In the hills of central Italy’s Umbria grows the most tannic grape in the world. The grape is called Sagrantino, the area is called Montefalco, the soil is full of fossils. Wines from this grape are burly- like a hairy sort of wart hog. One of those things about wine- you can assign to it the most unappetizing attributes (leather, dirt, yeast, funk, tobacco, yum?) but in the end it’s only better for it. So this Sagrantino- it makes a big ‘ole dark red berry, thymey, warthog of a wine.
The grape’s name is thought to come from the Latin word sacer, or sacred. The original form of Sagrantino was a sweet passito style, traditionally served at Easter’s feast after 40 days of Lenten sacrifice. The delayed gratification almost as pleasing as the wine itself I’m sure.
In recent years there has been a bit of a boom of Montefalco producers, folks hopping on a train that may or may not be filled with gravy. Regardless of its trendiness, Sagrantino should yield a noble wine. Speaking of nobility (persistence and properness too) let’s talk about a producer with roots- Antonelli. Antonelli San Marco is a property that belonged to the Bishop of Spoleto from the 13th to 19th centuries (Charleston, SC Spoleto Festival, booyah!). I recently had the pleasure of spending time with Filippo Antonelli, proprietor, agronomist, and shepherd of this 170 wonderful hectares in the middle of Montefalco, handed down through the generations from his great-grandfather, Francesco Antonelli.
It is clear that Filippo holds high the tradition of the place and people of Montefalco. A humble yet impressively intelligent and all-around cool guy, Filippo attended school in Rome and was the first to break the professional mold in a long family line of lawyers. It is important to know who your wine comes from- they have a lot to do with what’s in the bottle (read: if everything is everything, and the world is full of mirrors, it is important not to drink wine made by d-bags). Filippo has a sincere relationship with every piece of his land, understanding that good things take time, concentration, hard work. The attention he lends his vineyard sites, knowing that different locations have different needs (he compares it to children- one requiring an extra pullover, one a scolding, one for you to hold his hand), is a window into his understanding of bottling a wine that expresses its terroir. He gets it.
When I bring up biodynamics, Filippo has something to say- explaining that producing biodynamically can either lead to a real “plus” or the extreme opposite. When a biodynamic producer makes a good wine, it has the potential to be something really great, maybe better than his in its own way. But the greatness is not sure to be consistent; the product can too easily travel down a not-so-stable path. Maybe Longfellow says it best:
There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very, very good,
But when she was bad, she was horrid.
As a non-winemaker, as a definite wine-drinker, as a someone interested in the aesthetics and business aspects of wine, I wholeheartedly agree with these sentiments on biodynamics- a topic that I’m sure could be discussed all day. But Steiner’s world is a whole other can of capers and today is a day for Sagrantino.
So back to Antonelli whose 2012 release will be the first that is officially certified organic. Up until now sustainable/responsible/ why-would-I-do-anything-to-harm-my-landable methods have been practiced.
And about the wines. Along with Sagrantino, Sangiovese, Grechetto, Trebbiano Spoletino, and a few other varietals are grown on the property. Sagrantino being the thing, the swan that swears like a sailor. Lovely. Complex. Vinified in a cellar with two-floor gravity tank systems so as to be gentle on the grapes during the high-pressure process, Antonelli’s Sagrantino goes through long macerations, long fermentations, long aging. Patience is a virtue. Well-made wine is a virtue.
Antonelli makes a DOCG Sagrantino di Montefalco, a single vineyard Sagrantino called Chiusa di Pannone (Chiusa being an enclosed piece of land usually surrounded by a stone wall- this particular 2.70 hectare plot was once an olive grove), as well as a traditional passito Sagrantino (selected grapes harvested in mid-October and dried in the sun on cane trellises for about 3 mnths). The red wines are bottled unfiltered. Pair them with lamb. Age them if you please- there is a lot of life in these tires.
Antonelli also makes a Sagrantino contrary to expectations and DOCG standards (rebellious!). Appropriately called ContraЯio, the Umbria IGT wine is 100% Sagrantino vinified and aged in stainless steel- lighter and brighter for everyday drinking. Summertime Sagrantino? Midsummer night wonder?
A pretty cool thing- Maurizio Mastini, a composer known for his ability to play classical pieces from finish to start, dedicated an album full of backward songs to the wine. Quirky idea, beautiful sounds. Give a listen!
Just to mention a few other things about the estate, Antonelli San Marco is a working farm that produces grains such as wheat and spelt, as well as quality olive oil. If you know good olive oil, you know that it can make All. The. Difference. The property holds a chapel as well as an agriturismo. Pretty much you can wed, bed, learn to cook, dine, drink, and relax like an Umbrian. Fall might be a lovely time to visit when the leaves of the Sagrantino vines have turned from green to red- a unique quality for vine leaves.
There are several other notable Montefalco producers in the U.S. market, including Paolo Bea, Tiburzi, Rocca di Fabbri, and Tabarrini. Every one of them is worth trying if you are into this grape/ style/ region. I think you might be able to guess who I believe is the ultimate among them. The reasons why being something more than I could hope to describe in a tasting note or this silly (long) blog post. I just have a feeling about it. The feeling is a good one, and that is usually all I need.