Think about the most famous, most sought after Italian red wines; certainly Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello di Montalcino are on just about everyone’s list. Amarone della Valpolicella from vineyards near Verona, and Taurasi, Campania’s greatest red wine, are also included in this discussion.
But you’ll rarely find a mention of Montefalco Sagrantino, which is truly a shame. It’s not that surprising when you think about it, as the wine lacks the fame of the above-mentioned offerings, but producers of Montefalco Sagrantino have made leaps and bounds over the past decade; a few examples receive stellar press every year, and soon, the wine may receive its just dues.
There are a few reasons as to why Montefalco Sagrantino isn’t on the same level of awareness as Barolo, Brunello or Amarone; perhaps the fact that Montefalco is in the middle of Umbria, a lovely region in the center of Italy, but let’s face it, it’s not a tourist mecca as with Verona, Florence or Napoli (not being overwhelmed by tourists is a good thing for many of us).
However the primary reason why Montefalco Sagrantino is not popular is the fact that the Sagrantino grape - the wine must be produced entirely from this varietal - is the most tannic in all of Italy, even more tannic than Aglianico, the source of Taurasi, as well as Nebbiolo, the source of Barolo and Barbaresco.
Tannins do help preserve a wine, which is why the wines mentioned above have such great aging potential. But a wine produced from a tannic varietal is bitter upon release - some more than others - and while Barolo and Barbaresco in particular, have become more approachable at an early age over the past twenty years, the same cannot be said for Montefalco Sagrantino. However, there have been promising results with numerous producers in Montefalco over recent years, so quality is definitely on an upward swing.
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I spoke with Filippo Antonelli, proprietor of the Antonelli San Marco winery just outside the town of Montefalco, and asked him how local producers are taming the tannins. “Sagrantino tannins are tamed first in the vineyard (predominantly) then in the winery,” Antonelli comments. “Most of the Sagrantino vineyards have been planted in the decade 1995 - 2005, so finally the vineyards have more than 20 years and this helps a lot.
“We are aware now that tannins must be ripe and so we decide to harvest when this happens; tasting the berries and no longer measuring sugar and acidity. We have understood that Sagrantino is a bit of a snob and requires very special places to grow.”
Antonelli notes that more and more producers are using now botti instead of barrique; maturing the wine in large oak casks definitely helps diminish the level of tannins in the wines. Antonelli also discusses other cellar practices to help create a more elegant Montefalco Sagrantino. “Some producers do a short skin contact, but others (like us) do the opposite: when tannins are ripe we do a very long skin contact; the result is different: less tannins in the first case, tamed tannins in the second case.”
All of this work has been of great consequence for the local producers, according to Antonelli. “Now you don't have to wait 15-20 years to enjoy a Sagrantino; we hope the new way of Sagrantino is both enjoyable when we sell it and after 20 years.”
Another heralded Montefalco producer is Arnaldo Caprai; the estate proprietor is Marco Caprai. He takes a different approach to aging his wines, often using barriques, which gives the wine a roundness and modern quality not often seen in this territory. His most celebrated wine is labeled 25 Anni, first produced from the 1993 vintage to celebrate the winery’s 25th anniversary. Deeply colored with an abundance of ripe Sagrantino fruit, backed by velvety tannins, this is one of the true signature wines of Montefalco. This is a very different style of Sagrantino than many other local producers craft, but the vintners here all respect Caprai for his work, as the reviews of his wines over the years have been stellar, bringing great attention to Montefalco Sagrantino. So much attention that Antonelli told me a few years in ago that Marco Caprai “is our Gaja.”
Briefly, the white wine made from the local varietal Trebbiano Spoletino (Spoleto is a beautiful town not far from Montefalco), is also creating new excitement for the territory. Producers are working with this grape in numerous ways in their cellars, with some treating it only in steel, others aging in cement, some in oak casks, with at least two producers (Antonelli, Scacciadiavoli) maturing the wine in amphora; there are even a few vintners making a metedo classico sparkling wine from this varietal.
Commenting on Trebbiano Spoletino, Antonelli says, “it has both aromas and flavors of green and yellow fruit ... the aging potential is very interesting, as you get notes of earth, white truffle.” This is still in a state of growth, but look for Trebbiano Spoletino to become a much more important part of the Montefalco wine scene.
Earlier, I mentioned that Montefalco Sagrantino is not that well known, either among Italian wine lover or consumers. So what does Antonelli think is the key to the future success of this wine? “We have to better promote the area, and let people know that on the hills of Montefalco, not only Sagrantino grows well, but also Sangiovese, Spoletino and Grechetto (another local white varietal).
“We have to keep improving the quality of Sagrantino, and to do this, the next step is to plant vineyards in the best soils and exposition which are still undiscovered in the area.”
Reviews of a few notable releases from Montefalco:
Trebbiano Spoletino and Grechetto
Arnaldo Caprai Grecante 2021 - 100% Grechetto, aged in steel tanks. Lovely perfumes of magnolia, quince and lemon essence. Medium-full, with a rich mid-palate, this offers delicious, lush fruit that is instantly appealing; There is lively, mouthwatering acidity and very good persistence. This is a beautifully made wine with excellent harmony to enjoy tonight or over the next five years. (93)
Antonelli Grechetto 2022 - Aromas of yellow peach, melon and hints of almond and pecan. Medium-bodied, this has excellent varietal character, impressive ripeness, very good acidity and a clean, round, dry finish. Enjoy over the next 3-4 years with lighter seafood or poultry. (91)
Scacciadiavoli Trebbiano Spoletino 2021 - Matured in amphorae and untoasted wood barrels. Bright, deep golden yellow; aromas of apricot, tangerine and saffron. Medium-full, with very good concentration. Impressive complexity, very good persistence; the finish displays notes of orange rind and tea leaf. Drink over the next 3-5 years. (91)
Antonelli Trebbiano Spoletino “Trebium” 2021 - 100% Trebbiano Spoletino from old vines; fermented in grandi botti, where it spends six months on its lees. Bright, medium yellow; aromas of lemon peel, grapefruit and a hint of lemon custard. Medium-full, with impressive concentration. Lively acidity, great varietal purity, excellent harmony and a lengthy finish. This would be wonderful paired with sea scallops. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. (93)
Tenuta Bellafonte Montefalco Bianco “Sperella” 2021 - 100% Trebbiano Spoletino; matured in stainless steel. Aromas of candied lemon, apricot and hints of mango and golden crocus. Medium-bodied with excellent ripeness, very good acidity, impressive complexity and notable persistence; the finish offers notes of orange peel, lime and yellow flowers. Lovely wine – very well made. Enjoy over the next 3-6 years. (92)
Briziarelli Montefalco Sagrantino “Vitruvio” 2016 - Matured for 24 months in barriques and then a further 24 months in steel. Aromas of black cherry, tobacco and molasses. Medium-full, with excellent ripeness, very good acidity; medium-full tannins that are well-balanced, excellent persistence. There is impressive varietal purity and harmony along with beautiful harmony. Give this 3-5 years to offer greater character; peak in 10-12 years. (93)
Cantina Fratelli Pardi Montefalco Sagrantino 2018 - Aromas of black plum, black cherry, tar and clove. Medium-full with excellent concentration. There is a layered mid-palate with impressive depth of beautifully ripe fruit; there is excellent varietal purity and focus and the finish is fruit-driven with notable complexity and medium-full tannins that are well-balanced; the wood notes are restrained. This is a beautifully made Sagrantino with noteworthy presence, excellent overall harmony and impressive texture; peak in 10-12 years. This is a great example of how one estate in Montefalco is taming the tannins of Sagrantino to create a wine of strength and charm. (93)
Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Sagrantino “25 Anni” 2018 - Matured for 25 months in barriques. Aromas of black cherry, blackthorn and lavender. Full-bodied with excellent concentration, there is a compact wall of ripe black fruit, along with excellent persistence, very good acidity, full-bodied tannins and big oak notes that are significant, but not out of balance. The wine impresses with its ripeness and full character, but clearly needs at least 4-5 years to round out; peak in 12-15 years. (93)
Tabarrini Montefalco Sagrantino “Campo alla Cerqua” 2018 - Aromas of red cherry, currant, red plum and cumin. Medium-full, with impressive concentration. There is excellent ripeness, notable varietal character, significant persistence, very well integrated oak, and rich, full tannins. A typical robust Sagrantino from this producer, and a noteworthy accomplishment. Peak in 12-15 years, perhaps longer. (93)
Antonelli Montefalco Sagrantino Chiusa di Pannone 2018 - Initially produced from the 2003 vintage, this was the first single vineyard Montefalco Sagrantino, and it still the most famous. Sourced from vines planted in 1995, this was matured in large casks for 30 months. Alluring aromas of blackberry pie, black plum, black orchid and clove. Full-bodied with excellent concentration, there is a rich, layered mid-palate with perfectly ripe fruit. There is very good acidity, along with nicely integrated wood notes, medium-full, velvety tannins and outstanding persistence. Wonderfully complex, this is one of the finest examples of Montefalco Sagrantino I have ever tasted. Peak in 15-18 years. (96)