So, 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.
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!