Wednesday, July 29, 2015

From St. Francis to DOGC: Umbria's Sagrantino di Montefalco

In 1219, St. Francis of Assisi and several disciples traveled to Palestine in order to preach to the Christian forces and to evangelize the infidels. His group traveled throughout the region, from Syrah to Egypt -- where his famous audience with the Sultan occurred. Some believe that he returned to his native Umbria with a previously unknown grape variety to produce sacramental wine. The grape was Sagrantino, derived from the Latin  “Sacer” or Sacred, and in fact, was cultivated by monks to produce a raisin wine for religious rites. Perhaps, the grape variety didn't originate in Italy from St. Francis himself, but by Franciscan monks returning from Turkey, another theory. Regardless, Sagrantino is now considered an indigenous Italian grape and is found only around the hilltop town of Montefalco.

Image courtesy of VinePair
Whereas Umbria is central to Italy, Montefalco is centrally located within Umbria. Wine production is an inherit part of the region's culture and wine making even occurred within the medieval city walls. As early as the16th century authorities had established wine making rules protecting vineyards and wine making, with one of these laws establishing the earliest possible harvest date.  However, over time, Sagrantino and wine making in general dwindled to where the grape almost completely disappeared. A few wine producers persisted and a renaissance erupted in the 1970s leading to a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) label in 1979, followed by a more esteemed Denominazione d'Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) label in 1992. Interestingly, Sagrantino vines were still growing within the Montefalco city walls and after scientific analysis, several vines are considered to be 200-300 years old. 
Montefalco  DOC and DOCG Requirements
On July 7th, 2015 the Montefalco Consortium issues a press release announcing a change to the Montefalco Rosso DOC regulations.

Montefalco Rosso DOC
Previous composition: 60-70% Sangiovese, 10-15% Sagrantino, 15-30% other authorized varietals.
New composition: 60-80% Sangiovese and 10-25% Sagrantino.
Aging: minimum 18 months, with no oak requirements

Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG
Composition: 100% Sagrantino.
Aging: minimum  30 months, with at least 12 months in oak.

Two of these producers reinvigorating wine making in Montefalco were Guido Guardigli and the Antonelli family. In the early 1990s, during a trip to the region, Guardigli was inspired by the potential of both the territory and signature grape. After purchasing the property, he planted what would eventually become 15 hectares of vines as well as built a new state of the art winery. He named his venture, Perticaia - old Umbrian for plow. Those 15 hectares of vineyards are almost half planted with Sagrantino, a quarter with Sangiovese, and the remainder in Colorino, Trebbiano Spoletino, and Grechetto.

The Antonelli family have been farming in Spoleto, just north of the village of Montefalco, since1881 when  Francesco Antonelli purchased the San Marco de Corticellis estate (once owned by the Bishopric of Spoleto).  In 1979 the family starting bottling and selling its wine and in 1986 5th generation Filippo Antonelli took the helm. From 1996 to 2006 he was president of the “Consorzio Tutela Vini Montefalco” and also manages a second family wine estate, Castello di Torre in Pietra. Currently the Antonelli estate contains 40 hectares of planted vines, predominately Sagrantino (some 30 years old) and Sangiovese, with smaller plantings of Montepulciano, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. White wine grapes are represented by Grechetto and Trebbiano Spoletin.

This August, the Montefalco Wine Consortium is participating in the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference with a program titled “Discover Sagrantino, Umbria’s Signature Wine”. In order to promote the region, the group organized a twitter campaign and selected several bloggers at random to receive samples. I was one of these fortunate souls and received the two wines below. My first impression is that Sagrantino is inherently tannic; in fact, I later learned, it is one of the most tannic varieties in the world. Thus, decanting is mandatory. Yet, these tannins are chewy and blend seamlessly with the wine's mineral character and acids. And like a majority of Old World wines, Sagrantino is meant to be consumed with food, try these ragu and gnocchi recipes

Perticaia  Montefalco Rosso DOC 2011  (12% ABV) - Sangiovese 70%; Sagrantino 15%; Colorino 15%. Aged 18 months with 12 months in stainless steel and 6 months in the bottle. Starts with a cranberry aroma, which leads to a dry medium bodied wines with noticeable chewy leather tannins.

Antonelli Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG 2007 (14% ABV) - Sagrantino 100%. Full bodied; dark fruit on the nose; jammy blackberries, minerals and depth, acids and very persistent chewy tannins. Persistent even after almost five additional years in the bottle. Begs for game or sausages.

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