There you are; your eyes closed. Beneath your wiggling feet you sense the unsteady, tumbled indentations of the cobblestones. You notice the bustle of the Piazza, almost audible. The knell of the music from the Bell Tower is distinctive; its sweet echo reverberates against the fortress walls. The waft of the tartufi that permeates the hamlet’s wares from bread, to cheese and salumi is mysterious, almost elusive. You feel the fresh, crisp autumn air heavy with the sweet smell of vendemmia. And as you slowly open your eyes, the expanse of the Piazza envelops you. The enoteca, the cafe, the church and the museum, each heavy with the differing influences of centuries old architecture and then faintly in the distance, the impressive walls of the village that once offered protection from the Etruscans, the Romans, and the Lombards unfolds before you. You could be in any hilltop Tuscan village; but you’re not.
Welcome, to Montefalco.
Often called “La Ringhiera dell’Umbria”, which translates to “The Balcony of Umbria”, Montefalco and its indigenous Sagrantino stand at the forefront of Umbria’s Wine Renaissance. Despite the fact that Sangiovese is Umbria’s most widely planted varietal, it is Sagrantino that is prominently and inextricably linked to Montefalco.
For this report, I’ve tasted wines spanning five different vintages and styles in an effort to paint a fuller picture of what Sagrantino can offer. Given the monstrous nature that Sagrantino can portray, producers often employ long barrel and bottle aging before releasing their wines to market. Therefore, many of the wines discussed are the most recent releases at the time they were provided. (Note: 2012s are just starting to be released)
The production discipline for Sagrantino is fairly straightforward. Grapes must be grown within the province of Perugia with the DOCG stretching over the entire municipal area of Montefalco and part of the municipalities of Bevagna, Giano dell’Umbria, Gualdo Cattaneo and Castel Ritaldi. The wines must be produced from 100% Sagrantino and undergo a minimum of 37 months aging before release, at least 12 of which must be in oak. However, as I mentioned above, given the large scaled tannic architecture of Sagrantino, many producers cellar their wines beyond 37 months. There are no provisions for Sagrantino Riserva.
The Lungarotti family has its business roots in hospitality and its wine roots in Torgiano. Long time winemakers in Umbria, it wasn’t until 2000 that the family began producing Sagrantino in Montefalco. The estate consists of 20 hectares and a 17th century villa under which lies the gravity fed winery. Sustainable methods are practice throughout and as of 2014 Lungarotti will be certified organic. Today the estate is run by Chiara Lungarotti who has risen through the ranks since joining the family business in the mid 1990s. Her motto: to preserve, progress, innovate and develop, while respecting tradition and our own roots.
The 2011 Lungarotti Montefalco Sagrantino is a deep, dark ruby red, very pretty to look at. We decanted the wine for an hour before dinner. The aromas are intense with dark cherry, grilled meat and tar notes that are different and interesting. Bright cherry fruit leads the full bodied palate with cake spices, wood and lots of powdery tannins that are massive but at least approachable. There is a delicious roasted coffee note on the finish. I love that and overall, find this to be fairly expressive for such a young Sagrantino. Paired with grilled ribeye steaks. 93 points. Not yet fully released. About $45. Here you can find the 2010. Find this wine.
“Passion, respect, love. These are the three forces which drive us in our daily lives and with our vines. Passion for our work, respect for the soil and love for family tradition in the cultivation of vineyards which produce wines expressing the terrain.” Such are the feelings of Emma and Roberto Di Filippo, the husband and wife team who have been farming their 30 hectares of vineyards since 1994. The estate is organic and biodynamic, but there’s even more to the story than that. Because of the family’s belief in organic methods and the notion that heavy tractors and agricultural equipment compact the soil, thereby damaging its structure and reducing its fertility, the family decided to experiment with what they call “no impact” viticulture. They chose 4 hectares of vineyards that they tend manually, plow with horses and use geese to clear grass and weeds between vine rows. On these 4 hectares, the family employs the use of 4 horses and over 400 geese as Roberto says, it takes between 80 and 100 geese to clear 1 hectare of vineyards.
Finally, in the words of Emma: “This partnership between man and beast has a healthy effect on Nature. Not only does it not compact the soil, it does not pollute the environment, as the use of fossil fuel is avoided. And besides, just compare the pleasure of working in complete silence, listening only to the whisperings of nature, versus the deafening roar of the tractor. We are incurable romantics!”
The 2011 Di Filippo Montefalco Sagrantino is a deep ruby color with a pretty violet rim at the edge of the bowl. Decanted for 60 minutes, the nose of the wine was very aromatic with smokey cherry, black plum notes, caramel and menthol. On the palate the wine is full bodied and massive, yet rich and elegant. Huge flavors of black fruits, cracked pepper, grilled toast and spices meld throughout. The persistence on the finish is long, ripe and polished. My tasting sheet ends with “wow”. Paired wonderfully with roasted pork loin stuffed with sausage and fontina cheese. This is very impressive and the perfect candidate for 10-15 years in your cellar. 95 points. About $50 . Find this wine.
For almost 100 years the Goretti’s have been farming vineyards in Montefalco and the estate is now run by the 3rd and 4th generation of family winemakers. Since the early 1900’s the focus has been on Sagrantino and Montefalco Rosso. Recently, I’m happy to say that enologist Vittorio Fiore has been engaged to consult on the wines. I think this is a welcome and positive sign given the results of the tasting for this report.
The 2007 Goretti Montefalco Sagrantino is a medium ruby color with pretty bright violet reflections. On the nose, the wine displays notes of charcoal, ash, red plums and spices. On the palate, things go horribly wrong. Full bodied and well overripe with a raisiny Amarone like character to the vanilla, plum and candied spice/nut notes. I can’t see pairing this successfully with food and can’t imagine drinking more than a glass of it. Tannins are resolved, but the low acid nature of this wine presents an almost cloying effect. Maybe half a glass with some gorgonzola? Not recommended. The 2007 is the most recent release. 82 points. About $35-$40. Find this wine.
The Arnaldo Caprai winery is one of the largest in Montefalco. With over 1,000 acres devoted to grasslands, olives and wilderness, there are still 370 acres under vine for production. Started in 1971 by his father Arnaldo, Marco took over managing the winery in 1988 and brought with him a passion and determination to produce top quality wines from the region. Over the past two decades, Marco’s commitment has led to groundbreaking research and experimentation on clonal selection, new trellising systems, and higher density plantings with all aspects pointing toward greater and greater quality.
Two wines were reviewed for this report; the estate Sagrantino and the special Sagrantino in honor of the estate’s 25th anniversary.
The 2008 Arnaldo Caprai “25 Anni” Sagrantino di Montefalco is perhaps the poster child for behemoth wines. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a wine as large scaled and backward as the 25 Anni. In fact, Marco once quipped to me while we were tasting at Gambero Rosso: “It’s not Pinot Grigio, Giovanni”. Well, that’s for certain. All that said, the 2008 is much more approachable than it’s 2005 sibling I reviewed earlier. In fact, even the color is noticeably lighter from this more “elegant” 2008 vintage.
Deep garnet in the glass with lots of ruby highlights, the 25 Anni shows reticent aromas of grilled meat, sweet fennel, smoke, black plums and roasted coffee. As you can see, the wine was decanted for about 3 hours. Still, it’s a brick house of a wine that may need days in a decanter. The flavors on the palate are somewhat monolithic with huge black plum notes supported by gargantuan tannins and plenty of acidity to keep the wine fresh. The balance is there, but this still has a long way to go to flesh itself out and offer some complexity. Will it get there? The roasted prime rib helped out a little, but I’d cellar until this is 25 years old. 91 points. About $100. Find this wine.
Next up from Arnaldo Caprai was there larger production “estate” Sagrantino which is much more forgiving and approachable in its youth. The 2011 Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Sagrantino Collepiano is a deep ruby color that trends to garnet at the center of the glass and fades slightly at the rim. The aromatic and flavor profiles are much more generous with this wine which I have had a few times as well as across several vintages. Red plums, Christmas cake, roasted nuts and fennel are prevalent on the nose and palate. Balanced well, the ripe fruit stands up well to the tannins, which are not to be ignored. That said, they are integrated well and the warmer overall vintage provided fruit that can stand up to them. Tamed well with garlic mashed potatoes and braised short ribs. Recommended. 92 points. Good value around $40 as this can easily cellar if you are inclined. The 2011 is the current release. Find this wine.
Acquired in the late 1990’s Tenuta Alzatura is the Cecchi family’s expansion beyond their normal Tuscan borders. I had the pleasure to taste this wine with Andrea Cecchi and I asked him what lured him to Sagrantino and what made it special to him?
“Giovanni, I loved the challenge and the Sagrantino grape is not one of the easiest to cultivate. It demands a fertile terrain with good skeletal soils. The flowering phase is the most difficult and delicate part. The vines have a tendency to get jumbled and then the plant becomes a perfect site for parasites and fungal disease. For this reason, the shoots must have ample air circulation. That is the key. Once the integrity of the plant has been maintained, the Sagrantino grape gives great satisfaction with its incomparable polyphenolic composition. But as always, it starts with the plants!”
A perennial due Bicchieri winner, Tenuta Alaztura, like the Collepiano above, is also made in a more elegant and approachable style. The 2010 Tenuta Alzatura Montefalco Sagrantino is a bright ruby in the glass and has attractive floral notes on the nose that are combined with deep red plum flavors, fresh herbs, ground coffee and cured meats. Very expressive. Although being decanted for 60 minutes, this 2010 is is rather compact on the palate. Large scaled ripe red plum flavors are backed by roasted coffee and spices, but little more complexity at the moment. The tannins are well integrated and balanced with acidity that keeps this Sagrantino fresh and more approachable. 3-5 more years in the cellar should soften this further and I suspect the wine will develop even more flavor complexities. A great value here too. 92 points. About $34. Better EU availability than in the US. Find this wine.
One of the largest estates in Montefalco, Colpetrone has recently set a keen eye toward increasing quality. As of 2007, Riccardo Cotarella is on board as consulting winemaker and the results are already noticeable. The Colpetrone estate is comprised of 63 hectares of vines, 35 of which are dedicated to Sagrantino production. The estate Sagrantino is crafted from vineyard blocks throughout the property and is aged for 12 months in French barrique and then 18 months in bottle prior to release. The estate is now owned by the Unipol Group who also owns Fattoria del Cerro in Montepulciano and La Poderina in Montalcino.
The 2010 Colpetrone Montefalco Sagrantino is gargantuan. It has Cotarella’s fingerprints all over it. Dark garnet, the reticent aromas portend grilled meat, smoke, vanilla and black fruits. On the palate, the wine is rich and concentrated but very, very backward. A herculean tannic structure is backed by fruit and acids, but this has little nuance at the moment other than baking spices and loads of black fruit that are cut short by tannins from the midpalate on. Needs at least a decade in the cellar. Very hard to gauge now. 92+ ? But a great value around $20. The 2010 is the current release. Find this wine.
Hands on. Boutique. Micromanagement. Passion that approaches radicalism. These are all terms that have been laid at the feet of the Paolo Bea winery and they wear the badges proudly. The unassuming patriarch, Paolo Bea, still toils around the cantina and vineyards but the driving force behind Bea’s wines now lies with Paolo’s son, Giampiero. Old school technology is employed at Paolo Bea. By that I mean, traditional methods carried out with clean winemaking precision. The results are amazing; almost startlingly so. Insistence on organic methods, manual harvesting, native yeasts, no filtration and exclusive grande botte aging are the hallmarks at Bea. A true boutique producer, with less than half of their property under vine, the Bea wines are sometimes difficult to locate. But let perseverance be your friend and you will be richly rewarded. Bea’s driving ideal: “Nature should be observed, heard and understood, but never dominated.”
The 2010 Paolo Bea Montefalco Sagrantino Pagliaro is as backward as a wine I have tasted in a while. Deep ruby in the glass, this is a single vineyard Sagrantino that was aged for 12 months in stainless steel, 36 months in Slavonian Botte and then 9 months in bottle prior to release. One can only hope that sort of aging regimen will pay off a decade from now because I find it difficult to even review this wine at this infantile stage. It’s loaded with black fruit, loaded with tar, grilled meat and tannins. Then there are tannins, more tannins, a few bitter tannins and even more tannins. Toward the finish, there’s tannins. This isn’t a knock at all because I have faith in the estate and trust the winemaker. The 2006 version of this wine was spectacular and I expect this will get there too, but it’s going to take some time. Rating Reserved. About $75. The 2010 is the most recent released vintage. Find this wine.
In 2003, a hushed rumor began to spread around Montefalco that Paolo Bea had planted one of his highest and most prestigious vineyards with Sagrantino. Since then, it was a waiting game for the vines to get mature enough to produce optimal grapes. 2007 was the perfect vintage for the new wine to make its majestic debut. Vigneto Cerrete lies at the highest point in Montefalco and benefits from perfect exposition. The vineyard represents a Grand Cru of sorts for Bea and Giampiero could hardly contain his excitement and anticipation for the wines once the site was planted.
One of the oldest wineries in the Montefalco DOCG, Scacciadiavoli traces its origins to the 17th century amidst tales and folklore of demons, witchcraft and exorcism. Indeed, a reclusive Shaman was known for using the local wine while performing his ritualistic exorcism duties on poor souls ridden with demons. Scacciadiavoli, “to cast out the devil”, takes its name from this legend. Today the estate covers 130 hectares, about 35 of which are planted to vineyards. Owned by the Pambuffetti family since the 1954 purchase by Great Grandfather Amilcare Pambuffetti, the farm is now in the hands of the 4th generation grand children who carry on the family name and tradition. During 2000, the family constructed a new gravity flow, state of the art winery. Built carefully into the surrounding hillside, the winery rests on four levels. Grapes are brought from the vineyards to the winery at the highest level and are moved naturally throughout the winemaking process. This dedication has yielded tremendous dividends. The participant wine in this report was just included in Wine Spectators Top 100 wines of 2017.
The 2011 Scacciadiavoli Montefalco Sagrantino is an excellent wine and perhaps unique in this report. While there are other elegant approachable wines noted above, I think this version is by far the most elegant and the most accessible. Perhaps this accounts for its placement in Wine Spectator’s annual list.
Deep ruby in the glass, the wine is aromatically attractive with fresh flowers, crushed cherry, smoked meat and cake spices. Full bodied, but with well integrated tannins that are deftly managed at this young stage. The core of cherry fruit is accented by Christmas cake, roasted nuts, new leather and hints of vanilla. It’s elegant, balanced, long and attractive and an exceptional value. Decant for an hour or two and enjoy in 2018 or cellar easily for 5-7 years and see what develops. Wonderful effort. 93 points. About $40. The 2011 is the current release. Find this wine.
I’ve known Giampaolo Tabarrini for several years now. I’ve enjoyed watching him craft his wines, somewhat of a maverick, alongside consulting enologist Emiliano Falsini. Now, Tabarrini is a fixture on Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri list and deservedly so. The unbridled energy, passion and devotion for his wines, family and territory comes through in Giampaolo’s actions. It’s almost virulent in form. Indeed, like Dario Cecchini, you don’t meet Giampaolo, you experience him. You also don’t drink his wines; you experience them. Included in this report is the Campo Alla Cerqua, traditionally Tabarrini’s most approachable Sagrantino.
The 2011 Tabarrini Montefalco Sagrantino Campo Alla Cerqua has traditionally been my favorite of Tabarinni’s three Sagrantino and this vintage did little to change that perception. The hallmark of this single vineyard wine is the minerally, powdery texture throughout, that derives from the array of soil on that part of the estate and seemingly coats the fruit and tannins from start to finish. Loads of crushed berry fruit is in harmony with soft vanilla, pipe tobacco, grilled meats and alpine herbs on both the nose and palate. Seamless from fore to aft, this is Tabarrini’s most elegant Sagrantino. Its approchability notwithstanding, give this 3-5 years in the cellar and it will be even sexier and more complex. 91 points. About $42 and a wonderful value. Find this wine.
Here is an excerpt from an interview I did with Giampaolo several years ago where he discusses the characteristics of each of his three Sagrantino vineyards.
Vigna Colle Alle Macchie: If my wines are said to be bold and extreme, this one is even more radical. It’s the bare essentials. Stripped, authentic, true, indigenous Sagrantino showing all the potential of the grape. It tells all the truth and only the truth about our land. Solid, dense, dry, full bodied and confident. Soulful.
Vigna Campo Alle Cerqua: Smoother, the most feminine; more experimental and mineral. Fresh, fruity and sought after. Probably not the most traditional Sagrantino, but a really elegant version. You won’t find something similar in Montefalco. The most elegant and feminine of the three.
Vigna Colle Grimaldesco: The wine has his own soul and it’s the oldest vineyard of the three. It is some kind of meeting point between Macchie and Cerqua. It’s classic Sagrantino, probably what you would expect from a Sagrantino. Very rich in bouquet. Very aromatic.
In 2001, the Lunelli family, longtime producers of Ferrari sparkling wine, set about their vision of expanding the family’s holdings throughout Italy which included the purchase of Tenuta Castelbuono that year. The estate holds 30 hectares of vineyards in the communes of Bevagna and Montefalco and converting them to organic agriculture was the family’s initial goal. Certain vineyard parcels were replanted and in 2003, the estate released its first Sagrantino.
Carapace, or “shell” in Italian, specifically a tortoise shell, is the brain child of renowned sculptor and architect Arnaldo Pomodoro. Soon after purchasing the Castelbuono estate, the Lunelli’s realized an immediate need for a new cellar. Given their long history of collaboration with Pomodoro, he was the obvious choice for the family. Carapace was born.
The 2009 Tenuta Castelbuono Carapace Montefalco Sagrantino is a deep ruby in the glass with lots of violet highlights. On the nose, the wine is quite expressive with aromas of black plums, smoke, fennel and bourbon notes. On the palate, there is no let down. An immense core of plummy black fruit is joined by braised fennel, dark chocolate, Christmas spices and roasted coffee. Full bodied, but elegantly presented, this is still very tannic but you can begin to see the start of smoothing integration. Still needs 2-4 years in the cellar to develop more, but I think in this riper vintage, the future is sooner rather than later. 92 points. About $38. Find this wine.
Sagrantino is a different animal. A careful, critical review of this article would cause an attentive reader to come to no other conclusion. It can be the darkest most tannic wine produced in the world; yet it has the capability of becoming elegant and graceful. In their youth, these wines are difficult to approach and even pair with food. You’ll notice above that almost every wine was paired with some sort of braised or grilled beef. That can get tiring. That being said, Sagrantino is unique and it is Umbria’s jewel. Serious Italian wine drinkers should have a case or two in their cellar with the understanding that the wines need at least 15 years of age to begin showing their full potential. Understand that when you buy and let your patience be rewarded.
Thank you to the producers, importers and the Sagrantino Consorzio who contributed samples for this article. Most of the wines, despite the various vintages tasted, are the most recent releases. I have stated as much where applicable. We’ll have more coming in the future on Sagrantino and the wines from Umbria in general.