I love Italian wine and am fascinated by the enormous potential there is in every corner of that amazing wine producing country.
Excitingly every now and again a region emerges from relative obscurity to sit alongside the famous classic wine regions such as Barolo and Chianti. We might well be experiencing such a moment right now.
The landlocked province of Umbria neighbours Tuscany but feels more rural and quiet. Wine has been produced here for centuries with the whites of Orvieto and reds of Torgiano enjoying some success. Neither though have managed to break through into the ranks of the great regions.
Umbria might now have found its true champion though in the tiny wine region of Montefalco. I visited recently and loved what I found. This delightful place is well off the beaten track – my taxi to Montefalco from Rome Airport covered nearly half the distance on unmade roads – and is centred on the pretty hilltop medieval town of Montefalco.
It’s small, but utterly charming with beautiful narrow streets, fortified town walls and a scattering of wine shops as well as some excellent restaurants. It’s a delightful place to wander around but at its heart is the wine produced in the surrounding countryside.
The place enjoys a Mediterranean climate – they grow olives here in abundance – with some aspects of a continental climate, including very cold winters.
Two distinct styles dominate local red wine production, Montefalco Rosso DOC and Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG.
DOC / Denominazione di origine controllata wines come from recognised traditional regions and are made from grape varieties traditional to that place. Much like the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée regulations these are a guarantee of quality and provenance. DOCG / Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita is a step above and the rules are more stringent, with longer ageing and lower yields.
The Montefalco Rosso wines are blends based on 60-80% Sangiovese, the famous grape of Chianti in Tusacny, together with 10-25% of the local Sangrantino grape and often some Barbera and Merlot.
One of the oldest estates in Montefalco is the wonderfully named Scacciadiavoli – it means to banish devils and celebrates an exorcist who lived nearby. It was founded in 1884 and this is where they created the local Rosso blend of Sangiovese and Sangrantino as an alternative to Chianti.
Montefalco DOC was created in 1979 as a recognition for the improvement in the local wines. Some fine dry whites are made here as well as reds, from blends based on the excellent Trebbiano Spoletino grape – which is a variety on its own and not Trebbiano. There are also some lovely crisp whites made from Grechetto (grek-ketto).
I would also add that the nearby Spoleto DOC, which overlaps with Montefalco, produces some truly great white wines made from Trebbiano Spoletino.
Without a shadow of a doubt though the premier wine from this region is the Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG and it is this which is fast becoming one of Italy’s star red wines. Originally it was simply a part of the Montefalco DOC, but was separated out and promoted to DOCG status in 1992. The rules specify that the wine must be aged for a minimum of 37 months, including at least 12 months in barrel and 4 months in bottle.
Historically Sagrantino was considered so harsh and tannic that they either made sweet wines from it or blended it with softer, less tannic varieties.
Scacciadiavoli made the first dry red wine made from the Sagrantino grape, that we know about anyway. It was in 1924 for a local festival and was only made once, before they reverted to the more normal sweet wines.
The move to dry reds happened slowly from the 1960s onwards. The sweet wines still exist though with many producers making a Passito Sagrantino from grapes that have been dried to concentrate the sugars.
One of the most famous estates here is Arnaldo Caprai which was a pioneer in adopting modern techniques that lifted the quality of the dry wines. This foresight made the wines more exciting for foreign markets and helped others to see the potential. As a result the few old established estates here seem to have raised their game and to have produced more ambitious and finer wines, while newcomers have flocked to the region to create new vineyards. Today there are over 50 producers of Montefalco Sagrantino.
In some ways the wines appear similar in flavour to Sangiovese, with red berry fruit characters, an earthy quality and plenty of food friendly acidity to give balance. The bigger wines, from riper vintages and the more internationally focussed producers, combine these with deeper black fruit flavours too, while a little bit of age brings out the complexity of dried fruit and leather. The wines always have that tannic structure that is more reminiscent of Barolo than Chianti though.
It seems to me that although it has been a very long time coming, Sagrantino has found its moment. Greater understanding and modern knowhow, including gentle handling, cold fermentation and less new oak seems to have tamed Sagrantino’s tannins, delivering ripe fruit and seductive charms that give the wines much wider appeal than ever before. Yes indeed there are tannins, but they are approachable and enjoyable, giving the wine structure rather than bite.
I have tasted some older vintages that I enjoy, but for me the quality of the wines really took off from the excellent 2011 harvest onwards. Time and again it was the, cool, 2014 vintage and the ripe, generous 2015 and 2016 wines that impressed me the most.
Yes these are bold wines with big flavours, but there is real elegance and finesse here too so they should appeal to lovers of Bordeaux, California and Rioja, as well as Barolo, Brunello and Chianti. The opulence, generous fruit and elegance makes these excellent restaurant wines that partner so much more than just Italian food.
Montefalco Sagrantino truly has become one of Italy’s new star regions.
Some producers worth seeking out:
Arnaldo Caprai – In many ways the estate that set Montefalco Sagrantino on the path to its current glory. Founded in 1971, Marco Caprai took over the reins from his father Arnaldo in 1988 and immediately started an in-depth analysis of the Sagrantino grape, the clones on the estate and how to grow this tricky variety. The results speak for themselves with the wines achieving a global following and wide acclaim. In many ways these are amongst the most international and opulent – indeed there is a touch of Napa Valley to the winery and tasting room – but the range is impressive and the quality is very high across the board.
Try: Valdimaggio single vineyard Montefalco Sangrantino with its rich, but balanced fruit, spice notes and silky texture.
Arnaldo Caprai wines are distributed and retailed in the UK by Mondial Wine.
Beneditti & Grigi – Founded as recently as 2014, this newcomer makes very high quality wines under the guidance of Matteo Basili who is a passionate, honest, openminded and engaging winemaker. He creates two ranges; the easier drinking La Gaita del Falco and the more complex Beneditti & Grigi line.
Try: Adone DOC Montefalco Grechetto white is a stunning take on the Grechetto grape. It is partially barrel fermented and is both delicate and rich with lovely refreshing acidity.
Their Beneditti & Grigi Montefalco Sangrantino is a great wine with a seductive smoothness that shows how well they tame those infamous tannins.
They also make a Sagrantino that does not adhere to the DOCg rules and so is labelled as IGT Umbria. It only has a little oak and is a fresh, lively and drinkable take on this tannic grape.
Beneditti & Grigi wines are available, until Brexit anyway, from XtraWine, Tannico.co.uk and Uvinum – all of whom ship the wine to you directly and very efficiently – ah the joys of being in TheSingle Market.
Scaccadiavoli – The original innovator in Montefalco, this beautiful estate was founded in 1884 and created the recipe for what is now Montefalco Rosso. Amilcare Pambuffetti worked here as a young vineyard worker and was eventually able to buy the property in 1954 when he was 71. Today the fourth generation of his family farm 40 hectares of vines.
Try: Their elegant Montefalco Sangrantino has a traditional, savoury character while they also make a fine traditional method sparkling rosé from 100% Sagrantino.
Some Scaccadiavoli wines are imported into the UK by The Wine Society.
Tabarrini – Giampaolo Tabarrini, whose family have farmed here since the 1840s, is a true force of nature. He took his family winery that made local wine for everyday consumption and since 1996 has transformed it into one of the leading estates of this up and coming region. He is effortlessly charming, hugely entertaining and well worth listening to – which is good as he seldom keeps quiet, or stands still for that matter. The farming is entirely organic and the focus is firmly on their 18 hectares of vineyard.
Try: Adarmando Trebbiano Spoletana is made from hundred year old vines that are trained high up in trees, like wild vines, and is one of the very best white wines here. Giampaolo’s three single vineyard, or Cru, Montefalco Sagrantinos are exquisite with concentrated fruit, refined tannins and integrated oak.
Bocale – The Valentini family have farmed in Montefalco for generations but only created their own estate in 2002. Now run by Valentino Valentini, Montefalco’s youngest ever Mayor, the emphasis is very much on quality. He makes true artisan wines that echo his passionate, yet precise character. The estate covers 9 hectares, farming is organic and all the fermentations are spontaneous. From 2009 they have picked later, for optimum ripeness, and aged the wines in large French oak casks to soften those tannins.
Try: Their Montefalco Sangrantino is concentrated, spicy and herbal with nicely judged tannins that are firm but far from hard going.
Antonelli – Filippo Antonelli is a fascinating and amusing host whose family has owned this estate since 1881. He himself has been in charge here since 1986 and seems justly proud of his wines and heritage. The vineyards cover 40 hectares and have been certified organic since 2012. Like many estates they also produce an amazing olive oil, as well as some wonderful salamis.
Try: The magnificent amphora fermented and aged Anteprima Tonda Trebbiano Spoletana is one of my favourite white wines of the year. The single vineyard Chiusa di Pannone Montefalco Sagrantino is amongst the very best examples, while his Contrario Sangrantino is a juicy modern, unoaked take on the grape.
Cantina Fratelli Pardi – An 11 hectare family run estate that dates back to 1919, but produces a range of exuberant and bright wines that are modern in every way and yet true to themselves. Sadly I did not get to visit this winery, but I did taste their wines several times and seriously impressed by the quality and the sheer drinkability.
Try: Their Trebbiano Spoletana, with its fresh acidity, touch of texture and tropical fruit, is an excellent introduction to this exciting style, while their Montefalco Sangrantino is complex and incredibly drinkable with its rich, concentrated fruit and supple mouthfeel.
Pardi wines are imported into the UK by Aleksic & Mortimer Winehouse and are available through Tannico.co.uk.