A rare and exciting opportunity to taste a wide selection of Sagrantino wines was held recently at Wellington wine bar and restaurant, Noble Rot. A privilege, not just to be able to taste several Sagrantino wines together, but to do so in a setting of five courses of beautiful food, and presided over by Noble Rot founder and one of New Zealand’s most awarded sommeliers, Maciej Zimny.
It was possibly the first of its kind in New Zealand. Several Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG wines from Umbria over several vintages were included from our collection, and each representing a different approach to making Sagrantino wine, and one of them a passito, a sweet red dessert wine. Two wines from Australia were also included, representing contrasting styles and climates from King Valley and McLaren Vale.
Any fan of these wines knows just how austere they are when young, and how long they really need to be aged for: decades, ideally. Further, on top of the anxiety sometimes felt when deciding whether to open a bottle or leave it for longer to (hopefully) improve, is the fact that currently, Sagrantino is essentially unobtainable in New Zealand for any reasonable price. Almost all of the bottles in our cellar have come to us by paying a frankly irresponsible amount of international freight (and import duty).
So to have Maciej and his staff at Noble Rot look after us, design a fabulous five course dinner around eight very different Sagrantino wines, and prepare and decant the wines to such perfection was just fantastic. The dinner was open for 12 guests, and sold quickly. Here’s the menu:
Chevre, Preserved Lemon, Dukkah; Kingfish, White Balsamic, Fennel
Argiolas 2015 Vermentino di Sardegna
Herb Crusted Lamb Loin, Braised Ribs, Chickpeas, Prunes, Pickled Apple, Black Garlic
Arnaldo Caprai 2010 “Collepiano” Sagrantino di Montefalco
Fongoli 2010 Sagrantino di Montefalco
Beef Cheek, Smoked Tongue, Fondant Carrots, Boysenberries
Tenuta Castelbuono 2011 “Carapace” Sagrantino di Montefalco
Pizzini 2011 Sagrantino (King Valley, Australia)
Moliterno: Truffle Pecorino, Raspberries, Beetroot, Salted Celery, Malt
Paolo Bea 2008 “Pagliaro” Sagrantino di Montefalco
Scacciadiavoli 2010 Sagrantino di Montefalco
Dark Chocolate Petit Fours
d/Arenberg 2011 “The Cenosilicaphobic Cat” Sagrantino (McLaren Vale, Australia)
Perticaia 2007 Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito
A rare Italian grape variety, Sagrantino had a total planting area in 2010 of about a thousand hectares worldwide, almost all of it in Italy.1 It is one of many rare and interesting Italian grape varieties rescued from oblivion in the late 20th century, and their stories of rediscovery, revival and spread into new regions of the world will be familiar to any reader of Ian D’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy.2
Sagrantino can produce truly immense wines. They can have such a density that they appear almost black, with colours perceptible only at the edges. As D’Agata writes:
“Sagrantino is Italy’s most tannic red wine, by far. All too often the wines are hard and unyielding, and no amount of cellar time will reduce their stubbornly tannic aura. However the tannins are remarkably polished.”
Young bottles can be brutal in this regard, but aged specimens can evolve a kaleidoscopic, intricately multi-layered complexity. Cellaring Sagrantino can thus still be highly rewarding, and to boot, these tannins provide plenty of fuel for Sagrantino to age for many decades. The best examples command the same status and reverence from many reviewers usually reserved for the best Barolo or Brunello in Italy.
In Australia, some Sagrantino winemakers have been exploring techniques both in the vineyard and post-harvest to produce lighter, more fruit-dominant and accessible wine styles. The variation with climate and terroir is fascinating, especially when comparing with the Italians.
The Sagrantino grape
The origins of Sagrantino are unclear and poorly documented, but the first written record of it is in its native region of Umbria in the late 16th century as a communion wine, although Pliny the Elder mentioned red wines from Montefalco that may have been Sagrantino. The name itself is also of uncertain origin, possibly from sagra (feast) or sacrestia (communion wine).
Sagrantino is a vigorous, frost-hardy and fairly disease-resistant vine, yet its yields are relatively low. It flowers early, yet to ripen properly it requires plenty of sunlight and heat (about 1900 °C growing degree-days) to produce its small-to-medium, cylindrical or slightly conical winged bunches (Fig. 1), weighing 150-200 g on average. The grapes reach veraison early and develop very thick, dark skins and large pips. The slow ripening results in a late season harvest: in Italy, late October; in Australia, harvests are sometimes as late as ANZAC Day. In autumn the leaves of the Sagrantino vines turn a brilliant red, a beautiful sight at harvest time (Fig. 2).
Several sources conclude it is quite probably the world’s most tannic grape variety; one study showed Sagrantino wines have 30-50% more tannin than those made from Aglianico or Tannat, and twice that of Cabernet Sauvignon or Nebbiolo wines.3
Decline and revival
In the late 1960s, the variety was almost extinct in commercial vineyards. The newly established Arnaldo Caprai planted his first Sagrantino vines in 1973, and his early successes resulted in renewed interest in the variety. The Caprai winery, in collaboration with the University of Milan, has conducted much of the scientific research and clone development since, and their Collepiano and 25 Anni wines are named after specific clones identified in the 1980s. Another aptly-named Cobra clone is notable (notorious?) for having a higher tannin content than the others.4
Since this modern revival, Sagrantino has spread to other wine regions within Italy, with significant plantings in neighbouring Tuscany and further south in Apulia and Sicily. In the early 21st century it made its way overseas to take root in other sunny, warm climates such as Australia, California, and Texas.
Sagrantino di Montefalco wine
Historically, Umbria as a wine region has been overshadowed by neighbouring Tuscany, famous for its mostly Sangiovese-dominant reds. If Umbria was known for anything at all in 1970, it was probably Orvieto, a white blend of Grechetto and Trebbiano with Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status since 1971. Before 1970, Sagrantino was chiefly made into a sweet passito wine, from late-harvested, air-dried grapes in the traditional appassimento method, and largely enjoyed only by the local population. Fully fermented secco (dry) wines were uncommon due to the very high tannins, which in the passito work well with the sweetness to produce a wonderfully complex wine that is sadly not produced nearly as much today.
In the 1970s the Sagrantino revival driven by Caprai and a small group of other Umbrian producers led to the first Montefalco Rosso DOC in 1979, and the Sagrantino di Montefalco DOC followed a year later. In 1981 local growers and wine makers formed the Montefalco Consortium, and research into Sagrantino clones and development of the secco wine began in earnest. This is the fully fermented dry red we know today, and it was finally upgraded to Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status in 1992.
The consortium now has around 60 member wineries, representing over 80% of DOCG production. It oversaw massive growth from barely 20 hectares in 1980 to over 900 hectares in 2016, producing over 2 million bottles. This has correspondingly boosted the region’s economy in employment, hospitality and tourism. The Montefalco wine production area covers gently sloping foothills at altitudes of 220-470 metres, with typical Mediterranean hot dry summers (18-23 °C), cold winters (4-6 °C) and around 1800-1900 GDD °C. Average annual rainfall is moderate, 804 mm over 89 rainy days; the growing season (April to October) averages 478 mm rainfall over 43 days. All this means the area has a temperate sub-continental (Pinna) climate, mid Region III.
Umbrian winemakers joke that Sagrantino is a wild child that requires discipline with wood, and many years of solitary confinement. The DOCG rules for Sagrantino di Montefalco require a minimum ageing of 37 months before sale, including 12 months in oak. They also stipulate a maximum yield of 8 t/ha, minimum ABV 13% (13.5% for a named vineyard) and TA of 4.5 g/l. The wine must be 100% Sagrantino, no blending is allowed. The Montefalco DOC is less strict, allowing whites made from Grechetto and Trebbiano, and reds with 60-80% Sangiovese and other local varieties, but still requiring Sagrantino to be 10-25% of the blend.
Some contend that the wines are too strong to be opened alone, and should be enjoyed with a meal. Their big polished tannins are ideally suited to accompany fatty slow-cooked meat dishes—beef ribs, lamb, or pork—or strong, aged cheeses.
Vintages in Umbria to a large degree mirror those of southern Tuscany, to the west. The 2017 vintage chart for Umbria from Wine Enthusiast5 shows well-rated years were 2010 and 2004 at a 93 average, and 2009, 2007, 2006, and 2003 rating 92. On the other hand 2014 and 2002 were challenging vintages; terrible wet weather, hailstorms at the wrong times and some producers losing entire crops.
Italian art critic Philippe Daviero, speaking at the 2015 annual Enologica wine festival in Montefalco and referring to Sagrantino wines from Australian producers that were present, suggested that rather than waging war, we should share our cultures through our food and wine.6 A diplomatic comment perhaps, in light of the controversy around Australian Prosecco labelling. Regardless, a significant Sagrantino diaspora is now found in Australia, with several hectares scattered across mainly South Australia and Victoria.
Sagrantino was first brought into the country in 1998 by the Chalmers Nursery, and the first wine to be produced in Australia was the Chalmers 2004 vintage from their vineyard in Euston, NSW. Figures are tricky to obtain for such a tiny segment of the Australian wine market, but the Australian Viticulture journal reported approximately 20 hectares under Sagrantino vine in 2010.7 Rapid growth since then is evident in the numbers of Sagrantino entrants in the annual Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show,8 and more producers are experimenting with Sagrantino, such as d’Arenberg, Mitolo, Andrew Peace and Heathvale.9
The d’Arenberg stable now includes the Cenosilicaphobic Cat which is blended with 6% Cinsault, and the foot-treaded basket-pressed version, the Athazagoraphobic Cat, can be yours for a mere $200 AUD. On the Murray River in Swan Hill, Victoria, Andrew Peace owns 6 hectares of what he claims to be the largest Sagrantino planting in Australia, which goes into his well-reviewed Australian Felix Sagrantino.
Sagrantino is also taking root further north in Queensland’s Granite Belt region, where we can find the Reserve Sagrantino from Balancing Rock, which won a Gold Medal at last year’s 2018 Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show. The Ancients from Preston Peak is a blend of Sagrantino and Carménère, and Symphony Hill have also tried their hand at one (they make a very competent Nebbiolo, too).
Tasting notes from the evening are over on Cellar Tracker.
|Anderson, K., Aryal, N. (2013). Which Winegrape Varieties are Grown Where? A Global Empirical Picture. University of Adelaide Press. ISBN: 978-1-922064-67-7 Wine Economics Research Centre datasets are collated every ten years and available online: www.adelaide.edu.au/wine-econ/databases
|D’Agata, I. (2014). Native Wine Grapes of Italy. University of California Press. pp. 424-426
|Khan N., Patel B., Kang S., et al. (2015). “Regulation of vascular endothelial function by red wine procyanidins: implications for cardiovascular health”, in Tetrahedron 71:20, p. 3059-3065. DOI 10.1016/j.tet.2014.10.078 This study measured the tannin content of 21 high tannin red grape varieties by averaging the measured polyphenol and oligomeric procyanidin content of 881 separate wines. Tannin content of wine is not entirely dependent on the grape variety; indeed the article makes the point that there are many techniques for moderating the tannin content of wine (ripeness, whole-bunch vs. destemming, skin contact and maceration times, etc.) and how tannic a wine is can also partly depend on the use of these techniques in various regional styles.
|D’Agata, I. (2016). “Cellar Favorite: 2005 Arnaldo Caprai Sagrantino di Montefalco Cobra” in Vinous, August 2016.
|“The Definitive 2017 Wine Vintage Chart” in Wine Enthusiast, January 2017.
|Sottile, L. (ed). “Enologica 2015 note a margine. A Montefalco tre giorni tra sacro e Sagrantino” in Gambero Rosso, September 2015. He said, “L’unica Guerra Mondiale vinta dall’Italia è quella degli spaghetti” (the only World War Italy ever won was spaghetti!)
|Rowley, M. (2010). “Interest in Italian varietal beauties turns heads toward Sagrantino”, in Australian Viticulture 14:5, p. 84.
|Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show. Results are available online: show.aavws.com/views/entry/wineshowresults
|Brookes, D. (2017). “Review: Heathvale’s True Believers in Sagrantino” in The Adelaide Review, 15 February 2017.