On Sagrantino & Saint Francis

Saint Francis preaching to the birds and blessing Montefalco  

“Tell us about the tannins,” said one wine writer through stained, inky teeth. By this point in our Montefalco Sagrantino tasting, everyone looked as though they’d been slurping denim dye—a sign of the power of this indigenous Umbrian grape, which possesses polyphenols that are off the charts. (Drink up, health nuts.)

The theme of this month’s Wine Media Guild luncheon was “Wines from Montefalco,” and the tannin question was addressed to Marco Caprai, one of six winemakers in attendance. The Arnoldo Caprai winery, founded by Marco’s father, is an acknowledged leader in the appellation, and their efforts garnered Wine Enthusiast’s 2012 European Winery of the Year award. (“It’s fantastic for a little winery from a little region in a little village,” Marco said with endearing modesty.)

So, what about those tannins? They’re clearly a hallmark of the grape. During our walkaround tasting of 3 whites and 16 reds before the sit-down lunch at Felidia, people were wincing and talking about stripped enamel as much as they were the blackberry flavors and oak spice, despite the fact that these wines had some age, being from the 2004 to 2007 vintages. (The DOCG requires one year in wood and 29 months overall. But 2008 is the vintage currently on the market, so it’s evident that most top producers hold them back at least three years—for good reason.)


During the walkaround, I gravitated to the more accessible Montefalco Rosso, a blend of sagrantino (65-75%) and sangiovese (10-15%) that’s rounded off with a splash of something else: merlot, barbera, cabernet, and montepulciano are all permitted. I took a particular liking to Antonelli’s Montefalco Rosso 2009 ($20) and Caprai’s Montefalco Rosso 2010 ($23). The latter, in particular, had buckets of fruit (comparatively speaking) and a delicious cherry-candy core (thank you, sangiovese).

But then at lunch, the Montefalco Sagrantino (always 100 percent sagrantino) lost its gladiatorial aggressiveness and opened up enough to be a wonderful team player with the dishes that Felidia’s magnificent chef had prepared: risotto with mixed funghi, to which a dash of coffee powder had been added (“we’ve discovered it goes with sagrantino,” the chef later told me), followed by duck wrapped with prosciutto on a bed of spinach and lentils. Mmm, mmm, good.

L-R: Winemakers Marco Caprai, Peter Heilborn (Tenuta Bellafonte), Paolo Bartoloni (Le Cimate), Guido Guardigli (Perticaia)

As we chowed down, my favorite sagrantinos were Le Cimate Sagrantino 2008 (n/a), from a new winery founded by third-generation grape growers (their Umbria Bianco was also superb: an unusual 60/40 blend of vermentino/grechetto, called Aragon, which offered all of vermentino’s enticing macchia aromas, minerality, and sapiditá, but with a plusher finish that went on forever); and also the Colle del Saraceno Sagrantino 2008 (n/a), coming from Montefalco’s smallest winery, according to Myla Botti, wife of winemaker Francesco Botti. This tasted very old-fashioned in a good sort of way, like some of the grandpa-style primitivos that use whole clusters containing ripe, green, and raisinfied grapes. It seemed late-harvest, and yielded some of those same coffee notes that our chef had detected. “No, the harvest is normal; the secret is in the vinification,” Botti explained when asked. “We stop fermentation with a few grams of sugar. That gives it a smoothness that balances out the tannins, which we don’t want to lose.” Aged three years in stainless, then one year in large Slavonian oak, the wine still packs 14.5% alcohol, despite that touch of residual sugar. “It would have no trouble going to 19 to 20 percent,” she said.

And in fact, sagrantino’s thick skins and abundant sugars explain its history as a passito dessert wine. Made this way at least since Roman times, sagrantino’s history reminds me of the recioto of Valpolicella—another Roman-originated dessert wine made from the drying of thick, waxy-skinned grapes, which can endure this kind of abuse without shriveling into desiccated jawbreakers. We tried Colle del Saraceno’s Sagrantino Passito 2008 (n/a) with dessert, and it was indeed a nectar suited to wine critics and gods (nectar is Latin for “drink of the gods,” derived from the Greek néktar, a compound of nek or death, and tar, overcoming).

My husband has been pushing to add an Umbria tour to our roster at La Dolce Vita Wine Tours for some time now. This tasting certainly has bolstered our rolodex with some new names I wouldn’t mind visiting. But for me the capper was Myla Botti’s involvement in the monastic church of San Francesco in Montefalco. On my one trip to the region a dozen years ago, we had the good fortune to visit when the cathedral’s magnificent fresco cycle The Life of Saint Francis by Benezzo Gozzoli was undergoing restoration. Miraculously, the church allowed visitors to climb the scaffolding all the way to the top and stand nose-to-nose with Saint Francis and his peers in the capella maggiore. Here one could see a level of detail in Gozzoli’s fine brushwork that was invisible to human eyes below: the weathered skin on Saint Francis’s face, the feathers on his aviary congregation, the individuals leaves on lollipop trees and blades of grass. God was the artist’s intended audience, and here we were, sharing the view mostly intimately. Perhaps we shared the sagrantino, too. The passito was most likely the sacramental wine in these parts.

Myla invited us back, saying she’d give us a tour of the cathedral, now fully restored. And, of course, she’d pour us some good Montefalco afterwards. That’s a pilgrimage worth taking, I’d say.