Consider the most famous, sought-after Italian red wines; Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello di Montalcino are definitely on everyone’s list. Amarone della Valpolicella from vineyards near Verona and Taurasi, Campania’s top red wine, are also included in this discussion.
But you’ll rarely find a mention of Montefalco Sagrantino, which is a real shame. It’s not that surprising when you think about it, as the wine lacks the glory of the above offerings, but Montefalco Sagrantino producers have made great strides in the past decade; a few copies each year get star press, and soon the wine may get its due.
There are several reasons why Montefalco Sagrantino is not on the same level of consciousness as Barolo, Brunello or Amarone; maybe the fact that Montefalco is in the middle of Umbria, a lovely region in the center of Italy, but let’s face it, it’s not a tourist mecca like Verona, Florence or Napoli (for many it’s a good thing not to be overrun with tourists like us).
However, the primary reason why Montefalco Sagrantino is not popular is the fact that the Sagrantino grape – the wine must be made entirely from this variety – is the most tannic in all of Italy, even more tannic than Aglianico, the source of Taurasi, as well as Nebbiolo, the source of Barolo and Barbaresco.
Tannins help preserve wine, which is why the above wines have such great aging potential. But wine produced from tannic varietals is bitter after release – some more than others – and while Barolo and Barbaresco in particular have become more accessible at an early age in the last twenty years, the same cannot be said for Montefalco Sagrantino. However, there have been promising results from a number of producers in Montefalco in recent years, so quality is definitely on the rise.
I spoke to Filippo Antonelli, owner of the Antonelli San Marco winery just outside the town of Montefalco, and asked him how local producers tame the tannins. “Sagrantino tannins are tamed first in the vineyard (mostly) and then in the winery,” comments Antonelli. “Most of the Sagrantino vineyards were planted in the decade 1995 – 2005, so finally the vineyards are more than 20 years old and that helps a lot.
“Now we are aware that the tannins have to be ripe and so we choose to harvest when that happens; taste berries and no longer measure sugar and acidity. We realized that Sagrantino is a bit of a snob and needs special places to grow.”
Antonelli notes that more and more manufacturers are now using barrels instead of barrique; maturing the wine in large oak barrels definitely helps to reduce the tannin level in the wines. Antonelli also discusses other cellaring practices to create a more elegant Montefalco Sagrantino. “Some producers do short skin contact, but others (like us) do the opposite: when the tannins are ripe, we do very long skin contact; the result is different: less tannins in the first case, tamed tannins in the second case.”
All this work has had big consequences for local manufacturers, says Antonelli. “Now you don’t have to wait 15-20 years to enjoy Sagrantino; We hope that the new way of Sagrantino will be pleasant when we sell it even after 20 years.”
Another announced Montefalco producer is Arnaldo Caprai; the owner of the estate is Marco Caprai. He has a different approach to aging his wines, often using barriques, which gives the wine a rounded and modern quality not often seen in these areas. Its most famous wine is labeled 25 Anni, first produced from the 1993 vintage to celebrate the winery’s 25th anniversary. Deep in color with plenty of ripe Sagrantino fruit, supported by velvety tannins, this is one of Montefalco’s true signature wines. This is a very different style of Sagrantino than the craft of many other local producers, but winemakers here respect Caprai for his work, as reviews of his wines have been stellar over the years, drawing a lot of attention to Montefalco Sagrantino. So much attention that Antonelli told me a few years ago that Marko Kaprai is “our Gaia”.
In short, the white wine made from the local variety Trebbiano Spoletino (Spoleto is a beautiful town not far from Montefalco), also creates a new excitement for the territory. Producers work with this grape in numerous ways in their cellars, with some treating it only in steel, others aging it in cement, some in oak barrels, and at least two producers (Antonelli, Scacciadiavoli) ripening the wine in amphora; there are even a few winemakers who make a the classic method sparkling wine from this variety.
Commenting on Trebbiano Spoletino, Antonelli says: “it has both aromas and flavors of green and yellow fruit… the aging potential is very interesting, because you get notes of earth, white truffle.” This is still in the growth phase, but look for Trebbiano Spoletino to become a much more important part of the Montefalco wine scene.
I mentioned earlier that Montefalco Sagrantino is not that well known, either among Italian wine lovers or consumers. So what does Antonelli think is the key to this wine’s future success? “We need to promote the area better and let people know that the hills of Montefalco grow not only Sagrantino, but also Sangiovese, Spoletino and Grechetto (another local white variety).
“We must continue to improve the quality of Sagrantino, and to do that, the next step is to plant vineyards on the best soils and exposures that have not yet been discovered in this area.”
Reviews of several notable Montefalco releases:
Trebbiano Spoletino and Grechetto
Arnaldo Caprai Grecante 2021 – 100% Grechetto, aged in steel tanks. Wonderful perfumes of magnolia, quince and lemon essence. Medium-bodied, with a rich mid-palate, this offers delicious, lush fruit that is instantly appealing; It has lively acidity and very good persistence. This is a beautifully crafted wine with great harmony that you can enjoy tonight or for the next five years. (93)
Antonelli Grechetto 2022 – Aromas of yellow peach, melon and hints of almonds and pecans. Medium-bodied, excellent varietal character, impressive ripeness, very good acidity and clean, round, dry finish. Enjoy the next 3-4 years with lighter seafood or poultry. (91)
Exorcists Trebbiano Spoletino 2021 – Ripened in amphorae and unroasted wooden barrels. Light, dark golden yellow; aromas of apricot, tangerine and saffron. Medium-bodied, with very good concentration. Impressive complexity, very good persistence; the finish shows notes of orange peel and tea leaves. Drink over the next 3-5 years. (91)
Antonelli Trebbiano Spoletino “Trebium” 2021 – 100% Trebbiano Spoletino from old vines; fermented in big barrels, where it spends six months on the sediment. Light, medium yellow; aromas of lemon peel, grapefruit and hints of lemon cream. Medium-bodied, with impressive concentration. Lively acidity, great varietal purity, excellent harmony and a long finish. This would be wonderful paired with scallops. Enjoy the next 3-5 years. (93)
Bellafonte property White Montefalco “Sperella” 2021 – 100% Trebbiano Spoletino; matured in stainless steel. Aromas of candied lemon, apricot and hints of mango and golden crocus. Medium-bodied, excellent ripeness, very good acidity, impressive complexity and remarkable persistence; the finish offers notes of orange peel, lime and yellow flowers. Lovely wine – very well made. Enjoy the next 3-6 years. (92)
Briziarelli Montefalco Sagrantino “Vitruvio” 2016 – Aged for 24 months in barriques and then another 24 months in steel. Aromas of black cherry, tobacco and molasses. Medium full, excellent ripeness, very good acidity; medium-bodied tannins that are well balanced, excellent persistence. There is impressive varietal purity and harmony with a beautiful harmony. Give this one 3-5 years to offer more character; peak in 10-12 years. (93)
Pardi Brothers Winery Montefalco Sagrantino 2018 – Aromas of black plum, black cherry, tar and cloves. Medium-bodied with excellent concentration. There is a layered mid-palate with an impressive depth of beautifully ripe fruit; there is excellent varietal purity and focus, and the finish is fruity with considerable complexity and medium-bodied tannins that are well balanced; woody notes are restrained. This is a beautifully made Sagrantino with valuable presence, excellent overall harmony and impressive texture; peak in 10-12 years. This is a great example of how a Montefalco estate tames the tannins of Sagrantino to create a wine of strength and charm. (93)
Arnaldo Capra Montefalco Sagrantino “25 years” 2018 – Matured for 25 months in barrels. Aromas of black cherry, thorn and lavender. Full bodied with excellent concentration, there is a compact wall of ripe black fruit, with excellent persistence, very good acidity, full tannins and big oak notes that are substantial but not out of balance. The wine impresses with its ripeness and full character, but it is clear that it needs at least 4-5 years to round out; peak in 12-15 years. (93)
Tabarrini Montefalco Sagrantino “Campo alla Cerqua” 2018 – Aromas of red cherry, currant, red plum and cumin. Medium-bodied, with impressive concentration. It has excellent ripeness, pronounced varietal character, significant persistence, very well integrated oak and rich, full tannins. A typical robust Sagrantino from this producer and a notable achievement. Peak in 12-15 years, maybe longer. (93)
Antonelli Montefalco Sagrantino Chiusa di Pannone 2018 – Originally produced from the 2003 vintage, this was the first single vineyard Montefalco Sagrantino, and is still the most famous. Obtained from vines planted in 1995, matured in large barrels for 30 months. Tempting aromas of blackberry pie, black plum, black orchid and cloves. Full-bodied with excellent concentration, rich, layered mid-palate with perfectly ripe fruit. There is very good acidity, with nicely integrated wood notes, medium-bodied, velvety tannins and exceptional persistence. Wonderfully complex, this is one of the best examples of Montefalco Sagrantino I’ve ever tasted. Peak for 15-18 year olds. (96)
Forbes – Lifestyle