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Beauty in the Beast

Coaxing subtlety from an Italian monster
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Giampaolo Tabarrini on his family farm in Montefalco.

Posted: Oct 27, 2014 10:00am ET

"The trouble with Sagrantino is to understand Sagrantino," says Giampaolo Tabarrini, who grows the indigenous red grape in Montefalco, in Italy's Umbria region. "It's much easier to make a Sangiovese, Cabernet or Merlot than Sagrantino."

Why?

"Because Sagrantino has too much of everything!" He seems to shout with his whole body, from his skinny torso to the standout ears on his near-shaven head. "There are a lot of polyphenols. A lot of tannins. A lot of sugar. It is many times over: A lot! A lot! A lot! So how do you balance it?"

Tabarrini, 40, knows Sagrantino. He is a fourth-generation winemaker whose father and grandfather sold their Sagrantino wines in bulk to French and Luxembourg merchants who said they were supplying "taverns"—though nobody actually checked that. (I suspect they were "improving" the lighter wines from those more northerly regions, a long if now ill-favored tradition.) He still lives on the family farm in a rural hamlet outside Montefalco, with his wife, son, parents and assorted other Tabarrini, who cultivate their own vegetables, olives, grain and livestock.

Fifteen years ago, his father handed more than 50 acres of vineyards and the wine business over to him. When he started putting his own wine in bottles, Tabarrini noticed differences in his three principal Sagrantino vineyards, all located in a cool part of the wine zone that is one of the last to be harvested in late October. With the 2003 vintage, he started bottling the wines separately.

It was an unusual step. Most Montefalco producers make a single dry Montefalco Sagrantino bottling (as well as a sweet passito) and blend the rest in their Montefalco Rossos. Given the difficulties of training the explosively vigorous vine and turning its fruit into a civilized wine—another producer curses it as a "bastard of a grape"—one pure Sagrantino per year is enough. Very few make single-vineyard crus. Tabarrini has taken the idea further than anyone by making three separate bottlings from distinct vineyards.

In the winery below his family home, Tabarrini poured glasses (paired with some familial salumi) of his three single-vineyard selections from his blockbuster 2009 vintage—all aged three years in large oak casks.

His Montefalco Sagrantino Campo alla Cerqua (rated 92 points by Wine Spectator, $70), made from eastern-exposed vineyards of poor soils, is a burly wine by most standards but seems downright fresh in the context of Sagrantino. His largest vineyard, Colle Grimaldesco (92 points, $55), of southeasterly-exposed, rich, clay-lime soils, produces a brooding, darker wine. And his Colle alle Macchie (93 points, $80), from southern-exposed clay soils, is the deepest and biggest of the three wines. You could try to tar your roof with it, but what a waste. 

For some wine lovers, big wines are on the outs these days. But a couple of days in Montefalco converted me. Big can be beautiful. And great Sagrantino is great Sagrantino.

Most of the debate around Sagrantino is about extraction and how to harness the grape's tannic power, sort of like the dial on an amplifier: Do you set it at 1? 10? Or as in the classic rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, at 11?

But those discussions miss something about Sagrantino, which can express a lot of nuance underneath its bluster.

"It's so funny," Tabarrini says through a high-octane laugh. "The general opinion of Sagrantino is wrong. It's not just about the power. Let's understand how complex Sagrantino is."

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