Umbria is home to some wonderful grape varieties and none are more fascinating and delicious than the tannic mouthful known as Sagrantino.
By Gill Gordon-Smith CSW
Umbria is a land of contrast and harmony. The Umbrians were the earliest of the Italian tribes and in San Bernanzo you will find the oldest traces of humans, well before the Etruscan tribes settled. Yet many tourists tend to overlook Umbria and head to neighbouring Tuscany, which is barely a two hour drive away.
There are many secret roads and wonderful adventures on offer in Umbria if you take the time to find them. The region offers a quieter, less hurried perspective of Italy and is home to several world-class festivals, music, food, wine routes and of course, my particular love, local wine.
One of the most famous local wine varieties has now made its way to Australia and is being produced by some of our most innovative local winemakers. I had the privilege of visiting Umbria recently to taste and explore the wines and foods and fell totally in love with the place, the people and of course, the wines.
Umbria, and in particular Norcia, is famous for the wild boar and other meats that are produced in the region. The local Sagrantino grape is a variety with gusto and pairs beautifully with these foods.
The commune of Montefalco is situated in Umbria in the province of Perugia and has been home to this variety since medieval times. As Sagrantino does not show any resemblance to other varieties grown in Central Italy, researchers believe its origins are exclusive to Montefalco. There are carvings representing the vine in the Medieval church of Saint Bartholomew and laws were set down in the 1300s to “safeguard and care” for the local vines.
Others believe it came from Asia Minor and was taken to Montefalco by the followers of Saint Francis of Assisi – a bottle of red wine featured in the fresco, the “Knight of Celano” was probably Sagrantino. In the 16th century, winemaking was such a serious issue in the region that a regulation decreed the date of the harvest. At the very least the grape has been present in Montefalco for at least 400 years and is documented in handwritten accounts from the 1600s. In 1622, Cardinal Boncompagni established the death penalty by hanging for those who stole a vine – a serious matter indeed!
Historically, Sagrantino was called ‘Sacrantino’ and was a wine made for the ‘Sacramenti’ (catholic mass) and for special events such as weddings and christenings. It was made in a sweet style or Passito. On 30 October 1979, the Appellation (DOC) Sagrantino was created and on 5 November 1992, the top Appellation DOCG was awarded to Sagrantino. This date marks a turning point in the story of Sagrantino and for the entire area of Montefalco. It pushed the variety into the limelight and elevated its status considerably.
Credit for bringing Sagrantino back to its truly exalted state goes largely to the cult producer of Sagrantino in Umbria, Arnaldo Caprai.
Marco Caprai took over the family winery at the age of 22 and has championed and led the development of the variety. Although the family background is in cashmere and textiles, Marco’s father started the winery in 1971. Marco is not a trained oenologist but passionately believed in the opportunities that could come from such a great tradition. He has used a modern and innovative approach towards developing the profile and the variety. In conjunction with the university of Milan, he commissioned research and cloned the variety back to the original characteristics from ‘Mother Plants’ found in old, abandoned vineyards with the aim of recovering the natural variability that had been lost. This was achieved through genetic mapping and clonal selection. He has trialled trellising systems, thinning techniques, densities and funded long-term experimentation.
The day I visited the Caprai winery, a workshop was being held into organic and sustainable practices with local growers and winemakers. There are now around 84 producers of Sagrantino in the region and they are working towards a Grandi Cru di Montefalco. Marco’s ultimate goal is to produce wines of quality, elegance and unique character and the Caprai wines are testament to his hard work and zealous approach. Caprai’s winery is slick, professional and dedicated to showcasing the best wines the variety has to offer.
The Australian connection with Sagrantino came when Kim Chalmers was contacted by Caprai and invited to attend a tasting at Vinitaly in 2008. Kim and consulting oenologist, Dr Alberto Antonini, had identified the variety as one that would suit Australian conditions, and they had imported two clones in 1998. The Australian made wines suprised the Italian tasting panel and some of them scored exceptionally well. The first wines were made in 2004 and have been extremely consistent through different vintages. Kim had not tasted Sagrantino wines before making the Australian version, but the pair chose this variety because of the way it performed in the vineyard.
Our Australian wines are an expression of the variety in Australian soil and conditions and not copies of the traditional wines. Some Italian producers are recognising that the approachability of the Aussie wines could be of benefit, as customers move away from wines that require long aging times. The Umbrians are still amazed that their beloved Sagrantino has found a home in Australia but have shown a lot of interest in how we are making our wines. Umbrian Sagrantino in various styles, including Caprai, is available in Australia through Italian specialist importers like Arquilla. There are now around 40,000 vines planted in Australia in various areas from Mclaren Vale to Swan Hill.
Sagrantino is one of the most tannic grapes in the world and makes intense, fruity wines with blackberry, cherry, chocolate and spice characters. It is high in acid, tannin and colour and loves the heat and the wet, making it perfect for Australian conditions. Sagrantino performs consistently with natural low yields. While the tannin profile is immense, it can be managed without extremely high alcohol content and it suits the Australian palate.
It is produced as a single varietal wine, Sagrantino di Montefalco and also appears in the Montefalco Rosso wines blended with Sangiovese, Merlot or Cabernet, making it more approachable. The Passito version is superb and pairs perfectly with desserts. It is even made into a wonderful Grappa, proving that it is an extremely versatile grape. Producers in Umbria have learned to tame the tannins through a combination of clonal selection, winery techniques, oak-aging and vineyard management. Sagrantino definitely needs time to age and is released in Italy after a few years in the bottle.
Local winemakers are extremely protective of their grape and I had the impression they were not too sure about it being grown elsewhere, especially in a place as far away as Australia. Still, like the Italian immigrants who helped build Australia, and the foods that fit so well into our lifestyle, the traditional Italian wine varieties may well have positive effects on the types of wines this country produces.
Taste and compare
Arquilla imports a range of wines from the multi award winning Arnaldo Caprai. Try the Sagrantino di Montefalco 25th Anniversary for a true taste of the variety. It shows deep black fruits, with spicy vanilla oak and layers of firm, savoury tannins. Compare this wine with examples from Coriole, Terre Felix, D’Arenberg and Oliver’s Taranga.
Umbrian born chef, Edoardo Strappa, worked as a successful chef in many restaurants in Italy, USA, Germany, France and Greece, before arriving in Australia in March 2004. He opened his restaurant, Pinocchios in the Adelaide suburb of Unley and specialises in Umbrian cuisine. Edoardo’s suggestion for Sagrantino was a traditional medieval dish of Gnocchetti alla Collescipolana with baby gnocchi in a slow cooked sauce of sausage, cannellini beans and tomato.
For Arnaldo Caprai stockists, contact Arquilla wines on 03 9387 1040 or visit www.arquilla-wine.com.
For more information on Umbrian wines and wine routes, visit www.fallfromgrace.com.au.