April 24, 2013

Wine: Drama of Montefalco reds commands attention

By Joe Appel

Sagrantino is grown in one of the sweetest little areas in Italy, the Montefalco subregion of Umbria in the country's center. The "green heart of Italy," as many call it, is home to effortlessly rolling terrain, punctuated by perfect hilltop towns such as Perugia, Orvieto and Todi.

Softened and coddled in such an inviting, warm-spirited area, you might expect the red wine that calls it home to be similarly agreeable. You'd be very, very wrong. Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG wines, made with that grape exclusively, are some of the most tannic in the world, opaque and often intimidating, bursting with flavors of raw hardwood, smoke and boulders.

They usually require more than a decade in bottle before they'd even deign to be seen with you -- and bring a raw steak along with your ID card to get past the velvet rope.

The fascinating thing about Sagrantino, though, is that the list of attributes above is just half of the story. The other half, the reason these wines beguile me so, is the fruit: the gloriously ripe, unctuous, dripping fruit.

The somewhat agitated relationship between Sagrantino's harsh and seductive sides is great drama. Like great drama generally, or great marriages, even the happy endings come only after tenterhooks, twists of fate, compromise and patience.

Another barrier to broader acceptance of -- not to mention passion for -- these wines is their relative scarcity. There are fewer than 400 acres planted to Sagrantino in the designated zone, farmed by roughly 25 producers. Many of these only sell locally, either because they can get away with it or because they deem their wines too special and delicate to travel overseas. When Sagrantino makes it here, it's costly.

But it's not as costly as most highly regarded California Cabernet Sauvignons, which share Sagrantino's volatile marriage of tannins and fruit, but only rarely approach the Italian wines' complexity and depth of reward -- charging twice the price for the dubious favor.

Sagrantino di Montefalco could be considered a better version of Napa Cabernet, in fact, and those who are drawn to large, masculine domestic Cabs are an ideal audience for the Sagrantino.

I hope I'm not scaring you off. My intention is the opposite, and here's how: with Montefalco Rosso. Rossos usually employ 15 percent or so of Sagrantino, making up the rest with Sangiovese and often a touch of Merlot. (Umbria is a great area for Merlot.)

These wines remain structured, though the tannins are tamed and the partner grapes do much to tease out the Sagrantino's friendlier, more pliant aspects. You end up with a very southern Italian warmth, savory like a Negroamaro.

You won't miss the Sagrantino character, though, and I earnestly hope it will tantalize you enough to seek a full Sagrantino wine (about which I'll write soon) at some point.

The Consorzio Tutela Vini Montefalco, a consortium of producers dedicated to promoting the Sagrantino-based wines of the area, designated March of this year as "Sagrantino Month." I'm choosing May to discuss them instead, because most folks look to this time of year to start grilling more, and I can't think of a better wine for grilled meat.

Full Sagrantino wines ought to be drunk alongside a fat grilled steak with a thickly peppered crust; almost nothing else will do. The Rossos, however, are much more flexible, though red meat should still be on the menu. Because the red fruit flavors are more immediate, these wines are unbelievably good with burgers, as well as pasta alla Bolognese or a tender, braised cut.

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