The “TreMonti” New Vintage Report: Part 2 Montefalco
Montalcino, Montefalco and Montepulciano
Text, Reviews and Photos by John Szabo MS
Each year, wine regions throughout Italy organize tastings to showcase the latest vintage released to market, called anteprime, the Italian equivalent of Bordeaux’s en primeur tasting, with the one difference being that in many, but not all cases, wines are already finished and in bottle. This year I report on the anteprime from Montalcino for 2011 Brunello (by law, Brunello must be cellared five years before release), 2012 Montefalco Sagrantino, and 2013 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The articles are posted in three parts for easier access.
Part 2: Montefalco Sagrantino
Around the turn of the millenium, Umbria’s flagship native grape variety sagrantino was very likely not on your radar, nor even most Italians’ radar. I know it wasn’t on mine. Despite it’s 500+ year history in the region around the town of Montefalco in the region of Umbria (“The green heart of Italy”), by the 1960s the grape had all but disappeared. But Umbria, and Montefalco, are on the move. Tourism is up significantly. The number of producer-bottlers has risen dramatically in the last couple of decades, now numbering over 60. If a glass of Montefalco Sagrantino has yet to pass your lips, chance are that will change very soon.
For most of its existence, sagrantino was used to produce sacramental wine, the favourite of local clergy for its propensity to produce powerful, sweet, long-lasting wines from partially dried grapes in the style of recioto in Valpolicella. The original name of the grape, as you may have guessed already, derives from sacrament, and until fairly recently was still called sacrantino.
But sweet passito styles had fallen out of fashion, and producing a palatable dry version of sagrantino proved to be a considerable challenge. The grape is most famous for being the most extract-rich variety known, by which I mean deeply coloured, but also especially tannic. Young sagrantino can be downright beastly, mouth-stripping, sucking every last once of moisture out of your desperately parched mouth.
It didn’t help that vineyards were set up all wrong to make dry wines, planted at low densities, and trellised to maximize production. The already late-ripening sagrantino never really stood a fair chance of reaching full maturity, and temper those fierce tannins. Yet when partially dried and fermented to leave some residual sugar, producers could balance the tannic excess and create intriguing bitter-sweet sacramental wines. But fermented dry, the wines were all but undrinkable.
Things started to change in the 1970s. Although not the first – Adanti and Antonelli were already bottling wines in the 1970s – Arnaldo Caprai is the man generally credited with reviving the fortunes of sagrantino. He purchased his property in 1971 and revived commercial production, shifting away from the sweet versions, virtually the only ones known in the period. But it was his son Marco who would raise quality and bring sagrantino to the world under the Caprai name after taking over the family operation in 1989. Marco set about revolutionizing production, undertaking multiple experiments with the help of the University of Milan with the goal of producing quality dry red wine.
The starting point was the vineyards. Caprai experimented with various trellising to determine the best way to reach higher and more consistent levels of ripeness (finally landing on cordon spur training), and higher densities, between 5000 and 7000 vines per hectare. Different vinification techniques were then explored. Counter-intuitively, Caprai found that longer macerations, 3-4 weeks or longer, actually had the effect of softening tannins.
As Filippo Antonelli later explains, “the highest percentage of tannins in sagrantino come from the skins and are released in the first 3-4 days of fermentation. So shortening the fermentation, as was done, say, in Barolo to soften nebbiolo, doesn’t work with sagrantino”. Caprai, Antonelli and others learned that extending the maceration after fermentation allowed the skins to re-absorb some tannins and colour, resulting in a relatively more supple expression. It’s also speculated that the skins eventually start to release proteins, which further soften the texture by adding supple mass.
Most producers today also agree that eliminate a percentage of the seeds during fermentation – source of the most astringent tannins – in a process called délestage, or rack and return is a critical step in production. Fermenting must is drained out of tank through a fine screen that catches the seeds, which are them removed before the wine is returned to the vat.
Barrel ageing remains somewhat contentious. Some producers like Caprai believe that small barrels, new French wood in particular with at least medium toast is key to softening sagrantino’s texture. His top cuvée, Montefalco Sagrantino ‘25 Anni’ is given the 200% new wood treatment, racked after a year or so from new barrels to another set of new barrels. It’s a wine that takes years, however, to come around in bottle.
Yet others firmly believe that large casks and time are key to softening and polishing the grape’s firm character. Newcomer Milanese Peter Heilbrun uses only large, 5000+ liter Slavonian oak casks for long ageing to great effect, his first vintages showing tremendous refinement and a perfumed, ethereal, almost nebbiolo-like character, a wine he loves and models his sagrantino after. Tenuta Castelbuono, owned by the Lunelli family of Trentino (owners of the successful Cantina Ferrari, producers of sparkling Trento DOC) also uses large casks exclusively for ageing sagrantino, yielding wines of impressive elegance; experiments with clay vessels are also underway, the aim being to allow critical oxygenation to soften tannins without the unwanted addition of oak flavour. Adanti uses both tonneaux and large cask to similar, excellent effect, as does Antonelli, whose experimentation has extended to both clay and ceramic vessels for ageing.
All in all, the wine scene in Montefalco is vibrant and developing rapidly. Riper grapes and better winemaking have radically altered character of sagrantino, launching it into the modern wine world. But make no mistake; these are still big, structured, highly ageworthy wines. Sipping sagrantino on the terrace is not counseled. Given the necessity of full ripeness, and the grape’s efficiency in producing sugar thanks to its large canopy and propensity to grow new, photosynthesis-effective young leaves, sagrantino under 14% alcohol is impossible to find. 15%+ is more common. As one producer put it: “drinking sagrantino without food would be unthinkable, preferably with roast lamb, wild boar or other game meat. Sagrantino is a veriety that leaves a strong impression.”
Most of the region’s 2000 hectares of vineyards (of which about 700 are sagrantino) are planted on predominantly heavy clay soils, with some more stony, limestone-influenced sites, others with more sand. Yet the relationship between sagrantino and vineyard site is not well understood. The next step for the region is to gain a better understanding of vineyards, and their influence on style. “The interaction between sagrantino and vineyard is not well known”, relates Antonelli, curiously, since his family has had vineyards in the region since the late 19th century. “In Montefalco, vineyards were never shared here as they were in, say Piedmont where grape traders understood what each site gives. Here, the hand of the producer is more prevalent. House style really drives the wine style. As for vineyard expression, it’s ground zero”, he continues. But with sufficient producers now producing and bottling quality wine, it’s a just matter of time.
Montefalco Rosso and Trebbiano Spoletino
A good entry point into the wines of the region is through Montefalco Rosso and Rosso Riserva, earlier maturing, easier drinking wines made predominantly from sangiovese (60-70%) with the addition of sagrantino up to 15%, and other permitted grapes up to 15%. House styles of course vary, but in general these are lively, savoury wines ideally suited for the table.
A special mention is due here to Trebbiano Spoletino, in my view the most interesting white variety in Umbria, and indeed the most illustrious grape within the large and undistinguished trebbiano family of grapes. There’s speculation that the Spoletino biotype is related to the Greco of Campania, and indeed there’s a steely, minerally edge coupled with impressive extract, making it uncommonly ageworthy among Italian whites as several older vintages have shown. With age, trebbiano spoletino acquires an unusual white and black truffle scent (dimethyl sulphide), and a kerosene like note reminiscent of aged Riesling (or Greco). Along with verdicchio, tebbiano spoletino is arguably central Italy’s best white wine. For top examples try Tabarrini’s ‘Adarmando’, made from vines over a century old, still trained up trees in the style that’s been around since Etruscan times. Examples from Perticaia, Antonelli, Le Cimate and the first release from Brocatelli-Galli are also excellent.
2012 is considered an excellent vintage for sagrantino. Yields were naturally reduced thanks to late frosts in April and May, which turned out to be a blessing over the long, hot, very dry summer. Lower crops reduced water stress, despite hot winds lasting into September. October rains rebalanced the vines, completing maturity without excessively raisined flavours, and harvest continued into early November. On the whole the wines are generously proportioned, fully ripe, full-bodied, with excellent ageing potential.
Montefalco Sagrantino: A Top Dozen 2012s
2012 Tenuta Bellafonte Montefalco Sagrantino
Milanese entrepreneur Peter Heilbrun makes an uncommonly elegant sagrantino, this 2012 cask sample showing sweet-fruited perfumed with no evident wood character, all red fruit and candied-floral aromatics, supple, ripe tannins and balanced acids. There’s a great deal of succulent fruit extract and the length is excellent. Sappy and fleshy, with genuine concentration and expansiveness, what you could call a Piedmont-inspired expression. (94 points.)
2012 Fattoria Colleallodole Milziade Antano Montefalco Sagrantino Colleallodole
Ultra-traditionalist Milziade Antano makes big and bold wines, though his 2012 old vine selection ‘Colleadole’ selection appears lighter and slightly less rustic style then previous vintages. It’s still dense and full of concentrated ripe red fruit to be sure, but lifted by orange peel and floral notes. The palate is supple, ripe and wholly satisfying, and notably clean without wood flavours, and while alcohol is definitely high, it’s integrated in the ensemble. This could even be called elegant. (94 points.) The “regular” 2012 Montefalco Sagrantino is just a step behind equally deeply coloured and ultra-ripe, lightly volatile (acetic), but well within acceptable bounds, brimming with concentrated fruit and without obvious oak flavour. This should age very nicely. (93 points.) Imported into Ontario by Cavinona.
2012 Moretti Omero Montefalco Sagrantino Vignalunga
Moretti Omero is a fine discovery, an organic farm producing refined sagrantino since the early 1990s. The vineyard selection Vignalunga is an elegant, stylish, uncommonly supple sagrantino, immediately inviting and attractive, polished and modern, but alive, with high quality wood spice (aged two years in French tonneaux) (93 points). The ‘regular’ selection is very nearly as good, with a beautiful fruit expression accented with light wood spice, and perfectly pitched tannins. (92 points.)
2012 Adanti Montefalco Sagrantino Il Domenico
One of the original Montefalco producers bottling since 1979, Adanti’s lovely 2012 Sagrantino (cask sampl) is pale garnet, open, high-toned, and floral, with a touch of acetone but correct, and vibrant red fruit, like dried strawberry, with no evident oak (aged in cask and tonneaux). The palate is balanced and juicy, lively, firm to be sure but ripe, with attractive fruit and supple texture. (93 points.)
2012 Tenuta Castelbuono – Tenute Lunelli Montefalco Sagrantino Carapace
Aside from the stunning winery designed in the shape of a shell (‘Carapace’) by celebrated artist Arnaldo Pomodoro, the wines of Tenuta Castelbuono, certified organic from 2014, show a similar artistic touch, light, unmanipulated, focused on elegance, produced under the guidance of respected Tuscan consultant Luca d’Attoma. Sagrantino sees only large cask, and in 2012 the result is fine and fragrant, spicy and complex without exaggerated ripeness. This sports some intriguing herbal-resinous-peppery spice, alongside ripe, lightly dried mostly red fruit. The palate is med-full and well balanced, with relatively fine-grained tannins and long-perfumed finish. 2015 experiments with clay amphora and small tunconic wooden fermenters are very promising. (93 points.)
2012 Tabarrini Montefalco Sagrantino Campo delle Cerqua
Fifth generation winemaker Gianpaolo Tabarrini is Montefalco’s iconoclast, an energetic, outspoken winemaker with a contagious affection for the region and its native varieties. He was the first in his family to begin bottling in the mid-1990s. The full range is exceptional, and of the two single vineyard expressions of sagrantino, Campo delle Cerqua is the more elegant, crafted in a lifted, high-toned, floral style with fine-grained tannins all in all, and relatively higher acids. It’s one of the top 2012s to be sure, still heavily extracted, dense, dark concentrated, massive, in need of many years in bottle. (93 points.) Colle alle Macchie, a warmer site, is an unapologetically massive and bruising wine, but remarkable all the same. (93 points.) Imported into Ontario by Trialto Wine Group.
2012 Romanelli Montefalco Sagrantino Medeo
Devis Romanelli is a young, ambitious producer, who’s first bottled vintage was 2008. The aim from the start was to produce rich, supple, very ripe sagrantino in a more polished and modern style. He farms organically but has not sought certification (his olive groves are certified organic), Medeo is a vineyard selection from his 8 hectares, a parcel which, according Romanelli, shows more balanced and consistent maturity, first bottled in 2011. The 2012 is a great leap forward, however, offering better fruit quality and less obvious wood (the 2011 was all new wood; the 2012 includes a percentage of old wood), and dense and rich, powerful and concentrated palate. Tannins are ultra-abundant but fully ripe, palate coating, bolstered by succulent acids. Excellent length. The top in Romanelli’s range. (93 points.)
2012 Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Sagrantino ’25 Anni’
The top sagrantino selection from Marco Caprai, 25 Anni is generally produced from the same plot each year, but not systematically a vineyard selection. Since this wine was first made in 1993 (when celebrating 25 years of winemaking), Caprai’s vineyards have expanded considerably, now c. 140 hectares; the oldest of which were planted in 1989. It’s given the 200% wood treatment, moving to a second set of new barriques for half of the 28 month elevage. There’s sweet wood/cacao noted off the top – this is still extremely young – and dark fruit leads, with roasted spice and toasted wood to match. The palate is structured to be sure, but again the tannins are relatively refined, surrounded by abundant, fleshy/plummy fruit. Very good to excellent length. Sagrantino is surely one of the only varieties in the world that can handle this much new oak, for so long, without becoming overwhelmed, even if it’s not necessary in my view. Patience required; best after 2022. (92 points.) Imported into Ontario by the Stem Wine Group.
2012 Colsanto Montefalco Sagrantino
Colsanto’s lovely 2012 is deeply coloured with lightly baked/raisined/oxidative fruit, like red berry jam, with full, supple, texture, evidently high in extract, concentration and alcohol, and generously proportioned; a satisfying mouthful. Wood is not a significant factor. Pleasantly bitter on the finish (barrel sample, 92 points.)
2012 Terre della Custodia Montefalco Sagrantino
A clean and technically spot-on sagrantino, fragrant, spicy, red fruit-inflected, attractively complex, without obvious oak aromatics. The palate is balanced-mid-weight, with fine, black pepper spice, firm but fine-grained tannins, abundant but neither overly plush nor hard, rather refined all in all. A fine wine, hitting the right place between regional/traditional, and widely appealing. (Barrel sample, 92 points.)
2012 Fratelli Pardi Montefalco Sagrantino
This is intriguingly spiced, like an incense-infused church interior, with a light black pepper note and abundant ripe but fresh dark fruit. The palate is relatively suave and fleshy, with no apparent barrique influence (although aged for 18 months in barrel), just plenty of succulent red and black fruit character. Fine, supple tannins, relatively, concentrated and fully ripe, are in balance, albeit on a massive frame. (91 points.)
2012 Il Colle di Saragnano Montefalco Sagrantino
This is a refined and elegant, fullish, supple, concentrated and clean sagrantino, with no apparent oak flavours, or at least very well integrated into the ensemble. High alcohol accompanies ripe tannins and slightly jammy flavours, and overall this works very nicely. (91 points.)
Top Current Releases/Older Vintages
2006 Antonelli Sagrantino Montefalco Chiusa di Pannone
Antonelli is a reference for the region, crafting uncommonly delicate and refined wines across the board, from the former property of the Archbishop of Spoleto, in the family since the late 19th century. Chiusa di Pannone is Antonelli’s excellent single vineyard expression of sagrantino, from the highest elevation vines on the property at 400m, facing southeast, the first high-density planting on the property in the early 1990s. It’s given more time in wood and bottle before release. This is downright succulent and elegant; tannins are really fine and tightly knit. Excellent length. Perfumed, classy. A top example. (94 points.) Imported into Ontario by Cavinona.
2010 Antonelli Sagrantino Montefalco
Open, perfumed and elegant on the nose, pleasantly peppery and spicy, with wood a minor influence. The palate is balanced and elegant, with firm but not hard tannins, and lingering finish. Really refined and fabulously elegant, also unique and distinctive. 15% alcohol is perfectly integrated. (93 points.) Imported into Ontario by Cavinona.
2008 Tabarrini Montefalco Sagrantino Campo delle Cerqua
In the exceptional Tabarrini range, the Campo delle Cerqua is the more elegant expression of sagrantino, crafted in a more lifted, high-toned, floral style with fine-grained tannins all in all, and relatively higher acids. This verges on elegances within the massive and concentrated range of Montefalco, with outstanding length. This is superb wine. (94 points.) Imported into Ontario by Trialto.
2007 Tabarrini Montefalco Sagrantino Colle alle Machie
A warm site in a warm vintage, the Colle alle Macchie is an impenetrably deep, dark red colour, with a rich, prune jam like expression on the nose and palate, and massive extract and ultra intense concentration. This is a take no prisoners wine, with massive tannins coated in extreme fruit extract – a classic wine for the region, no apologies for its bruising character but remarkable all the same. (93 points.) Imported into Ontario by Trialto.
2008 Scacciadiavoli Montefalco Sagrantino
A marvelously rich and full-bodied, firm but not unyielding sagrantino, in the Pambuffetti family sine the mid 20th century. This is dense and concentrated yet neither heavy nor pasty, and while it may not have the flash and new wood styling of some of the more modern sagrantinos emerging from Umbria, this has ample regional and varietal character in an uncompromising style. Don’t expect soft and cuddly – this is authoritative and palate grabbing, with flavours that are slipping into the dried fruit spectrum, and loads of earth and wet forest floor notes. Very good length. A wine to warm the body on a cold winter’s night.
John Szabo, MS
Italy New Vintage Report Part 4: 2012 Amarone and 2014 Valpolicella
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