Following the second annual Taste Tours Tuscany last spring at Casali di Bibbiano, a magnificent Italian country estate and winery, I headed to Umbria, a lesser-known but equally wonderful wine region. My trip was focused on learning more about Sagrantino, a red wine grape that has been making a lasting impression.
Sagrantino di Montefalco is an ancient grape variety grown only in and around the hilltop town of Montefalco. Montefalco is one of the few places in Italy where wine was made inside the town walls. Sagrantino is an indigenous grape variety that is not related to any other grape cultivated in Italy, producing both dry and sweet wines of particular greatness.
The age and origin of Sagrantino, the “newest” noble wine variety of Italy, has always been controversial. Nothing definitive is known about the origins of this grape varietal. It is possible that Sagrantino was brought in from Asia Minor by the followers of St. Francis, or perhaps from the invasions of the Saracens, or even the Greeks. According to recent research, the first mention of the cultivation of Sagrantino dates back to 1549 in Montefalco.
The Sagrantino name can be traced to the Sacrament (from the Latin sacer, sacred); the grape was cultivated by monks to produce a raisin wine used for religious ceremonies. It was also the wine locals drank during Easter and Christmas. Documents dating as far back as 1088 show that vineyards existed in Montefalco.
After almost completely disappearing from Umbrian vineyards in the 1960s, Sagrantino was revived by a few pioneering wine producers. These producers obtained the DOC label in 1979, followed by the DOCG label in 1992, placing the official seal on an important local tradition. In 1998, the few Sagrantino vines still flourishing within the city walls of Montefalco were labeled and classified with some dating back to 1700 and 1800. Several of these vines grow in the ancient monasteries of St. Claire and St. Leonard, proving its religious-oriented nature and lineage.
Between 2000 and 2008, Sagrantino production quadrupled from 666,000 to over 2.5 million bottles, with a total value estimated at 60 million euros. Lately, over 30 new wineries producing Sagrantino have been built. The area of vineyards bearing the Sagrantino DOCG designation has grown five times its original size. The quality of Sagrantino is surging, matching its increase in quantity. There have been four excellent “five star” vintages: 1985, 1990, 1998, and 2005.
Montefalco Sagrantino (DOCG)
Montefalco Sagrantino is made from 100 percent Sagrantino grapes. The production is limited, the bunch itself is small, and the skins of the grapes are relatively thick. The wine has a strong structure and a high concentration of polyphenols. Sagrantino di Montefalco is incredible, a powerhouse red, a dark purple liquid that is elegant with robust flavors and full of tannins. A red wine that should be served with hard cheeses and meat. Sagrantino is perfect for long aging.
Montefalco Sagrantino Passito (DOCG)
Passito is a sweet wine also obtained from the Sagrantino grape. The clusters are dried on a trellis for a couple months, then pressed, after which the juice and skins ferment together. The result is a highly sweet wine with a strong underlying structure, due to the Sagrantino’s tannins. Montefalco Sagrantino Passito is described as a meditation wine: one that deserves focused reflection. Passito is excellent paired with aged cheeses or dry sweets like biscotti.
Montefalco Rosso (DOC)
Sangiovese grapes, grown throughout central Italy, are widespread in Montefalco and are paired with Sagrantino to produce Montefalco Rosso. It’s a rich, dry wine that pairs well with most foods—a great dinner beverage.
Montefalco Bianco (DOC)
The Umbrian grapes Grechetto and Trebbiano are used to produce this golden white wine. Grechetto provides floral flavors and Trebbiano adds crispy freshness to the wine.
Mentioned in many medieval documents and once owned by a bishop, this is an estate with great history. It’s been in the family since 1881, when lawyer Francesco Antonelli purchased the property and began updating the farming techniques for planting vineyards and olive groves. In 1979 the estate started selling wine. The family is committed to caring for their territory and attentive to quality. The winery is home to Cucina in Cantina, a cooking school offering courses in Umbrian cuisine.
One of the oldest estates located in the heart of the Montefalco appellation. The winery was named after an exorcist who lived close by and would use the wines as part of his exorcism ritual.
Built in the 1850s as a classic manor, the winery was purchased by the Pambuffetti family in 1954, then recently remodeled with modern machinery and practices. The latest developments create an inspiring environment for producing wines of the highest quality. During the last few years, Scacciadiavoli released sparkling wines made from Sagrantino grapes.
A state-of-the-art winery with the most sophisticated equipment was built by the Bartoloni family in 2011, also owners of the property. The family has a long history in agriculture since the 1800s and over 60 years of wine-grape growing expertise. Three generations of Bartolonis are working together to grow the winery and produce outstanding wine, olive oil, and other products from crops planted on the farm.
The farm possesses unique soil and microclimates that create their own ecosystem. Three generations are personally involved. In 2008, the Romanellis placed artificial bird nests with live webcams inside throughout the vineyards to protect some endangered species of falcons and owls. Insect-eating birds protect the plants instead of pesticides, and the farm eschews using other chemicals as well. This allows the vineyards to produce a more natural wine.
A sensational new modern winery that is part building, part sculpture, and part land art, Tenuta Castelbuono was designed by Arnaldo Pomodoro, a legendary Italian sculptor. Nicknamed “Il Carapace” (the tortoise shell), it has a flat copper dome with a pattern of grooves and cracks similar to the landscape of soil. With a secular cathedral motif that you can walk into, the Castelbuono winery has a dramatic tasting room upstairs under the dome, breathtaking outdoor seating with panoramic views, and an equally striking cellar space downstairs.