25 Apr 2012

My house in Umbria (Umbria, Italy - Day Two)

According to my host the previous day, Orvieto is not traditionally considered part of Umbria, as it is closer to Lazio and Tuscany with an Etruscan heritage. Central Umbria had a much more rustic history, being very simple farmers. This part of Umbria has garnered a lot more attention recently thanks to their red wines, most notably in the Montefalco area where the sagrantino grape is king. In the past Sagrantino di Montefalco was a passito sweet wine that was consumed as a table wine with food. It was traditionally the wine that would be drunk with breakfast on Easter Sunday each year, as the first wine drunk after lent. The breakfast was naturally very hearty, including slow-roasted lamb, cured meats and egg, and would last several hours. Back in the 1970s they began to introduce viticultural practise from other parts of Europe in Umbria, and this changed grape and wine production in the region. With the former trellising systems there were high volumes of grapes produced, which meant to achieve the ripeness necessary for the sweet wines in particular, the harvest was usually not until late October. With new pruning practices introduced and more intense plantings, yields were reduced and ripening occurred earlier, with harvests beginning in September. Thus began the serious production of dry red wines from one of the most tannic red varieties possible. Sagrantino is tough to grow, but is quite malleable in terms of ripeness levels and vinification practices, and from what I tasted there is no defined style as yet, it is up to the producer. As the understanding of the variety and the terroir improves so will the quality of the wines.
Bush-trained sagrantino vines

The most important name for wine in Montefalco, and possibly for Umbria as well, is Arnaldo Caprai. Founded in 1971, the winery was the first to experiment with the sagrantino grape, working in partnership with a university in Milan. They studied many elements of the variety, including clones, trellising and pruning systems, vineyard management and site selection. The winery started very humbly, with only five hectares of vineyards planted. Marco Caprai assumed the mantle of running the winery in 1988, and since then has grown the business and the market for Sagrantino di Montefalco significantly. There are now 150 hectares of vineyards planted, the vast majority red varieties, which produce 750,000 bottles in an average year. There are now over 80 producers in the Montefalco area, but by all intents and purposes, Arnaldo Caprai is Montefalco and Sagrantino. This is because Marco has worked tirelessly to promote the region in key markets like the United States, effectively creating a niche that didn’t exist before. Interestingly the importer in Australia (Arquilla wines) was one of the first in the world, and has continued to work with them with great success. The tour and tasting was hosted by PR Manager Eleonora Marzi (Marco is in New York for Sagrantino Week), and we were joined by wine educator Julian Maine from Las Vegas, Nevada. Eleonora invited us both back for lunch, which was with a large contingent of travel bloggers mostly from the US and UK, and included very traditional local dishes prepared by some of the ladies working for the winery, and was delicious and very filling.

Soil profiles in Arnaldo Caprai vineyards
The tasting started with the Anima Umbria 2011, a blend of 85% grechetto and 15% trebbiano, which had very grassy wild herb and kiwi elements on the nose, expressing leesy apple texture on the palate. Whilst it was very fresh and vibrant it was a little simple and without character. The Grechante Grechetto Colli Martani DOC 2011 had a much riper and fuller depth and power, very fruit forward yet rich in minerality and warmth. The Montefalco Rosso is a blend of mostly sangiovese and sagrantino, but can have up to 25% other varieties both native and otherwise. The 2009 showed very peppery blackberry fruit sweetness, and also expressed some sweet oak tannin and tightness of tannin and acid, bold yet fresh and approachable. The Montefalco Rosso Riserva 2006 had a typically new world heavy oak character of ripe banana skin with some vanilla and bruised blackcurrant notes, and was quite hot and a little clunky. The Collepiano Sagrantino di Montefalco 2007 had a nice dusty earthy blackcurrant nose, quite inviting, but being my first sagrantino wine I did not expect the tannins which were very intense. In spite of this the tannins were all on the front of the palate, and the wine finished fresh and juicy with some wild herb and black fruits, a tad hot though. In 1996 the winery produced the first 25th Anniversary Sagrantino di Montefalco, which has continued even though they are now in their 32nd year. The 2007 vintage was much more subtle and integrated than the Collepiano, showing less obvious oak influence and tannin intensity, with some caramel and cigar-box tightness on the palate. The 2008 vintage was more savoury, elegant and fresh, a lot lighter and tighter with more potential for cellaring.

Cooking class at Arnaldo Caprai
Romanelli is a nearby small producer that established a name for themselves with their high quality olive oils. They more recently moved into viticulture and winemaking, with Devis Romanelli taking the mantle of winemaker. The philosophy in the vineyards is quite simple; only do what is necessary. They don’t use any herbicides or pesticides, and have placed bird boxes for natural predators of the insects to live in to help the ecosystem protect itself. In fact they have placed webcams in many of the bird boxes where you can see the movements of the birds. The fruit is harvested a little later than others in the region to try and get more flavour and tannin ripeness rather than just physiological and sugar ripeness. As such the alcohol levels are a little higher, but are much better balanced. Minimal use of oak also contributes to the wines generally being very pure and fresh, approachable and traditional. They are designed to be enjoyed with food, and are most definitely not statement wines. Julian invited me to join him for the tasting along with Giulia Luccioli who exports the wine to the United States.

Stormy weather
The Grechetto dei Colli Mantani 2011 had a slightly wild asparagus and cumquat nose, with citrus freshness on the palate coupled with some herbal elements, a very approachable easy white wine. The Predama 2009 blends 80% sangiovese with 10% sagrantino and 10% merlot, and had a generous soft and full fruit character, but was still very fresh and approachable, with red fruits and good acids. It was not really a wine of distinction and could easily be reproduced in many other places. The Montefalco Rosso 2008 had a rustic ripe black fruit nose, was very well balanced and light on the palate with fresh fruits and tannins, and was a great food wine. The Montefalco Sagrantino 2008 had a gentle brick red colour, and on the nose combined barbecue sauce, gherkin and tomato. On the palate the wine was intense yet soft with structure and mellow elegance. The 2007 vintage was much more intense and dark, and had less integration and elegance, looking more aggressive and hotter. The Sagrantino Passito 2008 had some fig and prunes on the nose with the same briny quality of the 2008 Sagrantino, opulent and full on the palate with balanced sweetness and focus.

Bird-box at Romanelli estate
Within the medieval village of Montefalco there are the oldest known sagrantino vines within the walls. Back in the 1920s the great-grandfather of the Fratelli Pardi made sweet wines under the hospital until 1946 when the business closed. Their grandfather then continued to make only a few barrels of the wine in the cellar of their nearby house to continue the tradition, but when he passed away in the early ‘90s the wines were no longer made until 2003. Meanwhile the family had established a wonderful business producing very high quality textiles, which they sold far and wide. The family decided to re-establish the winery and the heritage of the family in a new facility just outside the village walls, in one of their textile factories. Inviting Giovanni Dubini to look at the vineyard assets, he saw the potential for the wines and joined them as a consultant until the young sons could gain enough experience to make the wines and run the business on their own. The quality comes from the vineyards, and they used very simple practices in the winery to allow the fruit to be expressed as simply as possible. There is great potential in these wines in the future, but at the moment they are fairly simple and approachable with a defined style and personality yet to be determined.
Barrrels at Cantina Fratelli Pardi
The Grechetto Colli Martani 2011 was very generous and fruity, with some lime and kiwi notes and good fresh texture and acidity. The Montefalco Bianco 2011 was a little softer and simpler, very balanced and fresh but also quite bland and thin. The Trebbiano Spoletino 2011 had a fuller and more brooding ripeness and texture, showing some guava and pear spice, interesting minerals and texture with some warmth and intensity. The Montefalco Rosso 2009 was the best wine, combining cumin and blackberry with intense bright focus and freshness, reminding me a little of some of the refosco wines of Friuli. The Sagrantino di Montefalco 2007 had good volume and density, with some earthy tannic qualities and length, very well balanced and approachable. The Sacrantino is a single vineyard sagrantino wine, and the 2007 had some very explosive power and fruit sweetness, very concentrated and hot, quite out of balance. The Passito wines was very good, but also quite simple and sweet without a lot of elegance and structure.

Press at Cantina Fratelli Pardi
Click here to see more photos from Day Two in Umbria, Italy.

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