Wander Over to Umbria!

Perticaia VineyardSo, we’re taking an Italian vacation this week. Sure, Tuscany’s famous, has all of Florence’s glorious art, and is chock-full of famous wine regions. But, this time of year, it’s crowded, expensive, and brown. Plus – we’ve already done it, haven’t we? Let’s try something cool and new – Umbria!

That was pretty much Guido Guardigli’s thinking when, after 20+ years of making wine for Tuscan estate owners, he decided to strike out on his own. He purchased a small vineyard and olive orchard not far from the town of Montefalco and gradually expanded it to 17 hectares of vines. As in Tuscany, Sangiovese thrives in Umbria’s rolling hills, and Chianti’s second grape – Colorino – works well also, so he planted some of each. But for his main planning, he chose Umbrian’s own unique grape: Sagrantino.

Like Nebbiolo in Piemonte and Aglianico in Campagna, Sagrantino is one of those grapes that takes a little getting used to and grows well only in one particular place: Montefalco. No one knows where it came from, although followers of Umbrian monk St. Francis of Assisi may have brought it to Umbria from Asia Minor in the 1200s. It yields well and gives plenty of color and fruit plus loads of exotic spice – think clove, nutmeg, cinnamon. But, like Nebbiolo and Aglianico – it can be fiercely acidic and tannic.

The monks’ solution to the grape’s powerful structure: make it sweet! And so this grape became Umbria’s go-to sweet red wine to be used in the Mass as sacramental wine, the probable source of the Sagrantino name.

Perticaia Guido Guardigli

Perticaia’s Guido Guardigli

Sangiovese to Sagrantino
Guido planted about half his total vineyard to Sagrantino (with seven hectares, he has almost three percent of all the Sagrantino currently cultivated in Umbria!) and then set out to figure out how to make it into a palatable wine.

Like most growers in Umbria, he started with a non-Sagrantino wine, an Umbrian IGT based on Sangiovese with dashes of Colorino and Merlot (his bankers insisted he plant some) that’s perfect for casual enjoyment with pizza, pasta, and cured meats. His 2013 edition is delicious, the kind of everyday Italian value you’ll love having on hand this summer as fresh tomatoes come in.

For his second red, Guido took up the Umbrian tradition of adding a kick of Sagrantino power and structure to a mainly Sangiovese red, giving us his Montefalco Rosso. His 2012 is simply superb, marrying Sangiovese’s black cherry, berry blossom, and bitter almond notes to Sagrantino’s unique spice. It’s “serious” in terms of weight, power, and complexity, but still festive and fun – kind of like Umbria itself.

And then there’s Guido’s pure Sagrantino, in 2010 a Tre Bicchieri winner and as impressive a version as we’ve ever tasted. The key to making great Sagrantino – go slow. This wine takes a full three years to make. First, the ripe fruit spends a full three-weeks in the fermentation vat as the yeast living in the vineyard and winery gradually converts sugar to alcohol and slow, gentle, pump-overs extract color and only the ripest, most sweet, tannin. Then, a full year in small French oak barrels of different sizes to allow color to stabilize and tannins to soften. Then, a second full year in tank for more softening without loss of fruit. Then, yet another year in bottle before release.

If you’re able to come in on Saturday, August 1, from noon-4pm, you should really try all three of these Umbrian classics. Or order a mixed dozen right now and beat the DC Dog Days of Summer with a virtual Umbrian vacation!

The ENV Adventure

Silvia Puig ENVSilvia Puig was pretty much born into the wine business – her father, Joseph Puig, is a longtime restaurateur, export manager for Spain’s Miguel Torres and founder of Torres’s operation in Chile. Silvia followed Joseph into the trade, learning winemaking at school and while working at properties in Bordeaux and Spain (including Vega Sicilia’s Alion winery). Eventually, she and Joseph founded their own estate in the Gratallops region of Priorat, in the province of Tarragona southwest of Barcelona.

Silvia and Joseph named their new venture Vinedos de Ithaca, a nod to the Greek settlers who first planted vines in this rugged corner of Spain, and carved an estate vineyard out of the steep hills around the winery. Fairly early on, Jonas met Silvia on a Spanish wine buying trip with importer Olivier Daubresse and began offering her wines here around 2005. Working with their own vines and grapes Silvia purchased from old-time farmers and families across the region, the wines quickly found success in both Spain and in the international wine press both for the traditional reds and, unusually, for Silvia’s striking whites (a rarity in Priorat).

Like so many successful winemakers, Silvia wanted to do something completely on her own, and in 2008 she began the project now called En Numeros Vermells. The name, “Numbers in the Red” and clever label design by local graffiti artist Adria Batet, evoked the rain of bad news showing down on Spain and the world during the late 2000’s financial meltdown.

True “Garage Wines.” In contrast to the larger production volumes of Vinedos de Ithaca, Silvia designed this project to let her intimately nurture small amounts of wine from grape to bottle on a barrel by barrel basis. The small scale let her largely ignore the normal time and financial pressures of winemaking – with a total production of a few hundred cases, she was free to let each wine find its own way to maturity and use only the barrels that actually fit in her final blends.

We through around the terms “garage wine” and “handcrafted” quite a bit, but that’s truly the best way to describe everything about these wines. The En Numerous Vermells “cellar” is the garage of Silvia’s house in the Priorat village of Poboleda, a building that also serves as Silvia’s home and her husband – Belgian chef Pieter Truyts – Brots Restaurant.

In this tiny space, Silvia is literally doing virtually everything by hand. She tends the 10 or so barrels stacked in the space carefully, tasting and re-tasting to learn how each is developing and gaining a deep understanding of each cask’s unique character, strengths, and weaknesses. Multiple blending trials allow Silvia to explore how her charges work together (or don’t), and create an ideal marriage that lets each site and varietal shine without fighting or overwhelming each other.

Even the packaging is by hand! Silvia dips each bottle in wax by hand and decorates each cardboard six-pack with a unique, often whimsical, drawing in pencil, pen, and marker. You won’t often hear us wax enthusiastic about the box a wine comes in, but this year’s artwork – each box unique – is the most charming yet, echoing some of the exuberance and down to earth elegance you’ll find in the wines.

New ENV Releases. Silvia doesn’t make much of any of her ENV wines, and has no trouble selling all she has at the restaurant in Priorat and to discerning European customers. We owe our generous – in terms of how much Silvia makes – allocations to the passion and persuasion of importer Jonas Gustafsson. Jonas has followed and supported the ENV project since its inception, often tasting and debating the wines with Silvia as she decides on her final blends.

Although the wines get better and better, Silvia and Jonas have agreed to hold prices steady again this year. No, they are not inexpensive. But I’d argue that they represent extraordinary value – especially at the mix/match case prices – for a region where even mediocre bottlings achieve $70+ price tags. But when you taste them … that’s really all the justification the wines need.

Read previous posts about Silvia Puig and her ENV wines.