Montalcino, Montefalco and Montepulciano
Text, Reviews and Photos by John Szabo MS
John Szabo, MS
Each year, wine regions throughout Italy organize tastings to showcase the latest vintage released to market, called anteprime, the Italian equivalent of Bordeaux’s en primeur tasting, with the one difference being that in many, but not all cases, wines are already finished and in bottle. This year I report on the anteprime from Montalcino for 2011 Brunello (by law, Brunello must be cellared five years before release), 2012 Montefalco Sagrantino, and 2013 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The articles are posted in three parts for easier access.
Part 1: Benvenuto Brunello 2016
2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Brunello do Montalcino DOC in 1966 (DOCG as of 1980), and it would be hard to overstate the meteoric rise of Brunello in the ensuing years. From one of Siena province’s poorest communes at the beginning of the 19th century – a rural backwater of woods, mixed agriculture, honey production and wine sold by the liter in demijohns – Montalcino has become one of the wealthiest. And the success has been built almost entirely on wine and the gastro-tourism it encourages. In 2015, 1.2 million tourists clambered up to the charming hilltop town (population: 5,272) and surrounding hamlets, lured in large measure by the allure of Brunello di Montalcino, now one of Italy’s most famous wines.
Brunello’s 50th anniversary of the DOC (Credit_Brunello Consorzio)
There were only about a dozen dedicated commercial bottlers in the 1960s. Today, that number has ballooned to 208, farming over 3,500 hectares (of which 2100 are registered to Brunello). Wineries are run by a mixture of farmers-turned-winemakers and wealthy Italian and foreign industrialists looking to cash in on the region’s growing fame. The explosion in production and popularity of Brunello is one of the wine world’s greatest success stories. And production is on the rise once again, with an astonishing 9,800,000 bottles of Brunello released for sale in 2015, up 17% over the previous year.
And the world is clamoring for it. 70% of the total production is exported (+2.5%), with 30% finding its way to US cellars alone. As one producer, who makes wine in Montefalco, Montepulciano and Montalcino put it: “we can’t make enough Brunello. Despite being the most expensive in our portfolio, it it’s the easiest to sell and always sells out first.”
Per capita, howver, Canada is the most thirsty for Brunello, absorbing an impressive 12% of exports, or some 823,000 bottles. This year the LCBO was awarded the consorzio’s prize for the best retail assortment of Brunello di Montalcino outside of Italy, underscoring the deep love between Ontarians and Brunello.
LCBO buyer Colby Norrington receives the award for best foreign Brunello retail assortment (Credit_Brunello Consorzio)
But such growth obviously comes with a cost. Consistent quality can’t be guaranteed in such large volumes, and the extension of the territory permitted for the production of Brunello di Montalcino, particularly in the 1990s, has come to included parts of the commune that the Consorzio’s founding fathers would never even have considered for quality grape growing.
The zone of Montalcino, some 40 km from the coast, has a varied geological history, reflected in the enormous variability of soils, not all of which are suitable for quality grapes. Various mixtures of clay, limestone, schists, marls and sands have their say on Sangiovese’s vineyard sensitive nature. But perhaps even important is slope orientation and especially elevation, ranging from barely 100 meters above sea level to over 600. This is especially important given the weather extremes, the alternation of relentless heat, drought stress and excessive rains experienced in different vintages, which are the new normal in the context of global climate change. When the DOC boundaries were drawn up, for example, areas above 600 meters were excluded, as sangiovese simply wouldn’t ripen that high up. That restriction was recently eliminated, a recognition that change is real and temperatures are increasing.
The original zone around Montalcino itself, ranging from about 350-450+ meters where most of the top historic producers have vineyards, is notably cooler than areas further south and lower down, near the towns of Sant’Aneglo in Colle and Sant’Angelo Scalo, a critical advantage in the increasingly ‘normal’ hot vintages. Another unofficial subzone around Castelnuovo dell’Abate, also in the south, however, is moderated by cool air descending from the ancient volcano Monte Amiata and includes a clutch of top vineyards. The heavy clays around Torrenieri to the northeast were thought so unsuitable by Brunello’s founding fathers that they didn’t even bother officially excluding them. Today dozens of hectares are planted there. It’s complicated. The creation of subzones has been discussed for years, but efforts have so far been thwarted by the sheer complexity of the situation – divide by soil? Elevation? Vineyard site? And the stakes are now too high.
Vineyards at Pieve Santa Restituta, south of Montalcino
Vintage 2011: 4 Stars
The 2011 vintage highlights the variability of the denominazione, and the 4 star rating (out of 5) it was awarded by the Consorzio simply splits the difference between truly excellent and mediocre. Amidst the excitement over the 2015 harvest (about which respected oenologist Vittorio Fiore says: “I have seen over 50 vintages during my career, of which at least 40 at Montalcino and I do not remember any other vintage with such great balance and so productive for long-ageing wines like Brunello”), 2011 was a year of variability and extremes, where vineyard site trumped all efforts in the cellar to make great wine. Simply put, 2011 is the year of the vineyard.
This makes it a tricky vintage for all but the most savvy consumers who happen to know who has vineyards where. Triage is necessary. But the best wines are exceptional, perhaps ultimately not as ageworthy as the almost universally superb and powerful 2010s, but hauntingly beautiful wines nonetheless that will offer immense pleasure for the next 10-15 years. One of the main challenges was intense summer heat, and especially hot, grape shrivelling winds from the south. According to Gaia Gaja, “spring was normal – neither hot nor cold – but summer heat was problematic, especially two weeks in August with constant hot Scirocco winds drying grapes. There was little hydric [water] stress, but the upper parts suffered”.
Some wines taste hard, tannic and baked, as though they were made from raisins, which they probably were. Cooler sites protected from the winds, with higher daytime-nighttime temperature shifts, preserved life-giving acidity and freshness, resulting in beautifully perfumed and fragrant, fine, silky textured wines.
One positive general observation on the current Brunello scene was the evident shift away from excessive extraction, ripeness and obvious new wood that was far more commonplace in previous editions of Benvenuto. There seems to be a more universal effort to protect the delicate, perfumed nature of sangiovese, a grape that quickly turns to Ribena juice when overripe, becomes ungracious and hard when overworked, and is easily overwhelmed by oak. There are happily more pale garnet, fragrant wines with firm but delicate structure, the way sangiovese is meant to be.
Looking south to the Monte Amiata from Below Montalcino
Below are my top picks from the 2011 vintage, out of 100+ wines tasted. Note that not every producer submits their wines for Benvenuto, and several notable estates were not available for review.
Top 10 2011 Brunello di Montalcino: 94+ points
2011 Salvioni Brunello di Montalcino
This is perhaps the wine of the vintage. Giulio Salvioni’s vineyards southeast of Montalcino sit at some 420 meters, with particularly rocky, friable marly soils. Brunello is fermented with natural yeast, aged in large botti (there are no barriques in sight) and are bottled unfiltered. The 2011 is spectacularly perfumed in the traditional style, while the palate is exceptionally elegant, concentrated, delicate, yet so deep and complex, with amazing depth and staying power, and outstanding length. It’s hard to imagine it getting any better, but sadly, prices have come to reflect this. Best from 2018. (98 points.)
2011 Le Ragnaie Brunello di Montalcino
Le Ragnaie has turned out an exceptional range of 2011s from their organic vineyards south of Montalcino, just below the region’s highest point at 662 meters. Fermentation in cement is followed by ageing in both 2500l cask and barriques for three to four years. My top pick is the straight estate blend, at least for now, very peppery and still on the reductive side, but wonderfully silky and delicate on the palate, fully ripe without excess, with terrific concentration and energy. This is on another level, with evident viticultural care applied to a great site. Best after 2020 (95 points). Le Ragnaie’s single vineyard Brunello di Montalcino ‘Fornace’, and the Vigna Vecchia Brunello di Montalcino are barely half a step behind, however. The former, from a site in Castelnuovo dall’Abate, is a polished and elegant expression, bearing substantial, ripe cherry fruit with superb staying power on the palate and supple but structured tannins and acids to shore up the ensemble. (94 points.) The latter old vine selection from the estate pours with the deepest colour and is notably hazy (unfiltered), but the nose is pure fruit in a lightly oxidative, open style, and the palate is explosively concentrated with palpable, chewy extracted. It has an extra measure of umami over the rest of the excellent range, though not as tightly chiselled or well defined overall. (94 points.)
2011 Mastrojanni Vigna Loreto Brunello di Montalcino
Gabriele Mastrojanni was a pioneer in the area of Castelnuovo dell’Abate when he bought his ridge top property in 1975, now one of the top unofficial subzones in the DOCG. The estate was sold to Grupo Illy (of coffee fame) in 2008, though quality is as good as ever. The Vigna Loreto is a real step up in depth and concentration from the basic annata, fullish, sappy, succulent and dense with exceptional length and depth. Tannins are firm and well structured and need a few years to relax, but this has more than enough fruit extract to see it through to perfect balance in time. Terrifically complex. Outstanding wine, best after 2020 (95 points). Imported in Ontario by The Profile Wine Group.
2011 Conti Costanti Brunello di Montalcino
6th generation winegrower Andrea Costanti’s historic Colli al Matrichese estate, with roots back to the 19th century, covers 12ha of vineyards between 310 and 400 meters planted on limestone-rich galestro. No single vineyards are made; all grapes go into the annata and occasionally a Riserva, aged first in tonneaux, then large cask. A perennial favourite, the 2011 is exceptional. It offers a very fine nose, complex, evolved, and complete, while the palate delivers exceptional extract and length, with explosive flavours beginning from a point, than expanding into infinity. The quality of tannins is brilliant – fully ripe, polished but structured. (95 points.)
2011 Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino
Vineyards of this venerable estate, established in 1962 by Primo Pacenti, are some of Montalcino’s best-situated, one parcel on the highest point of Canalicchio (320+m east exposure) and another on the famed Montosoli (southeast-facing), both northeast of Montalcino. The house (vineyard) style is one of finesse and refinement, and the 2011 shows tremendous elegance and fragrance, and beguiling suave and silky texture. Terrific tension and length hold this together perfectly, with haunting length – a beautiful expression. (95 points.)
2011 Caparzo La Casa Brunello di Montalcino
Established in the 1960s, and later purchased by Elisabetta Gnudi Angelini in 1988, this exceptional property lies north of Montalcino. La Casa Caparzo’s single vineyard cru on the marley Montosoli Hill takes a fine direction in 2011, with supremely fine-grained tannins in an ultra-elegant profile. Fruit is perfectly ripe, still fresh, with exceptional length on the palate. (95 points.) Imported in Ontario by The Case for Wine.
2011 Poggio di Sotto Brunello di Montalcino
Piero Palmucci’s established his cult estate in 1989, but it was recently sold to former telecommunications engineer Claudia Tipa in 2011, so it’s too early to say if he will maintain the decidedly Burgundian style Brunello for which Poggio di Sotto is so revered. After several years of searching for the ideal site for sangiovese grosso, Palmucci planted 12 hectares of vineyards on relatively, high 200-400m, steep, south facing slopes with a view to Monte Amiata above the Orcia River, south of Castelnuovo dell’Abate. Palmucci researched, with the assistance of the University of Milan, clonal selection and planting density to maximize quality; vineyards have been organically farmed from the start. The 2011 is already quite open, high-toned, even lightly acetic, a wine of supreme finesse and elegance, but a polarizing style to be sure. This is as much like natural pinot noir as Brunello, with it’s ultra-fine grained tannins, light but firm, pitch-perfect balance, and excellent length. This is all savoury- umami happiness, with terrific persistence based on genuine concentration. I wouldn’t say this is one for long-term cellaring, so drink over the next 5-8 years or so. (94 points.)
2011 Tenuta Croce di Mezzo Brunello di Montalcino
The 4.5 vineyard hectares of Barbara and Roberto Nannetti are just off the road from Montalcino to Sant’Antimo. Wines aged in large cask and are crafted in old school style, perfumed and savoury/pot-pourri-inflected, in the finest way. The 2011 is lithe, elegant, delicate, a lovely refined wine, with terrific perfume and length (94 points).
2011 Ucceliera Brunello di Montalcino
Born in Castelnuovo dell’Abate, Andrea Cortonese, jumped at the chance to buy part of the nearby Ciacci Piccolomini estate, called Ucceliera, in 1986. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, just as Brunello’s wave was starting to crest. The style here is sumptuous and deep, powerful and concentrated, what could be described as more modern, yet one that doesn’t sacrifice sangiovese’s grace and savoury character. The 2011 is indeed very ripe, with wood and extract in the fore, but stays on the right side of balance, with excellent length and depth. There’s no doubting the care and ambition applied here in this expansive wine. (94 points.)
2011 Caprilli Brunello di Montalcino
Founded in 1965, Caprili’s vineyards belong to he former Villa Santa Restituta estate near Tavernelle, south of Montalcino, in the neighbourhood of Soldera’s Case Basse and Gaja’s Pieve Santa Restituta. The style blends the inherent power of Brunellos from this zone with an appealing traditionalism; fermentations are wild, and only large casks are used for ageing. The 2011 is ripe, dark and concentrated, fullish and rich, generously proportioned and with great flavour density and extract, not to mention exceptional length. (94 points.)
Also outstanding (93 points):
2011 La Rasina Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Franco Pacenti Canalichio Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Sesta di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Sesti Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Le Potazzine
2011 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Fonterenza Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Terre Nere Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Villa Poggio Salvi ‘Pomona’ Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Agostina Pieri Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Az. Agr. Martoccia – Brunelli Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Col di Lamo Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Fornacella Brunello di Montalcino
2011 San Lorenzo Brunello di Montalcino
2011 La Manella Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Le Chiuse Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Le Macioche Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Mastrojanni Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Piancornello Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Pinino Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Renieri Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Talenti Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Collemattoni Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Tenuta San Giorgio Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Villa Poggio Salvi Brunello di Montalcino
2011 Campogiovanni Brunello di Montalcino
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Like Montalcino, Montepulciano lives on wine. The industry drives 70% of the local economy. Some 2200 hectares under vine are farmed by over 250 growers (1300 registered for Vino Nobile), and bottled by 90 companies. Average production per estate is higher than in Montalcino, with 7 million bottles of Vino Nobile reaching the market in 2015. But exports are higher, representing 80% of turnover, of which a modest 2% is sent to Canada. Vino Nobile also celebrates its 50th year as an appellation in 2016, first official defined as a wine with “ruby red colour, dry, slightly tannic taste, a scent of violets, and alcohol content of not less than 12 degrees” (now 12.5%).
Vino Nobile had the toughest gig among the various anteprime this year, presenting the challenging 2013 vintage. The contrast was especially stark since my last visit to the Fortress of Montepulciano in 2013 when the excellent 2010 vintage was on offer, atasting provided some of the most memorable wines of the year and some of the best surprises, particularly when value is factored in (Vino Nobile sells for about half the price of Brunello).
But cool and rainy 2013 is another story, despite the 4 star rating awarded by the consorzio. In the words of one producer, the wines are “crudo”, literally raw, in other words, lean, sinewy and sometimes downright sour and sharp, short on flesh and charm. Yet as always, producers with the best sites and the most attentive viticulture produce consistently admirable wines even under challenging conditions.
Styles are highly variable in Vino Nobile, given the legal addition of up to 30% of grapes other than prugnolo gentile, the local biotype of sangiovese. And the list of recommended or authorized red grapes in Tuscany is long. Some wines are marked by the telltale colour and aromas of the cabernet family of grapes, while others hew much closer to the classic pale garnet, savoury-earthy character of sangiovese. It’s a question of knowing your producer. Yet one of the most appealing and pervasive features of Vino Nobile in general is their notable salinity, more common than in either Chianti Classico or Brunello di Montalcino.
Below are my top, finished and bottled picks out of the 44 wineries who presented at the anteprima; the top barrel samples are listed separately, followed by the top 2012 riservas, also presented this year.
Buyer’s Guide: Top 2013 Vino Nobile di Montpulciano and 2012 Riservas
2013 Tenuta Vallocaia Bindella “I Quadri” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
From the southern sector of the appellation, this parcel selection including 15% colorino, canaiolo and mammolo aged in tonneaux, is a nicely rustic, succulent, blood-iron driven wine with marked salinity on the palate. Tannins and acids work in tandem to create firmness on the palate; length and depth are better than the mean. Solid. (90 points.)
2013 Le Bèrne Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
The hillside vineyards of Le Bernè (from the Etruscan term verna, or ‘hillock) yield a subtle but classy pure sangiovese with old wood (large cask and 40% barrique) bright red fruit, and light cinnamon spice aromatics leading, while the palate shows real depth and elegance. Tannins are fine but firm, acids succulent, juicy, and balanced, and length and depth are genuine. This should be very fine in 2-3 years, and hold at least another half dozen after that. (90 points.)
2013 Palazzo Vecchio “Maestro” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
The wine from the majestic hilltop property of Palazzo Vecchio in the eastern part of the zone wine shows more ripeness and depth than the average in 2013, sappy and fruity, but also savoury, with a genuinely salty taste on the palate. Superiore length and complexity, too. I like the range of savoury, earthy-resinous notes. Quite distinctively salty. Sangiovese with 10% cannaiolo, 5% mammolo. Best after 2019. (90 points.)
2013 Antico Colle Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Evident wood spice and herbal-cabernet family aromatics lead off, despite just 5% merlot blended in– such is the delicate nature of sangiovese – but it works nicely nonetheless. The palate is mid-weight, juicy, with solid depth, length and ultimately complexity. This is juicy and pleasant, less aggressive than many of the 2013s. (89 points.)
2013 Gattavecchi “Parceto” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Gattavecchi is one of the historic names in Montepulciano, and the cellars in the center of town date back the Etruscan period, but the style is thoroughly modern. The Parceto selection is a riper, more forward and darker fruit-scented than the standard range from Gattavecchi, still in a more modern style, but with solid flesh and fruit extract to match firm acids and tannins. Length and depth are good to very good. Give this a year or two for toasty wood notes to better integrate. (89 points.)
2013 Lunadoro “Pagliaretto” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
This is fine and fleshy, relatively soft (but still very sangiovese-esque), with succulent acids and a nice volatile lift on the finish. I like the fruit character here, the fleshy morello cherry flavours; a touch of acetic acid adds complexity and lift. (89 points.)
2013 Boscarelli Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Boscarelli is a relatively small, 14.5ha estate established in 1962 on the celebrated Cervognano hill in the southern sectore of the appellation. The 2013 is a pretty, bright, red fruit-led expression, with fleshy, better-than-average depth on the palate. Tannins are still firm and puckering, but riper than the mean for the vintage. Classic sangiovese character (plus 15% canaiolo, colorino and mammolo), with solid length. Best after 2019. (88 points.)
2013 Tenuta di Gracciano della Seta Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
The Gracciano hills north of Montepulciano are one of the area’s historic crus, and the estate’s history stretches back to the early 19th century. In 2011 Marco, Vannozza and Galdina della Seta acquired the property from their grandmother and have embarked on conversion to organics and a low-intervention approach in the winery the results of which are already noted. The 2013 is attractive and bright, with tart red fruit, succulent acids and good to very good length and complexity overall. A firm, honest, balanced wine, if not expansive or overly complex. (88 points.)
Promising 2013 cask samples
2013 Fattoria della Talosa Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
This was one of the properties that most impressed me on my last visit to Montepulciano, and happily quality is still among the top in the appellation. Talosa was indeed among the first wineries to focus on quality, established in 1972 by Angelo Jacorossi, with historic Etruscan cellars right under the town’s main square. Attentive farming, simple winemaking and ageing in large old cask express the region faithfully. The 2013 is certainly quality wine, succulent, balanced, fresh and spicy, unusually fleshy for the vintage with very good length. (90-91 points.) There’s also an excellent 2012 Riserva in the pipelines from Talosa, still in cask.
2013 Tenuta Valdipiatta “Vigna ‘d’Alfiero’ Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Fullish, fleshy, concentrated and quite ripe, with abundant, still rough and sandy tannins that should integrate in time. Fruit slips seamlessly between red and black, and wood is not a significant flavour influence. Long finish. Tidy wine. (91-92 points.)
2013 Montemercurio “Messagero” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Another promising sample, fleshy and fruity, like a fresh morello cherry, black cherry, succulent and juicy, Alcohol spikes a touch but the fruit holds on. Tannins are slightly drying, but I think there’s enough fruit extract to hold it together. (90+ points.)
2013 Salchetto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
A promising result here in 2013 from Salchetto, firm in the vintage style, but not hard or shrill. There’s fine, fleshy fruit, mostly red, and limited barrel influence – this is all about the savoury red berry character. (90-91 points)
2013 Fattoria del Cerro “Antica Chiusina” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
A heavily toasted barrel-influenced version, crafted in a modern, forward, coffee-inflected style. Fruit is ripe and verging on jammy/candied, and the palate is thick. Concentrated to be sure, but certainly not excessively overdone, In a forward style nonetheless. This will appeal widely no doubt. (89-90 points.)
Top 2012 Riservas
2012 Avignonesi “Grande Annata” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Avignonesi is the biggest player on the DOCG with over 200 hectares, all the more impressive that owner Virginie Saverys has undertaken biodynamic faming since acquiring the property in 2009. Although the 2013 did not particularly impress, the 2012 riserva is a terrific wine, ripe, classy, complex, succulent and silky yet finely woven and taught. I love the firmness, the juicy acids, the savoury fruit character, the excellent length. Best after 2018. (92 points.)
2012 Lunadoro “Quercione” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva
Resinous and closed off the top, but the palate is fleshy, succulent and deep, with expansive flavours and very good length. This is fine wine, best in another 3-4 years no doubt. (91 points.)
2012 Fattoria La Braccesca “Santa Pia” Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva
Antinori’s Montepulciano outpost, La Braccesca’s large, 330ha vineyard borders Umbria in the east sector of the DOCG. The Santa Pia Riseverva is generous and ripe, fruity and toasty example, modern in style but full of pleasure, with ripe tannins and marked but balanced acids. Wood could still use a couple of years to fully integrate, but this shows lots of promise for those seeking a more immediate and generous style. (90 points.)
2012 Il Conventino Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva
I’ve been following Il Conventino for many years now, always a reliable name in the region, organically farming 25 prime hectares in the southern sector. The 2012 riserva is still somewhat closed on the nose, but the palate is nicely weighted, juicy, firm, without obvious wood influence, and mostly tart red and dark berry fruit and good to very good length. Solid. (90 points.)
2012 Le Bernè Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva
A markedly woody wine on the nose, resinous, with little fruit currently on display, but the palate picks it up with considerable salinity and juicy acids. This comes across as a Rioja-like wine, woody, but light on its feet. Length, depth and complexity are indeed quite good. (90 points.)
2012 Tenuta Gracciano della Seta Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva
A fleshy, mid-weight, succulent and juicy Riserva here, with old world styling, firm and crunchy acids, and very good to excellent length. This is a solid mouthful, authentically rendered, with solid complexity and expansiveness. (90 points.)
Around the turn of the millenium, Umbria’s flagship native grape variety sagrantino was very likely not on your radar, nor even most Italians’ radar. I know it wasn’t on mine. Despite it’s 500+ year history in the region around the town of Montefalco in the region of Umbria (“The green heart of Italy”), by the 1960s the grape had all but disappeared. But Umbria, and Montefalco, are on the move. Tourism is up significantly. The number of producer-bottlers has risen dramatically in the last couple of decades, now numbering over 60. If a glass of Montefalco Sagrantino has yet to pass your lips, chance are that will change very soon.
For most of its existence, sagrantino was used to produce sacramental wine, the favourite of local clergy for its propensity to produce powerful, sweet, long-lasting wines from partially dried grapes in the style of recioto in Valpolicella. The original name of the grape, as you may have guessed already, derives from sacrament, and until fairly recently was still called sacrantino.
But sweet passito styles had fallen out of fashion, and producing a palatable dry version of sagrantino proved to be a considerable challenge. The grape is most famous for being the most extract-rich variety known, by which I mean deeply coloured, but also especially tannic. Young sagrantino can be downright beastly, mouth-stripping, sucking every last once of moisture out of your desperately parched mouth.
It didn’t help that vineyards were set up all wrong to make dry wines, planted at low densities, and trellised to maximize production. The already late-ripening sagrantino never really stood a fair chance of reaching full maturity, and temper those fierce tannins. Yet when partially dried and fermented to leave some residual sugar, producers could balance the tannic excess and create intriguing bitter-sweet sacramental wines. But fermented dry, the wines were all but undrinkable.
Things started to change in the 1970s. Although not the first – Adanti and Antonelli were already bottling wines in the 1970s – Arnaldo Caprai is the man generally credited with reviving the fortunes of sagrantino. He purchased his property in 1971 and revived commercial production, shifting away from the sweet versions, virtually the only ones known in the period. But it was his son Marco who would raise quality and bring sagrantino to the world under the Caprai name after taking over the family operation in 1989. Marco set about revolutionizing production, undertaking multiple experiments with the help of the University of Milan with the goal of producing quality dry red wine.
The starting point was the vineyards. Caprai experimented with various trellising to determine the best way to reach higher and more consistent levels of ripeness (finally landing on cordon spur training), and higher densities, between 5000 and 7000 vines per hectare. Different vinification techniques were then explored. Counter-intuitively, Caprai found that longer macerations, 3-4 weeks or longer, actually had the effect of softening tannins.
As Filippo Antonelli later explains, “the highest percentage of tannins in sagrantino come from the skins and are released in the first 3-4 days of fermentation. So shortening the fermentation, as was done, say, in Barolo to soften nebbiolo, doesn’t work with sagrantino”. Caprai, Antonelli and others learned that extending the maceration after fermentation allowed the skins to re-absorb some tannins and colour, resulting in a relatively more supple expression. It’s also speculated that the skins eventually start to release proteins, which further soften the texture by adding supple mass.
Most producers today also agree that eliminate a percentage of the seeds during fermentation – source of the most astringent tannins – in a process called délestage, or rack and return is a critical step in production. Fermenting must is drained out of tank through a fine screen that catches the seeds, which are them removed before the wine is returned to the vat.
Barrel ageing remains somewhat contentious. Some producers like Caprai believe that small barrels, new French wood in particular with at least medium toast is key to softening sagrantino’s texture. His top cuvée, Montefalco Sagrantino ‘25 Anni’ is given the 200% new wood treatment, racked after a year or so from new barrels to another set of new barrels. It’s a wine that takes years, however, to come around in bottle.
Yet others firmly believe that large casks and time are key to softening and polishing the grape’s firm character. Newcomer Milanese Peter Heilbrun uses only large, 5000+ liter Slavonian oak casks for long ageing to great effect, his first vintages showing tremendous refinement and a perfumed, ethereal, almost nebbiolo-like character, a wine he loves and models his sagrantino after. Tenuta Castelbuono, owned by the Lunelli family of Trentino (owners of the successful Cantina Ferrari, producers of sparkling Trento DOC) also uses large casks exclusively for ageing sagrantino, yielding wines of impressive elegance; experiments with clay vessels are also underway, the aim being to allow critical oxygenation to soften tannins without the unwanted addition of oak flavour. Adanti uses both tonneaux and large cask to similar, excellent effect, as does Antonelli, whose experimentation has extended to both clay and ceramic vessels for ageing.
All in all, the wine scene in Montefalco is vibrant and developing rapidly. Riper grapes and better winemaking have radically altered character of sagrantino, launching it into the modern wine world. But make no mistake; these are still big, structured, highly ageworthy wines. Sipping sagrantino on the terrace is not counseled. Given the necessity of full ripeness, and the grape’s efficiency in producing sugar thanks to its large canopy and propensity to grow new, photosynthesis-effective young leaves, sagrantino under 14% alcohol is impossible to find. 15%+ is more common. As one producer put it: “drinking sagrantino without food would be unthinkable, preferably with roast lamb, wild boar or other game meat. Sagrantino is a veriety that leaves a strong impression.”
Most of the region’s 2000 hectares of vineyards (of which about 700 are sagrantino) are planted on predominantly heavy clay soils, with some more stony, limestone-influenced sites, others with more sand. Yet the relationship between sagrantino and vineyard site is not well understood. The next step for the region is to gain a better understanding of vineyards, and their influence on style. “The interaction between sagrantino and vineyard is not well known”, relates Antonelli, curiously, since his family has had vineyards in the region since the late 19th century. “In Montefalco, vineyards were never shared here as they were in, say Piedmont where grape traders understood what each site gives. Here, the hand of the producer is more prevalent. House style really drives the wine style. As for vineyard expression, it’s ground zero”, he continues. But with sufficient producers now producing and bottling quality wine, it’s a just matter of time.
Montefalco Rosso and Trebbiano Spoletino
A good entry point into the wines of the region is through Montefalco Rosso and Rosso Riserva, earlier maturing, easier drinking wines made predominantly from sangiovese (60-70%) with the addition of sagrantino up to 15%, and other permitted grapes up to 15%. House styles of course vary, but in general these are lively, savoury wines ideally suited for the table.
A special mention is due here to Trebbiano Spoletino, in my view the most interesting white variety in Umbria, and indeed the most illustrious grape within the large and undistinguished trebbiano family of grapes. There’s speculation that the Spoletino biotype is related to the Greco of Campania, and indeed there’s a steely, minerally edge coupled with impressive extract, making it uncommonly ageworthy among Italian whites as several older vintages have shown. With age, trebbiano spoletino acquires an unusual white and black truffle scent (dimethyl sulphide), and a kerosene like note reminiscent of aged Riesling (or Greco). Along with verdicchio, tebbiano spoletino is arguably central Italy’s best white wine. For top examples try Tabarrini’s ‘Adarmando’, made from vines over a century old, still trained up trees in the style that’s been around since Etruscan times. Examples from Perticaia, Antonelli, Le Cimate and the first release from Brocatelli-Galli are also excellent.
2012 is considered an excellent vintage for sagrantino. Yields were naturally reduced thanks to late frosts in April and May, which turned out to be a blessing over the long, hot, very dry summer. Lower crops reduced water stress, despite hot winds lasting into September. October rains rebalanced the vines, completing maturity without excessively raisined flavours, and harvest continued into early November. On the whole the wines are generously proportioned, fully ripe, full-bodied, with excellent ageing potential.
Montefalco Sagrantino: A Top Dozen 2012s
2012 Tenuta Bellafonte Montefalco Sagrantino
Milanese entrepreneur Peter Heilbrun makes an uncommonly elegant sagrantino, this 2012 cask sample showing sweet-fruited perfumed with no evident wood character, all red fruit and candied-floral aromatics, supple, ripe tannins and balanced acids. There’s a great deal of succulent fruit extract and the length is excellent. Sappy and fleshy, with genuine concentration and expansiveness, what you could call a Piedmont-inspired expression. (94 points.)
2012 Fattoria Colleallodole Milziade Antano Montefalco Sagrantino Colleallodole
Ultra-traditionalist Milziade Antano makes big and bold wines, though his 2012 old vine selection ‘Colleadole’ selection appears lighter and slightly less rustic style then previous vintages. It’s still dense and full of concentrated ripe red fruit to be sure, but lifted by orange peel and floral notes. The palate is supple, ripe and wholly satisfying, and notably clean without wood flavours, and while alcohol is definitely high, it’s integrated in the ensemble. This could even be called elegant. (94 points.) The “regular” 2012 Montefalco Sagrantino is just a step behind equally deeply coloured and ultra-ripe, lightly volatile (acetic), but well within acceptable bounds, brimming with concentrated fruit and without obvious oak flavour. This should age very nicely. (93 points.) Imported into Ontario by Cavinona.
2012 Moretti Omero Montefalco Sagrantino Vignalunga
Moretti Omero is a fine discovery, an organic farm producing refined sagrantino since the early 1990s. The vineyard selection Vignalunga is an elegant, stylish, uncommonly supple sagrantino, immediately inviting and attractive, polished and modern, but alive, with high quality wood spice (aged two years in French tonneaux) (93 points). The ‘regular’ selection is very nearly as good, with a beautiful fruit expression accented with light wood spice, and perfectly pitched tannins. (92 points.)
2012 Adanti Montefalco Sagrantino Il Domenico
One of the original Montefalco producers bottling since 1979, Adanti’s lovely 2012 Sagrantino (cask sampl) is pale garnet, open, high-toned, and floral, with a touch of acetone but correct, and vibrant red fruit, like dried strawberry, with no evident oak (aged in cask and tonneaux). The palate is balanced and juicy, lively, firm to be sure but ripe, with attractive fruit and supple texture. (93 points.)
2012 Tenuta Castelbuono – Tenute Lunelli Montefalco Sagrantino Carapace
Aside from the stunning winery designed in the shape of a shell (‘Carapace’) by celebrated artist Arnaldo Pomodoro, the wines of Tenuta Castelbuono, certified organic from 2014, show a similar artistic touch, light, unmanipulated, focused on elegance, produced under the guidance of respected Tuscan consultant Luca d’Attoma. Sagrantino sees only large cask, and in 2012 the result is fine and fragrant, spicy and complex without exaggerated ripeness. This sports some intriguing herbal-resinous-peppery spice, alongside ripe, lightly dried mostly red fruit. The palate is med-full and well balanced, with relatively fine-grained tannins and long-perfumed finish. 2015 experiments with clay amphora and small tunconic wooden fermenters are very promising. (93 points.)
2012 Tabarrini Montefalco Sagrantino Campo delle Cerqua
Fifth generation winemaker Gianpaolo Tabarrini is Montefalco’s iconoclast, an energetic, outspoken winemaker with a contagious affection for the region and its native varieties. He was the first in his family to begin bottling in the mid-1990s. The full range is exceptional, and of the two single vineyard expressions of sagrantino, Campo delle Cerqua is the more elegant, crafted in a lifted, high-toned, floral style with fine-grained tannins all in all, and relatively higher acids. It’s one of the top 2012s to be sure, still heavily extracted, dense, dark concentrated, massive, in need of many years in bottle. (93 points.) Colle alle Macchie, a warmer site, is an unapologetically massive and bruising wine, but remarkable all the same. (93 points.) Imported into Ontario by Trialto Wine Group.
2012 Romanelli Montefalco Sagrantino Medeo
Devis Romanelli is a young, ambitious producer, who’s first bottled vintage was 2008. The aim from the start was to produce rich, supple, very ripe sagrantino in a more polished and modern style. He farms organically but has not sought certification (his olive groves are certified organic), Medeo is a vineyard selection from his 8 hectares, a parcel which, according Romanelli, shows more balanced and consistent maturity, first bottled in 2011. The 2012 is a great leap forward, however, offering better fruit quality and less obvious wood (the 2011 was all new wood; the 2012 includes a percentage of old wood), and dense and rich, powerful and concentrated palate. Tannins are ultra-abundant but fully ripe, palate coating, bolstered by succulent acids. Excellent length. The top in Romanelli’s range. (93 points.)
2012 Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Sagrantino ’25 Anni’
The top sagrantino selection from Marco Caprai, 25 Anni is generally produced from the same plot each year, but not systematically a vineyard selection. Since this wine was first made in 1993 (when celebrating 25 years of winemaking), Caprai’s vineyards have expanded considerably, now c. 140 hectares; the oldest of which were planted in 1989. It’s given the 200% wood treatment, moving to a second set of new barriques for half of the 28 month elevage. There’s sweet wood/cacao noted off the top – this is still extremely young – and dark fruit leads, with roasted spice and toasted wood to match. The palate is structured to be sure, but again the tannins are relatively refined, surrounded by abundant, fleshy/plummy fruit. Very good to excellent length. Sagrantino is surely one of the only varieties in the world that can handle this much new oak, for so long, without becoming overwhelmed, even if it’s not necessary in my view. Patience required; best after 2022. (92 points.) Imported into Ontario by the Stem Wine Group.
2012 Colsanto Montefalco Sagrantino
Colsanto’s lovely 2012 is deeply coloured with lightly baked/raisined/oxidative fruit, like red berry jam, with full, supple, texture, evidently high in extract, concentration and alcohol, and generously proportioned; a satisfying mouthful. Wood is not a significant factor. Pleasantly bitter on the finish (barrel sample, 92 points.)
2012 Terre della Custodia Montefalco Sagrantino
A clean and technically spot-on sagrantino, fragrant, spicy, red fruit-inflected, attractively complex, without obvious oak aromatics. The palate is balanced-mid-weight, with fine, black pepper spice, firm but fine-grained tannins, abundant but neither overly plush nor hard, rather refined all in all. A fine wine, hitting the right place between regional/traditional, and widely appealing. (Barrel sample, 92 points.)
2012 Fratelli Pardi Montefalco Sagrantino
This is intriguingly spiced, like an incense-infused church interior, with a light black pepper note and abundant ripe but fresh dark fruit. The palate is relatively suave and fleshy, with no apparent barrique influence (although aged for 18 months in barrel), just plenty of succulent red and black fruit character. Fine, supple tannins, relatively, concentrated and fully ripe, are in balance, albeit on a massive frame. (91 points.)
2012 Il Colle di Saragnano Montefalco Sagrantino
This is a refined and elegant, fullish, supple, concentrated and clean sagrantino, with no apparent oak flavours, or at least very well integrated into the ensemble. High alcohol accompanies ripe tannins and slightly jammy flavours, and overall this works very nicely. (91 points.)
Top Current Releases/Older Vintages
2006 Antonelli Sagrantino Montefalco Chiusa di Pannone
Antonelli is a reference for the region, crafting uncommonly delicate and refined wines across the board, from the former property of the Archbishop of Spoleto, in the family since the late 19th century. Chiusa di Pannone is Antonelli’s excellent single vineyard expression of sagrantino, from the highest elevation vines on the property at 400m, facing southeast, the first high-density planting on the property in the early 1990s. It’s given more time in wood and bottle before release. This is downright succulent and elegant; tannins are really fine and tightly knit. Excellent length. Perfumed, classy. A top example. (94 points.) Imported into Ontario by Cavinona.
2010 Antonelli Sagrantino Montefalco
Open, perfumed and elegant on the nose, pleasantly peppery and spicy, with wood a minor influence. The palate is balanced and elegant, with firm but not hard tannins, and lingering finish. Really refined and fabulously elegant, also unique and distinctive. 15% alcohol is perfectly integrated. (93 points.) Imported into Ontario by Cavinona.
2008 Tabarrini Montefalco Sagrantino Campo delle Cerqua
In the exceptional Tabarrini range, the Campo delle Cerqua is the more elegant expression of sagrantino, crafted in a more lifted, high-toned, floral style with fine-grained tannins all in all, and relatively higher acids. This verges on elegances within the massive and concentrated range of Montefalco, with outstanding length. This is superb wine. (94 points.) Imported into Ontario by Trialto.
2007 Tabarrini Montefalco Sagrantino Colle alle Machie
A warm site in a warm vintage, the Colle alle Macchie is an impenetrably deep, dark red colour, with a rich, prune jam like expression on the nose and palate, and massive extract and ultra intense concentration. This is a take no prisoners wine, with massive tannins coated in extreme fruit extract – a classic wine for the region, no apologies for its bruising character but remarkable all the same. (93 points.) Imported into Ontario by Trialto.
2008 Scacciadiavoli Montefalco Sagrantino
A marvelously rich and full-bodied, firm but not unyielding sagrantino, in the Pambuffetti family sine the mid 20th century. This is dense and concentrated yet neither heavy nor pasty, and while it may not have the flash and new wood styling of some of the more modern sagrantinos emerging from Umbria, this has ample regional and varietal character in an uncompromising style. Don’t expect soft and cuddly – this is authoritative and palate grabbing, with flavours that are slipping into the dried fruit spectrum, and loads of earth and wet forest floor notes. Very good length. A wine to warm the body on a cold winter’s night.
John Szabo, MS
The “TreMonti” New Vintage Report: Part 2 Montefalco
The “TreMonti” New Vintage Report: Part 3 Montepulciano
Italy New Vintage Report Part 4: 2012 Amarone and 2014 Valpolicella
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