When I was a school girl learning world geography, Italy was by far the easiest to remember. The fancy high-heeled boot of a lady whose ruffled skirts were France, Switzerland and Austria. Take a closer look, at the seductively rounded calf of the leg inside the boot, and you’ll find the land of Umbria. With Tuscany to her west, Le Marche to the east and Lazio to the South, Umbria is il cuor verde d’Italia — the green heart of Italy.
Known for its rolling hills and medieval towns, Umbria is the land of the humble San Francesco — better known to us as Saint Francis of Assisi — the patron saint of animals and the environment.
Born to a wealthy silk merchant, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, was nicknamed Francesco (a tribute to France) by his father. We’re told he lived “the high-spirited life of a wealthy young man,” even fighting as a solider for Assisi. It was during his time as a soldier in his 20s that he is said to have had a vision, that directed him back to Assisi where he lost his desire to live the high life. On a pilgrimage to Rome, he is said to have joined the poor in begging at St. Peter’s Basilica, and was so moved by the experience that he took on a life of poverty. He returned to Assisi and began preaching on the streets where he soon gathered many followers.
It is in this same storied land that we find Umbria’s vineyard jewel, the Sagrantino grape. Indigenous to the region, Sagrantino is grown primarily in the village and surrounding area of Montefalco, with less than 700 dedicated hectares in the hands of just under 60 producers. The name, “Sagrantino,” comes from the ancient Latin “Sacer” meaning sacred, and can be traced back to the sacraments, as the grape was cultivated by monks to produce a raisin wine used for Holy Communion. Farmers also drank the wine during Holy festivals and feasts, probably during Christmas and Easter. Documents tell of vineyards in Montefalco as far back as 1088, and Montefalco is one of the few Italian cities where production was practiced inside the walls of the city as well.
Sagrantino had almost disappeared from the vineyards of Umbria, when 50 years ago the grape variety was revived. Wine producers obtained the D.O.C. label in 1979 followed by the D.O.C.G. label in 1992.
Until recently, we had not tasted many wines from Montefalco, so we did not know quite what to expect. On our last visit to Italy we tasted Chianti in Tuscany, Nero d’Avola in Sicily and Primitivo in Puglia. I saw a contest presented by Consorzio Montefalco as part of the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference, (where I’ll be moderating a panel in a couple weeks) and decided to enter by posting tweets about Sagrantino and the region of Montefalco to @ConsSagrantino. I was one of 14 participants selected to receive a couple of bottles of wine to learn more. We picked up our bottles promptly when they arrived and let them settle a few days before tasting. Since wine, especially in Italy, is made to be enjoyed with food, Joe put together some meal pairings so we might get the best experience. We were not disappointed!
Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Rosso DOC 2012
DOC or Denominazione di origine controllata means “Controlled designation of origin”, and is a quality assurance label for Italian wines. By regulation, the Montefalco Rosso must contain between 60 to 70 percent Sangiovese, along with a required 10 to 15 percent Sagrantino, with the winemaker’s choice for the remaining grapes, up to 30 percent. Montefalco rosso must be aged a minimum of 18 months.
The 2012 Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Rosso DOC is a blend of 70% Sangiovese 15% Sagrantino and 15% Merlot. With a ruby-red core with a light ruby rim, the nose is lavender and tobacco, with earthy vanilla, sandalwood and the whiff of spice and leather, like that of a new baseball mitt. Or a perfectly inflated football, not yet touched by Tom Brady. Flavors of plum, and bright raspberry with baking spice are balanced by structured tannins. A second sniff after tasting brings out more bright red fruit. Alcohol by volume is 14%.
Pairing: We paired it with an Italian-style New York Strip with homemade butter with garlic confit, fresh chives and fresh oregano. Joe bathed some gnocchi in a pesto cream sauce. We also enjoyed a salad with fresh greens, cherry tomatoes, peppadews, baby mozzarella and pesto vinaigrette. Bellissimo!
We were very impressed with this selection from the Arnaldo Caprai Winery, whose founder purchased the 12.5 acres, four-vineyard estate in 1971. Through a collaboration with the University of Milan and several Italian research institutes, the Arnaldo Caprai winery sought to improve production results. The research led to identification of new Sagrantino clones. From its humble 12.5 acres, the Arnaldo Caprai estate now encompasses 370 acres with 220 acres under vine.
The wine has more muscle than your typical Sangiovese, but elegantly so. The quality is such that it could easily be a $50 to $80 wine. We were delighted to note the price at a mere $23.00.
2008 Tenute Lunelli Carapace Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG
DOCG, or Denominazione di origine controllata (“Controlled designation of origin”) is the most restrictive labeling of Italian wine. To be labeled as such, DOCG labelled wines are analyzed and tasted by government–licensed personnel before the wines are bottled. To prevent later manipulation, DOCG wine bottles then are sealed with a numbered governmental seal across the cap or cork. Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG requires 100 percent Sagrantino grapes be used, and the wines must be aged for least 29 months before they are released.
The 2008 vintage was one of excellence for Sagrantino. Here are the notes from the vintage, from Consorzio Montefalco:
Vineyard: vintage characterized by a mild dry winter and a particularly fresh and rainy spring, which led to a delay of some days in the phenolic stages and a slowing down of the vegetative growth. Dry summer with normal temperatures in the norm for the period. Start of the ripening process delayed by about two weeks. Late September and early October with tramontana winds and subsequent fresh temperatures, low degree of humidity and perfect health conditions of the grapes. Late maturation.
Cellar: regular fermentations. Normal alcoholic content. Excellent vintage on the whole, especially for Sagrantino.
The 2008 Carapace Montefalco Sagrantino is a deep ruby/garnet with a lighter ruby/garnet rim. With aromas of violets, raspberry, blackberry and a hint of anise or caraway. I got the tiniest note of red twizzlers with a spice that was hard to place, but definitely seductive. Drinking deeply, we tasted blackberry preserves and blueberry jam, brandied bing cherries and dark chocolate covered plums. Refined tannins and lingering finish, it’s a bold wine, that could easily pair with a Texas-sized steak.
Pairing: We paired with a pesto-encrusted roast pork loin and tortellini in a pan drippings and pesto cream sauce with mushrooms and pancetta. Fresh green beans topped with chopped peppadew, diced pancetta, pesto and Pecorino Romano added wonderful color to both our palates and our plates. This is a BIG wine at 15% alcohol by volume. Enjoy with a hearty meal.
Suggested Retail Price $37
Our 2008 Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG comes from the Lunelli family, a third generation of winemakers whose Tenute Lunelli includes three wine estates located in three different regions of Italy: Umbria, Tuscany and Trentino. The family acquired Tenuta Castelbuono in 2001, a property of 30 hectares of vineyards in the areas of Bevagna and Montefalco.
Il Carapace winery is a collaboration between sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro, the Lunelli family and architect Giogio Pedrotti, and consists of a huge copper dome, which resembles a tortoise shell rising up from the vineyard. The pictures of the winery look amazing — both inside and out! I hope to visit one day to taste this and some of their other wines as well in situ.
For more information on Montefalco and Sagrantino visit the Consortium’s website, here. There you will find information about the region, the wines and the members, as well as recipes, videos and brochures.