Montefalco is one of my favorite Italian wine towns. Perched on a clifftop surrounded by olive groves, rolling vineyards and wheat, it’s small enough that you can walk from one end to the other in five minutes. But its oversized central piazza, with its ornate medieval palazzos and brick towers, oozes a sense of ancient glory.
Beyond the history is a persistent culinary pride. Here, in the heart of central Italy’s Umbria, you generally eat more authentically local than you might in more touristy Tuscany to the west. The cuisine incorporates intensely flavorful olive oil, local salumi, cheeses, game, wild boar sausage, prosciutto and truffles.
I’ve eaten some of the best meals of my life here, starting in the 1980s at a rustic farm table where I had to beg the owner to please not serve me any more courses. (He’d started arranging them in erotic formations, but that’s another story.)
It is not dainty nor for the faint of heart.
And neither is the wine.
While the most widely produced red wine here is Sangiovese-based Montefalco Rosso, the star of Montefalco is Sagrantino, perhaps Italy’s most tannic grape. Bottled as a single-variety wine, it fills only about 130,000 cases a year for the world.
More than 40 years after the Sagrantino di Montefalco appellation was created, debate continues among its 70-plus producers over how to grow and make Sagrantino—specifically, how to manage those roaring tannins.
This spring, my first stop in the Montefalco Sagrantino D.O.C.G. was at Scacciadiavoli, Montefalco’s oldest operating winery, built by a Tuscan prince in 1884. Named after a local exorcism (“casting out devils”), the four-story brick winery is a marvel of pre-electric, 19th-century, gravity-fed engineering.
“I grew up with Sagrantino and, when I started drinking in 2000, the wine was powerful and woody,” says Liù Pambuffetti, 38, one of two cousins who oversee winemaking at Scacciadiavoli.
Long before Pambuffetti was born, Sagrantino wine was, for centuries, traditionally syrupy, sweet and served at church masses and Easter celebrations the year after harvest. At the turn of the 20th century, Scacciadiavoli produced the equivalent of 1 million bottles a year of red blends based on Sangiovese with some Sagrantino in the mix.
Pambuffetti’s great-grandfather, a food distributor and merchant, bought the farm and winery in the 1950s. From the 1990s on, her father and his brothers focused on wine—and the newly minted appellation for single-variety dry Sagrantino.
In her twenties, studying enology in Bordeaux under her mentor, the now-deceased Denis Dubourdieu, Liù Pambuffetti’s tastes evolved. “Drinking wine from around the world, I realized it was important to find a middle road—a wine with strong character but with elegance,” she says.
In recent years, Montefalco wineries have been using gentler techniques that are translating to wines that are ready to drink sometimes just after the D.O.C.G.’s required aging period of a minimum of 37 months. Notable producers talk about taming Sagrantino with labor-intensive canopy management—shading grape bunches in the heat of summer while exposing them to wind and sun in spring and fall—and practice gentler handling in the winery.
For the Pambuffettis, who have recently used Sagrantino in previously unthinkable wines such as a sparkling rosé and a sparkling white (blended with Chardonnay), the emphasis has been on removing any trace of the bitterly tannic stems from the must before it goes into tank.
The pioneer who resurrected Sagrantino and did more than any single person to develop the appellation and bring its wines to the world—Marco Caprai of Arnaldo Caprai—is also helping lead the way to elegance.
“For me there are good Sagrantinos and less-good Sagrantinos,” says Caprai, who hired famed French consulting enologist Michel Rolland seven years ago to introduce some of the most delicate winemaking techniques in the area: barriques, and rotating the barrels daily instead of pumping over or punching down the fermenting must.
“Michel says ‘infusion’ rather than ‘extraction’,” Caprai says. The idea is to create longer tannin chains that results in a rich, soft feel. “When the tannins are too stressed, they become aggressive.”
Caprai’s flagship Sagrantino, Spinning Beauty, produced from a single Sagrantino clone, is released a full 10 years after the vintage, with eight years of aging in barriques.
Aside from technique, it seems a cultural shift, coming from new generations of producers and consumers, is driving Sagrantino’s change.
Giusy Moretti, 37, who gave up her career as an architect to join her father, Omero, at his Moretti Omero winery eight years ago, says that greater involvement from women has been a big change for the appellation.
“I believe in Sagrantino; it’s got a unique taste,” says Moretti. “But I remember wines from 2000 that were much more powerful—probably because all the producers were men.”
“It was macho—a competition. The wine was good if it was big and alcoholic,” adds Moretti, who has pushed the winery to harvest earlier. “Women being involved has helped make wines that are more drinkable, balanced.”