Taste: Lush and characterful with aromas of violets, dark fruits, herbs, spices and vanilla, followed by flavors of blackberry, black cherry and plum, together with bitter chocolate, cinnamon and nutmeg. When fully mature, can display additional smoky and earthy undertones with notes of tobacco, leather, clove, licorice and coffee.
Body: Medium to full
Acidity: Medium to high
Age: Many are best drunk within 5 to 8 years of release, but more tannic versions will require 10 to 15 years of aging to fully mature – check with your retailer before purchase.
Other: Due to limited production Sagrantino wines are expensive. Decant for at least an hour or two before drinking.
Sagrantino (sa-grahn-TEE-no) is quite an intriguing grape variety. It makes some of the finest red wines in all of Italy and yet it remains relatively unknown and is rarely encountered, despite the fact that its cult status is growing.
There are two main reasons for this. First, much has to do with the fact that Sagrantino is only grown in a very small area around the town of Montefalco in the central Italian region of Umbria and consequently, production is very limited. Also, it was not until the late 1970s that Sagrantino was used to make dry table wine. Up to that time it was mostly grown in small plots rather than vineyards and what little wine was made went into the production of sweet passito (made from dried grapes – see entry in Glossary for more details) dessert wine.
Therefore, it is only relatively recently that the great qualities of this grape, when made as a dry wine, have come to the attention of the wine world. Sagrantino’s origins are unknown, but it has been grown for centuries around the town of Montefalco and may be indigenous to Umbria. Its name is thought to derive from the Latin word “sacra”, meaning “sacred”, for it has traditionally been used as a sacramental wine.
As a vine, Sagrantino is low yielding and produces quite small bunches of grapes. The grapes themselves are also small with very thick skins, which makes it one of the most tannic of all grape varieties. These thick skins are also the reason it has traditionally been produced as a passito wine as the grapes can dry for months without rotting while also preserving their sugar content.
Like many Italian grape varieties that were on the verge of extinction by the 1960s, its survival is due to the dedication of a handful of producers, and none did more than Arnaldo Caprai to revive Sagrantino’s fortunes and begin making it as a dry table wine. These Sagrantino di Montefalco wines (also referred to as “Montefalco Sagrantino Secco” – the word “secco” meaning “dry”) were awarded the highest Italian DOCG classification in 1992. They must be 100% Sagrantino and aged for a minimum of 30 months (12 of which must be in wooden casks) before release.
One of the biggest challenges in making these dry wines is managing the tannins. Some producers allow the grapes to achieve a high degree of ripeness before picking as this softens the tannins, but on the downside it reduces acidity. Extending maceration time also helps and, while Sagrantino has a great affinity for oak, it is often aged in older barrels so as not to increase its tannic profile. Such wines are generally lighter, very elegant, ready to drink earlier and are at their best between 5 and 8 years old. Wines made by other producers may be fuller, much more tannic in structure and quite harsh in youth, requiring 10 to 15 years to be at their best.
While flavour profiles can vary considerably between producers all of these wines have great personalities and intensity. You can expect aromas of violets, dark fruits, herbs, spices and vanilla, followed by flavors of blackberry, black cherry and plum, together with bitter chocolate, cinnamon and nutmeg. When fully mature they can display additional smoky and earthy undertones with notes of tobacco, leather, clove, licorice and coffee. At their best these wines are impressively complex with great structure and depth and can hold their own with the finest red wines Italy can produce.
The passito wines have become very rare today, although they can be exceptionally good. The relatively small area devoted to Sagrantino around Montelafco means that the amount of wine produced is quite limited and prices are therefore very high. Other areas in Italy have tried to cultivate Sagrantino, but as yet with little success. Experimentation with the grape is taking place in some countries, with Australia leading the way. There is a tiny area under vine in California in the USA.
If you are a devotee of Powerful style wines then Sagrantino is one that should be on your ‘wish list’. However, be sure to check with your retailer or the producer’s website when the wine should be at its best and ideally decant the wine at least an hour or two before drinking.
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