In the 1960s, the sagrantino grape was disappearing from the hillsides around the town of Montefalco, in Italy’s Umbria region. Considered to be indigenous to the area, sagrantino, a sturdy red grape, had been cultivated at least since the Middle Ages. The monks grew it to make a sweet sacramental wine from the dried grapes.
But sagrantino had been written off by many as just too austere and tannic for table wine. Luckily, a few vintners set about to revive the grape. Take Marco Caprai, for example. His father, Arnaldo Caprai, was in the textile business and bought land near Montefal co in 1971, planting a few acres of grapes. Marco joined his father in 1987. At the time, there were fewer than 125 acres of sagrantino; the Caprais had about 17. Marco, working with the University of Milan, started researching the best practices for growing sagrantino.
“The big step was 1995,” Marco Caprai says, when the winery’s 1993 Monte falco Sagrantino was awarded the top rating from Italy’s influential Gambero Rosso wine magazine and annual guide. There was an explosion of investment in the Montefalco area.
Now, more than 2,400 acres of sagrantino are planted in the area, and most of the grapes go into dry wines. Many new wineries have been established. One example is Tenuta Bellafonte, founded in 2007 by Peter Heilbron, who was from Milan. He says he chose the area because he and his wife loved Umbria and saw the potential of sagrantino.
“My belief was that we could push a little farther for refinement, for ele gance,” Heilbron says. A lot of wineries produce more than just sagrantino, but not Tenuta Bellafonte. Heilbron’s first vintage was 2008, and the current release, 2009, has been widely praised. With the 2009, he’s achieved the elegance he was looking for — and even he’s surprised how quickly he was able to do it.
Also relatively new to the area is the Lunelli family, who are better known for the Ferrari sparkling wines they produce in Trentino, to the northeast. Alessandro Lunelli says the family liked the area because sagrantino is unique. “We’re trying to prove that sagrantino has something to say,” he says. The cur rent vintage from Castelbuono is 2007, a hot year, and the wine is a bruiser, with big tannins. (The 2008 has much finer tannins.)
In general, as the Castelbuono demonstrates, Montefalco sagrantino is a big, powerful red with strong tannins. Some versions are somewhat rustic and earthy, but Tenuta Bellafonte shows its potential for refinement. Other producers to look for include Perticaia, Scacciadiavoli and Tabarrini.
Montefalco sagrantino wines aren’t cheap. Most that I’ve tasted are in the $45 to $60 range. For a less expensive alternative, there’s Montefalco rosso, a blend of mostly sangiovese and sagrantino, which usually sells for $20 to $25. There are also some very good white wines, notably grechetto and trebbiano spoletino, the latter being far more flavorful than the ubiquitous and often bland trebbiano toscano.
PICK OF THE WEEK
Tablas Creek 2013 Vermentino ($27) Tablas Creek seems to have a magic touch with this grape, producing a white that’s racy yet rich, with creamy citrus and apple flavors. The result is a wine that’s fresh and mouthfilling.