Sagrantino is One of Italy’s Best Red Wines – So Why Haven’t More People Heard of It? 

The Sagrantino grape is grown in a relatively small area around the ancient hilltop town of Montefalco in Italy’s Umbria region. The grape is thought to be an indigenous variety but there are different competing theories about its place of origin. But that’s really beside the point because the Sagrantino grape found a home it loves in central Italy.

It flourishes in a relatively small geographic area (less than 900 defined acres as of 2018) around Montefalco in the Province of Perugia in central Italy. It’s one of those rare Italian varieties that grows almost nowhere else in the world and efforts to transplant it to other regions and countries have not been commercially successful.

Sagrantino is a thick-skinned, tannic red grape that produces big, intense and full-bodied wines. The wines - which bear the same name as the variety - are chock-full of tannins and acidity and can be tight as nails in their youth. They require careful vineyard management and extended ageing to soften their tannins and may take years, even decades for them to reach optimum maturity.

Montefalco Sagrantino (prior to 2009 it was formally known as Sagrantino di Montefalco) is the premier red wine of Umbria and has in recent years been receiving some positive international acclaim.

The primary DOCG requirements for dry (secco) Montefalco Sagrantino wines are:

  • The wines must have minimum alcohol level of 13 percent and 13.5 percent if it bears a vineyard name.
  • Consist exclusively of Sagrantino grapes.
  • Must be aged at least 37 months of which no less than 12 months must be in wood barrels and 4 months in the bottle.

This ageing protocol is one of the longest for Italian wines and generally consistent with the 38 months required for Barolo but less than the 4-year minimum ageing requirement for Brunello di Montalcino. While Sagrantino wines can typically be enjoyed not long after their release it is only after some additional years after their flavors have more wholly evolved and tannins softened still further that they can be enjoyed to their fullest.

Montefalco Sagrantino was awarded DOCG status in 1993, one of only two DOCG designations for all of Umbria.

Most Sagrantino winemakers also produce a blended Sagrantino wine called Montefalco Rosso. The Rosso has a shorter ageing regimen with a minimum of 18 months and no requirement for oak-ageing, all of which helps with the winery's cash flow while the more valuable Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG takes its time leisurely ageing in wood.

But it’s not in the same league with Montefalco Sagrantino because Montefalco Rosso is a blended wine where Sagrantino is limited to 25 percent of the total. Sangiovese comprises the majority with a required minimum of 60 percent of the blend and the addition of small amounts of other red grape varieties is permitted.

The end result is a more rounded, fruit-forward and approachable wine and at $15 to $25 a bottle is less expensive than a Montefalco Sagrantino. Montefalco Rosso received DOC status in 1979.

Montefalco Sagrantino wines have a complex personality and are among Italy’s richest and most powerful wines and when properly aged are distinguished by silky, enticing flavors and tannins. But despite these envious attributes they remain one of Italy’s least well-known wines. Were you to ask some of your wine-savvy friends for their thoughts on Sagrantino, chances are you would get more than a few blank stares.

And if you were to visit even a well-stocked wine shop you probably would find, at best, limited offerings of Montefalco Sagrantino wines. Compare these limited or non-existent offerings with the bulging shelves of the typical wine shop groaning under the weight of numerous offerings of Barolo or Brunello or Chianti Classico.

But the word is starting to get out and after waiting patiently in the wings Montefalco Sagrantino is poised to take its rightful place on the world wine stage.

Listed below are some Montefalco Sagrantino wines generally available in the U.S. along with some brief commentary on the producers and the wines. Some of the wines have been reviewed more extensively in my Best Italian Wine of the Month Selections.

The wines are listed alphabetically by producer.

Antonelli San Marco, Montefalco Sagrantino 2012 (about $35)
Founded in 1881 and still family owned and operated, Antonelli San Marco has developed a well-earned reputation for producing quality Sagrantino wines that are more approachable and less expensive than most others.

This Sagrantino wine is aged in large-format French oak barrels for 18 months, then spends a few months in glass-lined cement vats before bottling.

Antonelli’s 2012 Montefalco Sagrantino has broad, rich and voluptuous flavors and mouthfeel shaped by good acidity. It has great poise with tannins in a state of grace and is fully formed and ready to drink now.

Arnaldo Caprai, “25 Anni” Montefalco Sagrantino 2013 (about $98)
Arnaldo Caprai is one of Umbria’s largest and most well-known wineries thanks primarily to the pioneering work with the Sagrantino variety by its current owner and manager, Marco Caprai. In the early 1990’s Marco undertook a partnership with the University of Milan to study the DNA of the Sagrantino grape and assess the best clones for making quality wines and the best methods for producing wines from this variety.

The estate’s famous 25 Anniversario (“25 Anni”) wine is the result of this pioneering research initiative. First produced in 1993 to celebrate the winery’s 25th anniversary, it has kept its name – as well as its unique structure and character - over subsequent years of production. It probably is the estate’s most well-known wine in its extensive portfolio.

2013 "25 Anni" Montefalco Sagrantino from Arnaldo Caprai winery in UmbriaThe 2013 25 Anni is made from Sagrantino grapes harvested from carefully-selected vineyard sites. The wine is aged for 2 years in French oak barriques with 8 months in the bottle prior to release and has 14.5 percent alcohol. 

It is an exuberantly big and generous wine with imposing tannins. It offers a smooth and layered mouthful of concentrated black cherry and plum flavors with some spice notes highlighting the long and intense finish. It’s a muscular rather than plump wine that’s built to go the distance.

Tenuta Castelbuono - Lunelli, “Carapace” Montefalco Sagrantino 2010 (about $42) 
Tenuta Castelbuono is the Montefalco estate of the Trentino-based Lunelli family, owners of the world-famous Ferrari metodo classico sparkling wine. They acquired Castelbuono in 2001 but instead of trying to upgrade the existing outdated winery, the Lunelli family decided to start from scratch and build a dramatic new winery.

The result is a copper-colored, turtle shell-shaped structure that is a unique work of art and a world apart from any other winery in the region. It is a “destination winery” in the best sense of the term due not only to the quality of its wines but also for the distinctive architecture of the winery itself.

The estate’s 75 acres of vineyards are certified organic. The grapes for the Carapace are harvested from the estate’s oldest vines in late October when grapes are super-ripe. They undergo a 3-week fermentation in temperature-controlled wooden vats after which the wine is aged for 24 months in large-format oak casks with 12 additional months in the bottle. The wine has 15 percent alcohol.

The 2010 Carapace is a beautiful wine. It is full-bodied and flavorful with a rich mouthfeel, reserved tannins, good acidity and a long persistent finish. There are no sharp edges here, everything melds together beautifully and it will age really well.

Còlpetrone, Montefalco Sagrantino 2011 (about $24)
Còlpetrone is part of Tenute del Cerro’s wine group that has 4 separate wine estates in Tuscany and Umbria. The Colpetrone estate was founded in 1995 when a2012 Montefalco Sagrantino from the Colpetrone winery in Umbria new and modern winery was constructed in Gualdo Cattaneo in the Sagrantino DOCG zone. It has 100 acres of vineyards and produces a small portfolio of Sagrantino-based wines that includes a sweet, dessert-style Sagrantino passito.

Còlpetrone’s 2012 Sagrantino is aged in French oak vats for a year followed by 6 months in the bottle. It’s a textbook Sagrantino – full bodied, rich and opulent wine that comes with a bonus of an unbeatable price tag.

Fattoria ColSanto, Montefalco Sagrantino 2013 (about $24)
The Livon family, a well-recognized family of winemakers from Friuli in northeastern Italy, acquired Fattoria ColSanto in 2001 as part of an expansion and diversification initiative. The estate today has 50 acres of vineyards in and around Bevagna in the Montefalco DOCG area where it produces 3 Sagrantino-based wines: Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG, Montefalco Rosso DOC and “Ruris”, a “S2013 Montefalco Sagrantino from the ColSanto winery in Umbriauper-Umbrian” blend of Sagrantino, Sangiovese and Merlot.

The grapes for the Montefalco Sagrantino are harvested in early October and fermented for 15 days in a combination of oak barrels and stainless-steel tanks. The wine is aged in large wooden barrels for 15 months then switched to steel tanks for 12 months followed by a further period of refining in the bottle.

With light red fruit and spice aromas it is less velvety and lush than some but well-structured and loaded with juicy acidity and grippy tannins that indicate good ageing potential.

Paolo Bea, “Pagliaro” Montefalco Sagrantino 2012 (about $98)
Paolo Bea is a small estate that has approximately 12 acres of vineyards, the vast majority of which is dedicated to growing Sagrantino.

The Paolo Bea winery is known for producing full-bodied, rich, complex and long-lived wines as well as for Bea’s traditional, artisanal approach to wine making. All vineyards are organically farmed, manually harvested and the grapes undergo extended macerations. Bea is committed to a natural approach to wine making so all wines are fermented using only native yeasts, bottled without fining or filtration and undergo lengthy ageing protocols.

Sagrantino from the Pagliaro vineyard is Paolo Bea's flagship wine. The Sagrantino grapes are harvested by hand in the latter half of October and undergo an extended (40-day) maceration on the grape skins using only natural yeasts for fermentation. Afterwards, the wine is aged in stainless steel followed by 2 years in large, used Slavonian oak casks. The wine is then bottled, unfined and unfiltered, where it rests for an additional year prior to release. The wine checks in with 15 percent alcohol.

It is a lengthy and expensive vinification and ageing regimen but consistent with Bea’s basic approach which is to bring the wine to market only when it’s fully ready and not before.

Bea’s 2012 Pagliaro has terrific structure, balance and complexity. It opens with enticing aromas of ripe black cherries, balsamic and subtle cedar notes followed by a deep core of ripe blackberry and raisiny dried-fruit flavors supported by plush, layered tannins.

Even though it has a weighty structure with an almost chewy texture and mouthfeel it still maintains a sense of style and structure. The 2012 Pagliaro will evolve and become more compelling over time as it has the structure and tannic backbone to go the distance for at least another decade or two.

Scacciadiavoli, Montefalco Sagrantino 2012 (about $42)
The winery’s colorful name “Scacciadiavoli” (sha’ cha dee avh’ oh lee) loosely translates as “chase the devil” and is based on a centuries-old folk tale of an exorcism that involved drinking some of the local red wine, presumably Sagrantino.

Scacciadiavoli’s 2012 Montefalco Sagrantino is made entirely of estate-grown Sagrantino harvested in late 2012 Montefalco Sagrantino from the Scacciadiavoli winery in UmbriaOctober. The grapes are fermented for 3 to 4 weeks in large French oak vats after which half the wine is aged in French oak barriques and the other half in large-format French oak vats for 24 months. The wines are then combined and bottled where it rests for 12 months prior to release. Its alcohol is 15.0 percent.

The wine has a bold and generous personality with mouth-filling ripe cherry, prune, and cassis flavors. It has a firm structure with confident tannins, fresh acidity and a long, grippy finish with ripe black fruit notes.  While rich, flavorful and ready to drink now it should develop more complexity with some additional bottle age.

Tabarrini “Campo alla Cerqua” Montefalco Sagrantino 2013 (about $48)
The Tabarrini family has been tending vineyards and producing wines for generations. But it wasn’t until the last decade of the previous century that they started to bottle their own wines and they were one of the first wineries to do single-vineyard bottlings of Sagrantino. Tabarrini today offers 3 single-vineyard Sagrantino wines and it has gathered considerable praise for the quality of its cru wines.  

The grapes for this wine come from the small (2.5 acres) Cerqua vineyard which has good southeastern exposure. The grapes from this vineyard are aged in large-format casks and the alcohol level of the final wine is 13.9 percent.

The 2013 Campo alla Cerqua Sagrantino is a very elegant and balanced rendition of Sagrantino. It has attractively-scented raspberry and black cherry aromas, firm black fruit flavors, plentiful tannins and some spice and herb notes evident in the finish.

Tabarrini, “Colle alle Macchie” Montefalco Sagrantino 2013 (about $68)
The 2013 Colle alle Macchie Sagrantino is made with late-harvested grapes from the Macchie vineyard. The wine is aged in large-format French oak casks for 36 months followed by 18 months in the bottle and clocks in with an invigorating 16.3 percent alcohol.

This is a hearty, structured wine with striking richness and density. Although the wine's firm structure has been softened somewhat by the long barrel-aging period you’ll still notice some heat on the finish from the evident alcohol. The Colle alle Macchie is built to go the distance and will only get better with some additional bottle age.

This wine was included in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of the World released in 2018 (#96). 

Cantina Tudernum, "Fidenzio" Montefalco Sagrantino 2012 (about $39)
Cantina Tudernum was founded as a cooperative winery in 1958 in Todi in southern Umbria. Today it has about 140 affiliated growers and produces a variety of red and white wines from grapes sourced from affiliated vineyards throughout Umbria. It is one of the largest wineries in the region.

In 2001, Cantina Tudernum bought 18 acres of land in Montefalco and planted Sagrantino. These vineyards are the source of their “Fidenzio” Montefalco Sagrantino as well as a Montefalco Rosso.

The Fidenzio is aged for 18 months in large-format French oak barrels with an additional 12 months in the bottle before release. It is an expressive, full-bodied wine that clocks in with a bracing 16 percent alcohol. It is a muscular version of Sagrantino that is built for the long-run and is just now starting to come into its own.

It is worth noting that the 2012 Fidenzio was the recipient of Gambero Rosso’s prized Tre Bicchieri award in 2018.


©Richard Marcis
August 10, 2020

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