grape. Arnaldo Caprai was one of these sagacious individuals. With a background as the owner of a large textile company, he actually knew little about wine yet still bought he Val di Maggio estate in 1971. This ignorance might have been a blessing in disguise as he also wasn't saddled with the wrongful myths about Sagrantino. Instead, with fresh eyes, he looked at the Sagrantino grape and saw a bright future, planting vineyards and eventually taking on his son, Marco, into the winery.

Through the hard work of Caprai and other Sagrantino pioneers, Montefalco Sagrantino would attain DOC status in 1979 and fourteen years later, in 1992, would be promoted to DOCG status, the highest wine category in Italy. Within about 30 years, Sagrantino had transformed from near extinction to becoming one of the preeminent grapes of Italy. That is quite a turnaround, and would not have been possible without the passion and determination of a number of individuals who saw the potential of Sagrantino.

Sagrantino is a late ripening grape, rich in polyphenols, which give it structure and allow it to age well for many years. The wines typically possess a dark, almost inky, red color and tend to be tannic, though that can be managed by the wine maker. These wines often possess flavors of cherries and mulberries, as well as a certain rusticness, producing a bold, earthy dry wine that is perfect for pairing with black truffle, meats and strong cheeses like Pecorino, or in other words, much of the typical Umbrian cuisine.

You'll find Sagrantino used in both DOC and DOCG wines  First, there is the Montefalco Rosso DOC and Montefalco Rosso Riserva DOC, which differ only by the amount of aging, with the Rosso requiring 18 months of aging (and no need for oak) while the Riserva requires 30 months of aging, with at least 12 months in oak. The wine blend used to require 60%-70% Sangiovese, 10%-15% Sagrantino and the remaining percentage, 15%-30%, from several other authorized  red grapes.

However, just last month, the Consorzio Tutela Vini Montefalco, the Montefalco Consortium, voted to change that regulation so that Rosso going forward can only contain 60%-80% Sangiovese and 10%-25% Sagrantino. That will obviously affect the general taste profile of these wines, as they now can only use two different grapes, so it will be interesting to taste these future wines.

Second, there is the Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG which must be produced from 100% Sagrantino and requires 30 months of aging, with at least 12 months in oak. Third, there is also a Montefalco Sagrantino Passito DOCG, where the Sagrantino grapes are dried on mats for at least two months and which needs to be aged for at least 30 months.

Starting back in 1981, a number of wine producers in Montefalco joined together as the Montefalco Consortium. The Consortium, which currently has 227 members of which 56 are wineries, represents more than 80% of the certified production of Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG and Montefalco DOC in the region. They have even sponsored an official wine trail, the Strada del Sagrantino, which provides purple signs to lead tourists to the various wineries.

Most recently, the Montefalco Consortium has also been at the forefront of programs to create more sustainable vineyards. Their latest project is Grape Assistance 2015, a study with the goal of reducing the use of harmful pesticides and other dangerous chemicals. Initially, they are involved in gathering a wealth of data on everything from climate to soil so that they can develop a proper plan of action..

Recent statistics show that Sagrantino is stepping out from the shadows. During the last 15 years, production of Sagrantino has more than tripled and the number of vineyards in the DOCG area has increased from 122 acres to 650 acres. This growth in Sagrantino vineyards is probably a significant reason for the recent changes to the Montefalco Rosso DOCwine blend. With more Sagrantino available, there is less need to supplement blends with other grapes. In addition, the number of DOCG bottles produced annually has risen to 1.5 million. Last year, approximately 3.5 million bottles of Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG and Montefalco Rosso DOC were sold.

My own experience with the wines of Montefalco and Sagrantino has been limited, though eight to nine years ago, I had my first such wine, an Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Rosso. At that time, though I knew little about it except for its taste, it was my favorite wine of the event I attended. Since then, I rarely have seen Sagrantino wines at other tasting events, and it isn't common at most wine shops either. Though its overall growth has increased significantly, it still seems to be mostly in the shadows in the U.S., needing more light to show people what they have been missing.

The Scacciadiavoli Winery, the oldest estate in Montefalco, derives its name, which means “drives away devils” from an exorcist who once lived in a village on the perimeter of their estate. The priest would use wine, probably a sacramental wine, in his exorcisms and maybe it was Sagrantino. The estate was founded in 1884 by Ugo Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Prince of Piombino, Marquis of Populonia, Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, Duke of Monterotondo, Sora and Arce, Count of Conza and Marquis of Vignola. In 1892, he would surrender all of these titles and become ordained as a Catholic priest, though it doesn't appear that he became an exorcist.

The winery is currently owned by the Pambuffetti family, which took ownership back in 1954 when Amilcare Pambuffetti became the third owner of the estate. The fourth generation of the family, including Iacopo, Amilcare, Liu, Romeo and Fiammetta Pambuffetti, is now responsible for the winery. Amilcare was recently reelected as President of the Monteflaco Consortium, a strong sign that this family is truly devoted to the region.

Their estate consists of about 130 hectares with 35 hectares of vineyards; and they produce approximately 250,000 bottles annually. Their portfolio includes white wines, red wines, sparkling wines, passito, and even grappa. I am intrigued by the fact that they produce a Vino Spumante made from Sagrantino grapes.

The Scacciadiavoli di Pambuffetti Montefalco Rosso DOC is a blend of 60% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino, and 25% Merlot that has been aged in old barrels and large tanks of French oak for 12 months with an additional 6 months in the bottle. In the future, with the new DOC changes, this wine will no longer be able to be made with Merlot.

The wine is medium red in color with an intense nose of black fruit, mild spices, and a touch of earthy notes. It is a smell that brings you into the vineyard. On the palate, there are bright flavors of black cherry and blackberry, though it isn't made in a fruit forward, international style. It has more depth, with a spicy aspect and a backbone of rusticness, that earthy element. The tannins are soft and silky, with a rich mouthful and a lingering finish. A wine I strongly recommended.

I paired this wine with Shepherd's Pie, a simple but delicious comfort food, opting for a dish that wasn't reminiscent of Umbria as I wanted to showcase the versatility of this wine. In the end, I realized that this Monteflaco Rosso was an excellent comfort wine. It is food friendly and easy drinking, the type of wine that you might open any day of the week with burgers to pizza, hearty pasta dishes to aged cheeses. It is light enough though to go with roast chicken or maybe even a fish stew with chorizo.

The Perticaia Winery is a much newer winery, and its name, in an old Umbrian tongue, means “plough”, which is said to be the tool which marked the significant transition from sheep farming to agriculture. Guido Guardigli visited the Montefalco region in the early 1990s and was persuaded by the potential of the area and its native grapes, founding his own winery in 2000. The estate currently has 15 hectares of vineyards, 7 planted with Sagrantino, 4 with Sangiovese, 2 with Colorino, 2 with Trebbiano Spoletino, and 1 with Grechetto. There are also over 250 olive trees on the estate, their part in supporting the "Oil City.".

The Perticaia Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG is made from 100% Sagrantino and aged for 12 months in steel vats, 12 months in small, French oak barrels oak and 12 months in the bottle. The wine is medium red in color with a spicy nose enhanced with red fruit aromas and a touch of earthiness. On the palate, you might be surprised to find that the tannins are very mild. It is dry, with flavors of black cherry and plum and a mildly spicy backbone and some earthy elements. Excellent acidity helps to make this an excellent food wine. It is well balanced with a lengthy finish and plenty of complexity. Another wine I strongly recommended.

Though Sagrantino is said to be a tannic grape, this wine possessed more mild tannins so I chose to pair it with Chicken Parmigiana. This was a fine combination with the slightly spicy marinara sauce pairing nicely with the Sagrantino. The tender chicken and pasta weren't overshadowed by the wine. Again, this is a food friendly wine, especially with its high acidity, and the pairings would be similar to the Rosso, though this wine could also stand up to beef dishes. It's simply delicious.

We return to the initial conundrum of how to elevate the wines of Montefalco, the wines made form Sagrantino, out of the shadows. The first step is always to have a worthy product, to create interesting wines of quality which will appeal to wine lovers. Based on the wines I tasted, Montefalco has already achieved that step, producing delicious, quality red wines. My belief is supported by a number of other wine writers who have been enchanted with these wines and written about them in the last few years.

The next step is to provide more press for these wines, for more people to spread the word about this region and the wines it produces. Wine lovers need to be alerted to keep an eye out for Sagrantino wines, and that is a process in its beginning stages. There need to be more passionate advocates for these wines, more people exposing these wines to the sunlight rather than letting them waste away in the shadows. The Montefalco Consortium appears to be reaching out to more wine writers, helping to promote their wines, and that needs to continue.

Wine shops are also an important element of this process, as it is they who deal with many average consumers, people who might not read about wine in magazines, newspapers or online. As I work part time in a wine store, I see plenty of consumers who enjoy wine, but, left to their own devices, will choose that which is familiar to them, or the most widely known grapes and wines. However, many of those customers are willing to be more adventurous souls, provided they receive recommendations from the wine shop staff.

Those consumers are seeking some guidance, someone to point out some of the best and most interesting wines. They rely on the passion and expertise of the staff and that is the opportunity to introduce these consumers to intriguing wines like those of Montefalco. In the end, bringing these wines out of the shadows will take a united effort.

What are your experiences with .the Sagrantino wines of Montefalco?

(Please be advised that I received the two Montefalco wines as free media samples from the Consorzio Montefalco as part of a Wine Blogger contest.)

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