Guest columnist Quentin Sadler discovers a new star in the Italian wine firmament: Montefalco in Umbria. For publication in the week starting 18 March 2019.
The landlocked province of Umbria neighbours Tuscany but feels more rural and quiet. Wine has been produced there for centuries with the whites of Orvieto and reds of Torgiano enjoying some success. But neither has managed to break through into the ranks of the great regions.
Umbria might now have found its true champion in the tiny region of Montefalco. This delightful place is well off the beaten track – my taxi to Montefalco from Rome airport covered nearly half the distance on unmade roads. It is centred on the pretty medieval town of Montefalco.
The town is small but utterly charming with beautiful narrow streets, fortified town walls and a scattering of wine shops as well as some excellent restaurants. It is a delightful place to wander around but its heart is the wine from the surrounding countryside.
The place enjoys a Mediterranean climate – olives grow in abundance – though with some aspects of a continental climate, including very cold winters.
Two distinct styles dominate local red wine production: Montefalco Rosso DOC and Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG.
DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) wines come from recognised classic regions and are made from grape varieties traditional to that place. Much like the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée regulations, these are a guarantee of quality and provenance. DOCG (Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita) is a step above and the rules are more stringent, with longer ageing and lower yields.
The red wines are blends based on 60 to 80 per cent Sangiovese, the famous grape of Chianti, together with 10 to 25 per cent of the local Sangrantino grape and often some Merlot.
One of the oldest estates in Montefalco is the wonderfully named Scacciadiavoli. It means to banish devils and celebrates an exorcist who lived nearby. It was founded in 1884 and was originally a very large estate. This is where they created the local red blend of Sangiovese and Sangrantino as an alternative to Chianti.
The estate eventually fell on hard times and was broken up, but along the way produced the first recorded instance of a dry red wine made from the Sagrantino grape. That was in 1924 for a local festival and was only made once, before they reverted to sweet wines.
Montefalco DOC was created in 1979 in recognition of improvements in the local wines. Some fine dry whites are made here as well as reds, from blends based on the excellent Trebbiano Spoletino grape, which is a variety on its own and not Trebbiano. There are also some lovely crisp whites made from Grechetto.
I would also add that the nearby Spoleto DOC, which overlaps with Montefalco, produces some truly great white wines made from Trebbiano Spoletino.
But the premier wine from this region is the Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG and it is this which is fast becoming one of Italy’s star reds. Originally it was part of the Montefalco DOC but was promoted to DOCG status in 1992. The rules specify the wine must be aged for a minimum of 37 months, including 12 months in barrel and four months in bottle.
Historically Sagrantino was considered so harsh and tannic that they either made sweet wines from it or blended it with softer, less tannic varieties.
The move to dry reds happened slowly from the late 1940s onwards. The sweet wines still exist, with many producers making a Passito Sagrantino from grapes that have been dried to concentrate the sugars.
One of the most famous estates here is Arnaldo Caprai, a pioneer in adopting modern techniques that lifted the quality of the dry wines. This foresight made the wines more exciting for foreign markets and helped others to see the potential.
It seems to me that Sagrantino has found its moment. Gentle handling, cold fermentation and less new oak seems to have tamed Sagrantino’s tannins, delivering ripe fruit and seductive charms that give the wines much wider appeal than ever before. Yes indeed there are tannins, but they are approachable and enjoyable, giving the wine structure rather than bite.
I have tasted some older vintages that I enjoyed, but for me the quality of the wines really took off from the excellent 2011 harvest onwards. Time and again it was the cool 2014 vintage and the ripe, generous 2015 and 2016 wines that impressed the most.
These are bold wines with big flavours, but there is also real elegance and finesse so they should appeal to lovers of Barolo, Brunello and Chianti as well as Bordeaux. A new star has been born.
Some producers worth seeking include:
Arnaldo Caprai: The whole range is impressive but my favourite was the Valdimaggio single vineyard Montefalco Sangrantino.
Beneditti & Grigi: The standouts were the Adone DOC Montefalco Grechetto white and their Sangrantino.
Scaccadiavoli: This beautiful estate makes lovely red wines as well as a fine traditional method sparkling rosé from 100 per cent Sagrantino.
Tabarrini: Giampaolo Tabarrini is one of those manic winemakers who never sits still and never stops talking, but he is charming and his wines are superb. His Adarmando Trebbiano di Spoletana and single vineyard Montefalco Sagrantinos are exquisite.
Bocale: The charming Valentino Valentini crafts a range of fine Montefalco Rosso and Montefalco Sangrantino that reflect his precise yet passionate nature.
Antonelli: Founded in 1881 and still owned by the same family. Filippo Antonelli is charming and funny and justly proud of his wines and heritage. His Anteprima Tonda Trebbiano di Spoletana and Chiusa di Pannone Montefalco Sagrantino are amongst the very best, while his Contrario Sangrantino is a lovely modern, unoaked take on the grape.
Cantina Fratelli Pardi: A family run estate that dates back to 1919, but produces a range of exuberant and bright wines that are modern in every way and yet true to themselves. Their Trebbiano di Spoletana is an excellent wine, while the Montefalco Sangrantino is richly fruity and seductive.
Every now and again a region emerges from relative obscurity to sit alongside the famous classic wine regions such as Barolo and Chianti, and that is a really exciting moment.
Quentin Sadler is a wine communicator who has spent more than 30 years in the UK wine trade and has done it all from retail, buying and selling through to marketing. Nowadays he trains members of the trade as well as interested consumers in both WSET qualifications and bespoke courses. He is a popular speaker for wine clubs as well as giving presentations to the trade and hosting wine events and entertainments. Quentin also writes about wine and is a cartographer, creating maps used to illustrate wine books and educational presentations, as well as these articles. His web site can be found here.