Vinnie and I were in Umbria, or more precisely, in the Valle Umbra. On the north side of the valley, on the flanks of Mount Subasio, lies Assisi, the birthplace of Saint Francis. However, we were on the south side of the valley but we were also on a pilgrimage, just like the millions who go to the saint’s tomb every year. In a very real way, this was also religious for we were seeking a variety of grape called Sagrantino. It takes its name from the sacramental wine that the monks in this area used to make from this variety. I used the word fearsome in the title and this is precisely the right term, for this grape produces prodigious amounts of tannin and taming this is one of the winemakers’ principle preoccupations in the small area where this wine is produced.
To see how a winemaker rises to this very singular challenge, we visited Villa Mongalli near the ancient town of Montefalco where we met Pierpaolo and Natascia. The winery has 20 hectares of vines and produces around 90,000 bottles of wine a year. We tasted three of their best offerings on a terrace overlooking the vineyards. The first was their Rosso di Montefalco 2015. In common with all the wines from this area, because of the tannins in the Sagrantino grape, production cannot be hurried. According to the rules for this wine, it has to be aged for 18 months but Pierpaolo takes his wines very seriously, hence the five years before he released this wine. A blend of 60% Sangiovese, itself high in tannins, 15% Sagrantino with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, it has a bright ruby colour with good acidity, fruity with balanced tannins. This wine carries its 14% alcohol content lightly.
From there we moved on to the famous wines of the area, made with 100% Sagrantino grapes. These wines are known as Montefalco Sagrantino and we were fortunate to taste two. The grapes for these wines are left on the vine until November, and under the rich Umbrian sun the sugar content reaches high levels which results in an alcohol content of an astonishing 16.5%! The first wine was Pozzo del Curato 2010 which translates as the priest’s well. Natascia pointed the well out to us as we stood on the sunlit terrace. She went on to explain that for this wine they only leave six or seven bunches of grapes on each plant. These are harvested, like all their grapes, by hand. Matured for three years in French oak before being bottled, with a deep ruby colour this is a magnificent wine. A perfume full of blackberries, vanilla, with a hint of balsamic vinegar, it is warm with alcohol, has a bright acidity and bitter cherry on the palate.
In Italian cima means summit and Natascia pointed out a small vineyard at the top of the hill. She told us that the last wine is made exclusively from grapes from that vineyard where they only have three bunches per plant. Appropriately named Della Cima, this wine not only comes from the summit but is the top of their range. We tried the 2008 and it was simply delicious. The colour was starting to take on a hint of orange which is to be expected from a wine of this age. They only produce 15,000 bottles per year of this delight. At this age, the tannins are softer, in spite of maceration lasting over a month. On the nose is the delicate perfume of vanilla and spices, the result of three years maturing in oak. On the palate, this wine has a bold structure with good acidity. When I asked Pierpaolo how many years this wine would last he simply said “‘many”. For pairing he recommended wild boar or well-matured cheese or, at the end of a meal, simply as a vino di meditazione. I have to say that I can easily picture myself enjoying this in front of an open fire on a cold winter’s evening with some very old parmesan.