Of the many hilltop towns that I have visited in Italy, I always find Montefalco one of the most unique. Situated atop the eponymous mountain and surrounded by ramparts, from below it looks like any other. It isn’t until entering into the city walls that one sees that this town is topographically like an inverted bowl. The streets that lead through all gates lead straight up a hill to the town’s only piazza, the only level surface in town, in the dead center of town and at the very top of the hill.
Montefalco has a long history of wine, but outside recognition has only come recently, in the last ten years or so. The vast majority of its production is focused on red wine, both dry and sweet. The main grape grown here is the sagrantino, a varietal that produces tiny berries in tiny cluster, but a wallop of flavor.
Known as the most phenolically intense of Italy’s scores of unique varietals, it is thus often compared to the tannat varietal of France, to which it shares no relation. Sagrantino di Montefalco gained official recognition from the Italian government in 1993, one of the first wines to gain this distinction after the initial four of Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo and Barbaresco, and long before the classification became diluted with wines like Bardolino (the most recent addition) began gaining the same recognition. The wine is typically dark, tannic and intense.
In juxtaposition to this intense wine is the DOC of Montefalco Rosso, a wine that is based on the ubiquitous (at least throughout central Italy) sangiovese grape, to which is blended lesser amounts of sagrantino and other “nonaromatic red grapes recommended and/or authorized for the province of Perugia” – usually either merlot or montepulciano. The sagrantino grape lends both wines a certain meaty intensity that is obviously more intense in the unblended version, but still evident in the Montefalco Rosso.
There is a little bit of white wine in the Montefalco region, based on the grechetto varietal, which at its best displays an apply tartness with softer bitter almond undertones, but no one is crowing too loudly about these wines. For Umbrian whites look toward the Orvieto region…
What is worth seeking out is Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito. Made from sagrantino grapes that are first dried and then fermented, I prefer to refer to this wine using the Italian term “vino da meditazione” rather than as a “dessert wine,” and I prefer to translate this beautiful Italian term as “a wine for pensive sipping.” Simply put, the inherent tannins of the sagrantino grape come through also in the passito version of the wine, making it a difficult pair for desserts, better for firm cheeses, but the best pairing may be with a good novel read by a warm fireplace.
Of the two most important producers in Montefalco, one represents a more traditional take, while the other is decidedly more in the modern camp. In the traditional corner we have Paolo Bea, one of the great old school producers in all of Italy. Bea’s wines are meaty and intense, yet achieve their balance through soft tannins and generous and well-ripened fruit.
The Arnaldo Caprai winery represents a more modern take on the wines of Montefalco. The innovative research of Arnaldo’s son Marco has brought vast improvement to the Montefalco wine scene, even if some of the older producers are reluctant to admit so. Caprai’s “25 Anni,” a wine that debuted on their 25 th anniversary and then became a regular bottling of their best fruit, is a reference point for all the innovation within the region of Montefalco.
It needn’t stop with these two guys. Another couple of my personal faves include Antonelli, whose Sagrantino di Montefalco is another classic, Milziade Antano, like Antonelli favors the less-oaky style (especially from their “Collealodole” vineyard) and Antano, who Sagrantino has exceptional elegance. Colpetrone is a producer more in the Caprai model (modern) well worth looking for, and the list could go on…
My favorite pairing for Sagrantino di Montefalco off of our menu at the moment is our grilled venison loin, but any game dish, especially squab, can be exceptional. I look forward to showing you how good these wines (and dishes) can be, but you have to come by for this to happen!