“It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness…”
– E.M. Forster, “Howard’s End”
“I’m feeling vulgar. Pour...”
– Mike Rosenberg, “The Naked Vine”
Last year, I did a story on 20 Mondi, a project by graphic designer and journalist Michael Loos in which he visited all twenty Italian wine growing regions, focusing on autochthonal grapes. “Autochthonal” is the term for grapes indigenous to a particular region. There are over 600 indigenous grape varietals in Italy. Many are being grown in increasingly smaller quantities, replaced by more commonly demanded varieties.
Such was the case with the Sagrantino di Montefalco grape from the province of Umbria. Loos describes Umbria as the “green heart of Italy,” as it is the only land locked province. Cultivation of Sagrantino in Umbria can be traced to the town of Montefalco in 1549, although vineyards in that area date back as far as 1088. The name of the grape comes from the Latin “sacer,” meaning “sacred” – referring to the concentrated raisin wine produced by monks in this area both for religious rituals. A “regular” version of this wine was consumed in quantity during religious feasts and festivals like Easter and Christmas.
Umbria is known traditionally for white wines. A combination of demand for those whites and the relative low yields of Sagrantino vines pushed much of the native red varietal out of the local vineyards during the 1960’s and 70’s, almost wiping it out completely. In 1979, a few wine producers sought a “classified status” for Sagrantino, which allowed broader cultivation. The status was granted in 1992. From that time, the acreage of Sagrantino vineyards has quadrupled.
If you’re in the “I drink red wine because it’s good for my health” camp, you’ve found your wine. Sagrantino’s claim to fame is that it has the highest concentration of polyphenols of any grape varietal in the world. Polyphenols are the chemical compounds found in red wine (sometimes called resveratrol) that help the body protect itself from cellular damage.
I also discovered that Sagrantino may be the most tooth-staining grape varietal. When I brushed my teeth the night after drinking the first bottle, I spit almost-black. My teeth looked like I’d been at a long red wine tasting. (And yes, I brushed again.)
Speaking of tasting, these are frickin’ enormous wines. I considered Barolo and Barbaresco to be the “big Italians” until I tried Amarone – the super-concentrated wine made from partially dried grapes in Valpolicella. Move over, bambini. Sagrantino are inky black in color, highly tannic, and very high in alcohol. One of the samples clocked in at 15.5%. So if you’re trying them – decant, decant, decant! (And assign a designated driver if you’re not at home.) Get the wine into a decanter a minimum of 90 minutes before you start your meal. Honestly, I’d open it at lunch to serve it with dinner.
Sagrantino is not an inexpensive wine. Most of them run between $25-50 for a standard sized bottle. (Like Amarone, it’s often available in half-bottles.)
When I drink wines like this, I generally try to cook up some Italian recipes that I think should pair nicely. I worry less about the tasting notes than I do the overall experience with this sort of wine. For the sake of comparison, here’s what the winemakers say about this set of samples:
Aromatically sensational. Intense, with notes of mature fruit and hints of spice and aromas of vanilla transcended from the barriques. On the palate the wine is potent, soft and velvety, with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Perticaia 2007 Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG ($47)
Spicy nose with a scent of cinnamon that doesn’t overpower the aroma of red fruit and black cherry. A very full and persistent wine with an agreeable touch of rustic bitterness.
Scacciadiavoli Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG ($37)
Complex, elegant and intense nose with notes of red fruits, red citrus, ripe plums, herbs and leather. An immense wine balanced by fresh acidity and a spicy finish.
The first meal I made for these wines was lamb shoulder braised in a fresh-sage and rosemary tomato sauce over penne, with the Perticaia alongside. The “middle” wine’s considerable strength allowed it to harmonize beautifully with the rich flavors in that lamb dish. The description above for the wine’s flavor above is apt, but alongside the strong herbs and savory richness of the sauce & ultra-tender meat – the fruit flavors hidden beneath that tannic blanket start to emerge and balance. A hedonistically good pairing.
With a day off for the 4th of July, I put together one of my famous eggplant parmesans – one of the SPinC’s faves. Eggplant parm needs a tannic accompaniment. The Collepiano (selected by the Wizard of Covington) went into the decanter as I was making my sauce. A couple of hours later, the parmesan was ready, the wine was poured, and…we puckered. I can’t remember ever tasting a wine this tannic. Any fruit there was lost beneath a layer of asphalt. The finish was almost an unearthly level of dry.
“I just can’t do it,” said the Sweet Partner in Crime, switching to a glass of Montepulciano d’Abbruzo. I got through a glass of it and switched over to the Montepulciano myself. I put the wine back in the bottle, stoppered it, and gave it a try a few other times over the following weekend, hoping that it would develop some flavor structure. It never did. I figure either this wine was more man than I am, or we might have accidentally received a flawed bottle -- as it did develop a slightly vinegary aftertaste.
However, I wasn’t going to let a $50 dollar bottle of wine go down the drain. I’d always wanted to make a traditional Risotto al Barolo, but I don’t have the budget to blow Barolo money on a cooking wine. Sagrantino has a similar flavor profile, so Risotto al Sagrantino it is! Umbria produces almost half of the black truffles in Italy, so I splashed a little truffle oil on the risotto before serving it with our third wine, the Scacciadiavoli. The risotto turned out fifty kinds of awesome, if I do say so myself. The Scacciadiavoli (Italian for "Devil hunters") was considerably better than the Collepiano, in that it actually had some plum and cherry fruit amidst the tannic tar.
For my fans of big, powerful Italian wines (Uncle Alan, I’m looking at you!), a Sagrantino di Montefalco is going to be a nice change of pace. With rich, meaty dishes – especially when there’s a chill in the air – it’s a good choice for a special occasion. I’d definitely do it again with that lamb dish I made. However, if you like your wines on the less intense side, you’ll find lighter reds that will fit the bill better.
(Many thanks to Paul Yanon of Colangelo PR for the Sagrantino samples.)