First of a 4-part series
Montefalco is a relatively new Umbrian magnet for winelovers, thanks in no small part to its intriguing contrasts. Start with the town itself, all hardness cushioned by softness: built on and surrounded by pink-tinged monastic era stone, perched above green rolling hillsides. Shop after shop boasts foods for grandmothers’ recipes and wine and olive oil (the newly pressed is just out and everyone is grabbing it), but unlike crowded Tuscany, there’s a sense here that the real customers are the locals. I tag along and try to see what they are buying.
Tourism, with a special wine twist
It’s a tourist centre, but as in the rest of Umbria, numbers have been down since the 2016 earthquakes. There is little logic to this for almost all of the region, but uninformed fear is enough to keep away tour groups, and locals recount how towns on the border with Tuscany sit empty while busloads are disgorged across the river. Those who do come tend to visit the hill town birthplace of St Francis of Assisi, so visible from every smaller hilltop here, or the capital of Perugia. An early morning stroll around the quiet ramparts and narrow alleys of Montefalco leaves you feeling selfishly thankful for this. Happily for my hosts, keen tourists and winelovers do reach these small towns. Montefalco’s wine area registered about 140,000 tourists in 2016; Umbria as a whole had about 2.2 million visitors.
A curious detail: Umbria is the only one of Italy’s 20 regions to have no coastline, no border with another country. Instead, a loose but cozy blanket of gentle hills wraps around it.
This is the heartland of a wine that belongs in everyone’s cellar – yet another contrast. Sagrantino is a very old grape that nearly died out, like so many elsewhere, because it was difficult to manage. But for 25 years it has been slowly moving into position as a deep, full-bodied contemporary wine that when well made and aged can compete with the great reds from northern Italy. In 1992 it was awarded Italy’s top-level DOCG wine status (610 hectares planted, 1.5 million bottles a year).
This is also the fifth year of certification for organic wines for a number of wineries, a trend that continues to grow.
Also popular is the DOC red, Montefalco Rosso (410 hectares, 2.5 million bottles a year), a blend of Sagrantino and Sangiovese grapes.
There are some fine white wines here, but they account for only 4% of the total.
A luscious wine for sensual foods
The grape, when handled well, gives a wine that is a deep burgundy-red, which takes on brown hues with age. It a nose of dark cherries and red fruits sometimes layered with earthy notes of mushrooms and rich soil. The tannins are very noticeable except in wines that are older: I tasted several 2012s, the vintage that is currently most widely available, and some that went as far back as 2000. I would do my best to leave the newer wines in my cellar for at least a couple years after buying them – when the tannins are truly mature, these wines become lusciously big with dense, rich fruit. That said, the 2012s were mostly very good, although it is crucial to open them well in advance (2 hours).
Umbria is famous for its foods, rich and sensual and complex courses cover the tables. In three days my plates boasted steamed chicory, porcini mushrooms (too early for truffles in October), spelt and polenta and pastas and green risotto, wine sauces over creamy cheese desserts, and beautifully roasted meats.
A handful of the now-74-strong Montefalco producers made names for themselves in the late 1980s as pioneers in giving new life to the Sagrantino grape. They were led by Arnaldo Caprai, who bought vines in the area in 1971 after creating one of Italy’s leading textile firms. He discovered almost by accident that it was possible, if difficult, to make a good dry wine because of this native gred grape’s extraordinarily strong tannins. The name Sagrantino reflects its debut as a sacred wine; for centuries it was made mainly as a passito, or sweet wine.
Today’s good wines, maturing into great ones
Early believers in the new wine, with Caprai, were members of the Antonelli family, which in 1881 had bought a farming and viticulture estate that previously belonged to the bishops of Spoleto. Today the family domain covers 175 hectares, of which 50 are planted with vines (they have made and bottled their own wine since 1979) and 10 with olive groves. Antonelli produces a beautiful lineup of 9 wines from mainly Grechetto and Trebbiano Spoletino grapes for the whites and Sangiovese and Sagrantino for the reds.
It was here, in the gravity vinification cellar that Filippo Antonelli dug at the start of this century that I stood quietly, breathing in that very special smell that lingers after a harvest has just been put to bed. Sagrantino wine’s future, and not just its past, appeared to me as a sudden apparition, coloured by a deep glow of confidence and success. Filippo is insistent on keeping the wines here as long as he can, to let them mature and age well before consumers taste them. Maybe the presence of so many historical ghosts and Catholic saints in the neighbourhood wears off on visitors after a while, and helps to soften the unruly or untamed edges of these grapes.
The quiet and dimly lit cellar houses the usual barrels and large wooden vats for wine to mature, and clay amphores and concrete eggs to experiment with new methods are tucked in here. Next door are the stainless steel tanks stacked to receive the grapes dropped from above, then the juices below, slowly, without the use of pumps – minimal handling of the grapes is part of the Antonelli recipe for good wine.
Sagrantino’s DOCG appellation area covers the municipality of Montefalco and parts of four other towns, Bevagna, Castel Ritaldi, Giano dell’Umbria and Gualdo Cattaneo. Antonelli San Marco, one of two family wineries (the other is Castello di Torre in Pietra), is a short drive from Montefalco. Filippo took over from his father Giacomo, a contemporary of Caprai and an engineer in a family of lawyers who originated from Spoleto before moving to Rome. Filippo, unlike others in his family, studied agriculture, and he is an avid proponent of organic farming. He works mainly in Rome at the other family’s winery, but he has come to the San Marco winery for the day, with his wife’s dog. “My wife takes care of her, but she prefers me,” he laughs as the good-natured dog insists she should have his attention, rather than us, a small group of wine specialists.
He shows us the kitchens where cooking classes are held in the old manor house, then he points to a newly replanted vineyard across a valley from the hilltop home. The vines are planted in a circle. For technical reasons, I ask? wondering what that could possibly be. “No, it was done that way earlier, just for the pleasure of looking over at it, so we decided to bring it back!” he smiles. Rounded hilltops, soft woods, the curves of a special vineyard: the estate remains virtually unchanged from the original, but the new wines mark a significant change.
The 21st century wines of Montefalco
My visit to Montefalco began with a tasting organised by the local wine consortium of wines from nine producers. The town has had vines since at least 1088 and it has always taken its winemaking seriously. Cardinal Boncompagni of Perugia in 1622 approved capital punishment “for anyone found cutting down grape vines”.
Less threatening was our blind tasting. We began with fruity, medium-weight Montefalco Rosso DOC wines that are blends of Sagrantino (10-25%), Sangiovese (the widespread and famous central Italy grape – 60-80%) and other reds, often Merlot (0-30%). These blends are easier to make and to drink than Sagrantino single grape wines. Starting in 2016 only the local Sagrantino and Sangiovese are allowed by DOC regulations. The wines must by law be aged for 18 months, starting 1 November. Montefalco Rosso DOC Riserva is aged a total of 30 months, of which at least 12 months must be spent in oak, either barrels or large oak vats. Sagrantino is harvested later than other reds, historically late October or even November, although in 2017 the harvest took place much earlier, in September, because of the hot summer.
We then had the Sagrantino DOCG wines that are the pride of this town. They must be made from 100% Sagrantino grapes, which are native to and grown only in this region. The grape is remarkable for its rich polyphonies and tannins. The wine must be aged for 37 months starting 1 December, with a minimum of 12 months in oak and 4 months in bottle.
Later, at various wineries and with meals we sampled the Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG Passito (sweet) wines that harken back to the past, but which benefit from contemporary vinification expertise. These must be aged for 37 months starting 1 December. I am not always a fan of sweet wines, but I liked these in general – they are not overly sweet and have good structure, making them suitable for many desserts.
The success of Sagrantino has been such that plantings of the grape increased fourfold between 2000 and 2005, before stabilising at today’s size. Several new wineries have been created. There are differences in style, the result of variations in vineyard work, especially vine training and moves to organic production, as well as different winemaking methods as efforts continue to tame the tannins.
Terroir differences give some wines that are pungent with earthy notes and others that are densely fruity. All of the DOCG single grape wines improve noticeably by being opened for a couple of hours before serving. They become distinctly more complex and interesting with age.
They suit the food from central Italy admirably – a glass of Sagrantino with a perfectly roasted neck of black pig that I had last week will remain in my memory for a very long time as a high point of food and wine pairing.
coming next: how Montefalco’s cellars are working to tame Sagrantino; the accent on organic; architecture as one of the many blends of art, culture and wine in Umbria – the magic of Arnaldo Comodoro’s Carapace.
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Also read: Forbes magazine in 2015
Photo gallery, Italy’s Carapace succeeds