The Bocale vineyard has only six hectares of vines producing around 30,000 bottles of wine annually but here, in the green heart of Italy – as Umbria is known – is a business that is quintessentially Italian. Valentino Valentini is a most engaging host and you cannot but but swept up by his enthusiasm. He was Montefalco’s youngest mayor and he bought the same precision and drive to that role as to the role of a winemaker. Valentino, together with his brother and parents, runs the business; it’s a real family affair. It is the epitome of everything that makes Italian produce so special, in particular their dedication to their local grape variety, Sagrantino. Of course, Italy has large farms but they are the exception rather than the rule. In Italy small family businesses are still the norm, run by people dedicated to producing exceptional quality from a land that is a part of their heart and soul.
In the tasting room Valentino showed us an old photograph, taken in the 1950s, of the family working in a very different style to what we see today. Back then the vines were planted far apart and grew up trees in the old Roman tradition, with cereals and other crops grown between them. There is a very famous Italian novel called Il Gattopardo, The Leopard, and one of the great quotes from this book is ‘everything must change so that everything can stay the same’. Indeed, everything appears to have changed at Bocale with a modern winery and modern vinification techniques but the reliance on family and a quality product remains the same. Valentino was disarmingly frank when he said there is no way they can compete with the large scale producers from Argentina with their mechanised production techniques and low labour costs so they don’t even try. Bocale has chosen a different, environmentally friendly route.
Valentino has recognised the importance of what makes them different so you will not find varieties like the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon – instead, he remains faithful to his roots and the local Sagrantino grape. More than this, he is in the process of dispensing with the use of French oak barriques, so beloved by modern producers, because they can mask the flavours of the grape that he seeks to promote. He is even experimenting with different vinification techniques. In the past, the grape skins were left in contact with the wine – maceration is the technical term – for a period of 20 days. They have now extended that to 45 days for the Sagrantino wines. Valentino explained that, contrary to expectations, this has led to a softening of the fearsome tannins that this grape is famous for and fearsome they are! To demonstrate, he took me to the cellar and we tasted some of the Sagrantino wine maturing in the barrels. These young wines, sleeping in Slovenian oak, have a fierce gum-numbing tannin content which will only mellow with the passing of time, as the tannins break down to provide structure and balance with age.
Bocale offers a full range of wines starting with a Montefalco Rosso. Valentino explained the challenges in making this blend of Sangiovese, Sagrantino, Colorino and Merlot which necessitates three separate harvests as the different varieties mature at different times; however, with less tannins this is a brighter, fruitier wine that can be enjoyed while relatively young and although it has 15% alcohol this does not dominate.
Made with 100% Sagrantino grapes, the Montefalco Sagrantino 2015 is a full-bodied wine with tannins that are still prominent but promise the potential for a long life. With hints of blackberries, blackcurrant and vanilla on the nose, and bitter cherry on the palate, this is a big wine. When I asked Valentino what he would pair this with, I was surprised when he suggested lamb and pigeon but, on reflection, I can see this wine balancing the strong taste of lamb and the gameiness of pigeon. It would also go well, I fancy, with a mature cheese.
The final Sagrantino I tasted is named Ennio, after Valentino’s father, and this is a wine of beauty. Fermentation and maceration is done in open wood containers and the daily ritual of punching down the skins floating on the top of the wine is undertaken by hand. The results are slightly softer tannins and a good structure and balance. This is a wine to be kept and enjoyed only on very special occasions.
Leaving the winery behind and driving along the Umbrian valley I had the unsettling feeling of slipping back into the 21st century having experienced a little of the timelessness of the best of Italian artisan wine making. In this, as in so many other things, it was a delight to see a regard for the best of the past married to the present.