Sagrantino, the sacred
wine of Montefalco

Umbrian autumn landscapes, with tidy rows of multicoloured vines inspire artists and wine makers alike, a prelude to the flavour of Montefalco wines. Autumn fills the rows of Sagrantino with red, Sangiovese with yellow and Merlot with burgundy. These grape varieties are used to create the finest blends: drinkable, fragrant and subtly peppery, they are truly unique. Surely it would be impossible to recreate such complex aromas and flavours anywhere else in Italy, let alone in another part of the world with such a vocation for wine production.

History

The origins of this grape variety remain somewhat uncertain, in fact its genomic sequence does not bear a resemblance to any other known varieties around the world, giving rise to a series of more or less imaginative theories. Xenophile theories recount how this grape variety was first brought from Asia Minor by the Franciscans when they returned from evangelising the land. It bears a resemblance to Georgian saperavi, although others believe it was imported from Spain by the Saracens who attacked Montefalco. Today the most plausible theory is that this grape variety originated in the area between Bevagna and Montefalco. Some already recognise it in Ancient Roman times when Plinius the Elder mentioned Itriola grapes grown in the municipality of Bevagna, to which Montefalco also belonged. Others believe it was selected by monks in monasteries. As often happens in nature, what probably happened was that plant seeds, introduced by merchants or soldiers, reproduced and by means of cross fertilisation with autochthonous varieties and mutations, gave rise to this grape variety, whose uniqueness was discovered, inspiring its reproduction.

One thing is for sure, official news of this variety first emerged in Medieval times and already in 1200 its wine was bestowed as a prestigious gift upon Cardinals and Popes. The development of vine farming in monasteries and the use of wine during religious ceremonies gave rise to its name: “Sacer”, sacred.

In the 14th century the municipality of Montefalco established a set of specifications to regulate vine farming, including rules for cultivation, harvesting and production. In 1540 the start date for its harvesting was established by municipal decree.

The first official document in which the name Sagrantino appears dates back to 1549, in a transaction commissioning a merchant from Trevi with the purchase of Sagrantino must. In 1598, a document prepared by the notary Giovan Maria Nuti of Assisi mentions the local custom of mixing Sagrantino must with other musts to add aromas and flavours.

During the following years, the fate of Sagrantino and Umbria became indissolubly bound with the Papal State and papal legates frequently sang the praises of this wine to the Pope in documents. It is fascinating to note a document issued by Cardinal Boncompagni of Perugia in 1622 established that anyone who cut a grape vine would incur the death penalty.

Fast forward to 1899 and during the “Umbrian Exhibition”, Sagrantino was decreed not only a dessert wine, but also a wine for superior meals. Until then its vinification was almost entirely limited to sweet wine production: grapes were left to raisin on cane trellises called “cammorcane” and then processed with a sugar content of around 40 babo degrees. The resulting wine was served with desserts during all major religious holidays. Modern viticulture developed in Italy at the turn of the 20th century and slowly spread in Montefalco. A milestone of this process was the regional exhibition of Umbrian oils and wines which took place in Montefalco from 13th to 20th September 1925, when a dry version of Sagrantino wine was presented to the jury.

The dry version was limited to local production, safe in the knowledge that the grape’s characteristics added body and considerable alcoholic strength to wines.

An anecdote told to us by an elderly merchant from an Umbrian village in the mountains speaks volumes about impressions of this wine. He told me how he “collected demijohns of Sagrantino from your neighbour, then I would take them up to the mountain and mix them with 50% water, the result was a much stronger wine than they were used to up here, so demand was extremely high.” In 1971, following a project by the body for the development of farming in Umbria, the first ever pilot batch of dry Sagrantino was produced at the cooperative winery of Foligno.


It obtained DOC recognition in 1979 for the dry and passito wine, however it wasn’t until 1992 that it was recognised with DOCG status, placing Sagrantino on a par with some of Italy’s most important wines. 

The Plant

Sagrantino vines are characterised by thin shoots with internodes in close proximity that become very hard once lignified. Basal bud fertility is good, it sprouts late whereas blossoming is average. These characteristics help it to overcome the harsh Umbrian winters and possible late frosts.  Its bunches are small and compact, the grapes are small and firmly attached to the stalk; it reaches technological maturity later than average, usually in late October. This makes it difficult to manage plants as bunches are vulnerable to botrytis. The plant rapidly accumulates high levels of sugar and polyphenols, it is not rare for veraison to be complete by the end of August, presenting 20% sugars, however in order to obtain an excellent wine, the pomace needs to ripen, usually 40-50 days later. 
The finest Sagrantino is obtained in seasons characterised by a sunny and dry September and October, resulting in healthy and perfectly ripened grapes. The polyphenol content of Sagrantino is higher than any other variety in the world. During the autumn, the wonderful sight of fiery red leaves characterises the Montefalco landscape and is truly unique, especially when alternated with Sangiovese vine rows, whose leaves become intense yellow; no artist could ever do a better job.

The wine

Sagrantino is a particularly generous wine, both in terms of colour and extract, with its “great polyphenolic richness”. Intense red in colour, almost entirely visually impenetrable, with red forest fruit and spicy notes, like cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper notes.  In recent years Sagrantino has often been revisited by numerous producers, yielding more drinkable results compared to more traditional versions of this particularly austere wine. This was one of our first objectives, to strive for a Sagrantino tamed of its historically pronounced sharpness.

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