Third in a 4-part series
How to make great wine despite astringent tannins
If a wine has strong tannins, you cellar it until it becomes drinkable, right? That’s one step, but there is quite a lot more to getting a good wine from grapes with very strong tannins. Sicily’s Nero d’Avola is the grape I’ve known best for this until now; the ones I’ve appreciated have come from higher altitudes where nights are cooler and grapes ripen more slowly. I’ve just spent time with producers in Montefalco, Italy, seeing firsthand their difficulties in working with their native Sagrantino grape, which has the richest polyphenols and tannins, they claim, in Italy, if not the world. Sagrantino is very late ripening, which is more important to mastering tannins than is altitude, a blessing since these grapes are generally grown on the gentle Umbrian hillsides at not higher than 470 metres.
Is it worth the trouble? Short answer: yes. Longer answer: you have to be convinced and determined, and for the past 25 years wineries here have been both. The DOCG is just 25 years old in 2017 and although this is an ancient grape, its new, dry single grape version is quite young. Historically, Sagrantino was made as a sweet red wine for religious uses and festivals.
The Sagrantino DOCG wines they make can be beautiful so, from a consumer’s point of view, the trouble is worth it. To ensure good results the appellation’s regulations call for 37 months of aging starting 1 December, of which 12 must be in oak (barrels or large wooden vats) and at least 4 months in bottle. Right now the latest vintage on the market is 2013, but most wineries are pushing their 2012s, preferring to have customers open wines that are a bit older. It was a year characterized by little rainfall and a hot, dry summer; the wine has matured more quickly than some vintages.
I tasted a barrel sample of Lunetti’s 2015 at their Castelbuono winery. It is currently maturing in a large oak vat and the insides of my cheeks felt like they had been sandpapered when I set down the glass. Those are strong tannins! The fruit was remarkable but the oak not yet fully integrated. To be clear, Lunetti’s older wines were some of my favourites out of the 50 or so wines I tasted and re-tasted while in Montefalco.
Some wineries are trying to keep wines from even earlier vintages in the cellar; they are presenting market-ready older wines that show the grape’s real potential. Try these, if you can get your hands on them.
Pioneering spirit carries on
I assumed the wineries must have fairly similar vinification practices, probably based on work done elsewhere in the 1980s to achieve balanced wines by mastering work with tannins. But visiting Montefalco, I realized that the pioneering spirit is strong here, with great enthusiasm for trying refine methods in both vineyard and cellar. Climate change is throwing up new challenges: the 2017 harvest, for example, was nearly a month early, following a very hot summer that caused early high sugar levels before the tannins were ready. In other words, the sugar so essential to fermentation was raring to go, but the tannins were still immature, possibly a recipe for unpleasantly green wines.
Enter knowledgeable winemakers.
A word about tannins and polyphenols because the terms are often used vaguely. I initially understood tannins as mouthfeel (chewy, gritty wines), and polyphenols as mysterious compounds that were going to cure us of all our health problems, according to proponents of the French paradox. Even the US National Institutes of Health took polyphenols in wine very seriously. Tannins are in fact just one part of the polyphenol family. Their likely role in our health aside, they have an important wine job, providing acidity, particularly to red wines. This is crucial to the overall balance of a wine, but acidity is also important for a wine’s longevity.
Wine Folly has a nice and easy to understand post explaining wine tannins, starting with: “Grape tannin comes from the skins, seeds, and stems of a wine grape.” If you really want to understand tannins, read Jamie Goode, who has the necessary science background to give us a more complex yet understandable picture. Start with “While tannins exist in grapes, what we are actually interested in is the tannins that are found in wine. There’s a difference. Wine tannins come from grape skins, stems and seeds, and their extraction is heavily dependent on the particular winemaking process involved.”
The crux of the problem in Montefalco is that Sagrantino is a very late ripening grape, and it’s important that tannins and the sugar in the grape, which is needed for fermentation, mature in tandem. Happily, Sagrantino grapes have thick skins that protect them from moulds and that lend themselves to long macerations – the time when the skin remains in contact with the juice. The grape is traditionally harvested in late October or even November, and even then, work in the cellar centres around helping the tannins calm down while helping the wine’s strong natural aromas – from the skins and pips – to develop fully.
Technical details for top wineries
Antonelli puts the accent on leaving the wines as long as possible for optimal maturing. Interesting trials underway with concrete eggs and ceramic amphore, which allow the wine to spend 8 months on skins, with no reduction. The winery has been certified organic since 2012 and uses only local grapes, mostly indigenous yeasts. The wines are moved quite a lot, but with no pumps and minimal handling: “vinification using gravity feed; fermentation in contact with the skins for 25-40 days at 25-28°C. The wine clarifies spontaneously with no need for filtration. Ageing: in lightly toasted 500 L barrels for 6 months then in 25 hL oak barrels for 18 months, the wine settles in glass lined cement vats for 12 months; then bottle ageing for 12 months.”
Caprai has been working with the University of Milan since before the 1992 award of DOCG status, and the domain boasts a large area of trial vineyards, including row after row of different vine pruning and training methods. Marco Caprai is well-known for his ecological activities and the vineyard serves as a good showcase. “You should feel the tannins with a Sagrantino” – and as they get older you will find more chocolate and spices. I’m told. The winery has been a standard-setter and while I believe others make finer wines today, quality Sagrantino owes much to Caprai, which has led the way: “The methods applied to obtain top quality grapes include different types of experimental training systems and a stable, natural and artificial cover cropping. Moreover, a more rational approach in the plant protection processes and a reduced use of nitrogenous fertilizers, together with the choice of the most suitable location for Sagrantino and all the varieties grown in the estate has proved fundamental for the production of good quality grapes.”
Còlpetrone is one of the largest producers of Sagrantino and is working hard to understand what ensures good balance for every vintage – 2017 was a “very difficult” year. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it, with its Montefalco Tenute del Cerro winery, belongs to Gruppo Unipol, a major European insurance company with 300 hectares of vineyard in Umbria and Tuscany: this may be commercial size, but the interest in developing Sagrantino is at an artisanal level. Grapes are carefully selected, with yields about 20% lower than required by appellation rules. Limey-clay soil, cordon spur pruning. Emphasis on fermentation with skins on at very low temperatures and only a a small amount of new wood is used. Sacer (from the Latin “sacred”) is one of the finest Sagrantino DOCG wines: well-structured, rich, elegant, all red fruits and spices that express the Còlpetrone terroir. “18 months in first and second passage French oak barriques, followed by 36 months in bottle after a short stay in stainless steel.” (note that I have not put a link because their web site has little helpful information about Montefalco wines)
Perticaia winery: a very big push for green and organic, which is immediately apparent in the vineyards. The area around the winery is planted with herbs. North winds here keep temperatures low, helping grapes mature correctly. Solar panels are part of the overall effort to avoid pollution on this farm, which also produces olives. Sagrantino DOCG: indigenous yeast is used for fermentation at less than 30°C . Long skin contact maceration (for at least three weeks) takes place at 25 to 28°C. The wine is aged in small wooden barrels once malolactic fermentation has been completed. After a year in oak, it spends a year in stainless steel tanks.
About Sagrantino DOCG
74 wineries produce Montefalco wines
610 hectare of Sagrantino DOCG and 410 for Montefalco DOC Rosse wines
1.5 million bottles/year Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG and 2.5m Montefalco DOC
Photo gallery, Italy’s Carapace succeeds