The sacred wine of Montefalco


The landscapes of Umbrian autumn with their regular rows of multicoloured vines do not inspire only the artist, but also suggest to the oenologist the taste of the wines produced in Montefalco: autumn tinges the rows of Sagrantino red, those ones of Sangiovese yellow, those ones of Merlot green. The drinkable, berries­scented and lightly peppery best grape blends obtained from these varieties are unique and one­off. It would be impossible to recreate such a complexity of fragrances and flavours in another Italian region or all the more so in another wine area of the world and if we may compare varieties to musical notes, then the sound of the Sagrantino, compared with those so well- known ones of Merlot and Sangiovese, is still an enigma for many, many people.


“Sacred” and “festivity” wine

Just one word, even if well it is pondered, is not enough to explain what makes unique the Sagrantino, which is produced exclusively in five towns of the area of Montefalco, a village founded by Romans in ancient times. That’s its charisma. That’s its essence. That’s its mystery. And maybe that’s its bright future, too. The cultivar of the Sagrantino and its organoleptic properties are not related to any of other Italian varieties. It seems that it stems from the lines of the genealogical tree of the Georgian saperavi beyond Caucasus, from where could have been brought it by some Franciscan Friars, who could appreciate its high level of sugar, as well as its high resistance to rot.
Even if it sounds unbelievable, in the seventeenth­century some acts similar to the current appellation system inaugurated by the French were already in force in Montefalco and were used to safeguard the local “sacred wine”. The producers who did not have their own vineyards but shared their crop were subject to the same penalty provided for thieves, while in the seventeenth­century who cut down a vine of others was punished with death. All that for a wine, which basically was not sold at that time: it was used only in religious and domestic festivities and by priests to administer Holy Communion. No wonder the appellation “Sagrantino” originates from the two Italian words “sacro” (sacred) and “sagra” (typical Italian village festival).


Dry and… sweet!

The dry Sagrantino di Montefalco wines represent a wave of relative newness in the local oenology. Once the Sagrantino was produced only in sweet variants. After the grape harvest the bunches were let wither for some months to obtain just a raisin wine. The explanation of this choice is simple: this cultivar is characterized by small berries and by nature do not yield abundant harvests.
These characteristics give the Sagrantino an extremely high and hardly “trainable” tannic content.
The solution found in the Middle Ages was to balance the tannins by withering, which concentrates the sugars that are naturally in berries. Generally the wines obtained this way were strong, rich and had a great potential. With time drier wines began to be produced too, by which it is possible to know the extraordinary opportunities of this unique variety.
Like the raisin wine the dry one ages for 30 months, 12 of them rigorously in oak barrels, whose choice, age and capacity depend on producer’s philosophy and way of selection. The minimum alcohol content prescribed by law is 13% vol. in the dry wine, 14, 5% vol. in raisin wine.
The dry Sagrantino is intense ruby­red, on the nose it is intense with persistent hints of soft fruit, truffle and blackberry and on the palate it is dry and well structured and its taste is never the same. It is surprising how the first sip is different from the second one, which itself is unique like any of the next ones till the last one. It is a master of the art of transformation! Just for this reason it is considered primarily a wine for experts who can appreciate its elegant and changeable nature. Certainly it is an intellectual wine, whose presentation must be captivating.
The dessert raisin wine obtained from overripe Sagrantino grapes, which are let wither for other two months, is bright garnet red, on the palate it is sweet but well balanced with a final hint on the dry side. Its production (2 million bottles, whose 40% is sold in Umbria) is just a drop in the ocean, compared to the production of other Italian regions. Therefore not all wine experts can be proud of having really tasted some Sagrantino at least once; those who did must surely have noted down its characteristics in a notebook, which now is dearly treasured.


The paradoxes of the Sagrantino

In the last few years the interest in this variety have aroused painstaking studies of its properties. The maybe least expected result of these researches is the discover of its sensational content of polyphenols. In other words Sagrantino, compared with the 25 most popular red varieties, has a record concentration of polyphenols, which do not cause just the colour, the aroma, the body and the sourness of the wine, but they also act as antioxidant and antibacterial agents. It contains 4174 mg/kg of them, almost twice of the content of most of other cultivars, whose maximum amount can reach 2500 mg/kg. For example the content of polyphenols of the Cabernet Sauvignon, which is considered the best red wine of the world, is twice lower than that one of Sagrantino.
The Sagrantino di Montefalco obtained DOC appellation in 1979 and DOCG in 1992. Each “first­class” wine stands out for different features. The essence of the Sagrantino is its intense aroma, strong taste, remarkable tannic structure, full body and quite high alcohol content and despite these characteristics can be perceived in any quality glass, every oenologist of Montefalco seeks and finds a personal interpretation of this incredible variety and that gives sometimes particularly good results.


Food pairings

The food that is considered ideal to match with the Sagrantino di Montefalco is truffle, the main ingredient of several local recipes, whose flavour it enhances. This wine is particularly enjoyable with grilled meat (lamb or mutton chops), with a soup of chickpeas seasoned with a “shower” of lightly spicy Umbrian olive oil and with mature cheeses, too (such as two years’ ripe pecorino, Italian sheep’s milk cheese). The Sagrantino di Montefalco raisin wine is well matched with biscuits, chocolate, rocciata (Umbrian local cake) and the same above­mentioned mature cheeses.

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