The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals
If they had regional slogans for Italian licence plates, the obvious choice for Umbria would be: "Poor Man's Tuscany." Or, perhaps more helpfully: "Next Door to Tuscany!" Or, to quote a popular tourism pitch of the past 20 years: "The New Tuscany." The landlocked region smack in Italy's centre may not have Michelangelo's David, the Leaning Tower or Chianti and Brunello, but it does boast Tuscan-like rolling hills, less-crowded piazzas and cheaper villa-rental rates.
It also has an unusual red wine called sagrantino, which coincidentally drifted into the Italian-wine cognoscenti's radar space around the time Umbria started becoming cool. There's something wonderfully rebellious about sagrantino, an aggressively tannic, astringent grape that seems like it's flipping its middle finger at today's ocean of smooth, mass-appeal reds.
Historically associated with Montefalco, a commune near the city of Perugia, sagrantino did the familiar Italian-grape-variety disappearing act in the first half of the last century, dwindling to virtual anonymity. What little was grown back then tended to end up in passito, a very sweet style whose sugar counterbalanced the jarring tannins.
Arnaldo Caprai, the district's leading winery, was instrumental in nurturing it back to viability and spearheaded the drive to establish the Sagrantino di Montefalco appellation for dry wines in 1979. Vineyard acreage in the locality has multiplied by about eightfold since 1990.
Bottles carrying the Sagrantino di Montefalco designation account for many of the best examples, from such producers as Caprai, Adanti, Bocale, Castelbuono, Lungarotti, Perticaia and Scacciadiavoli, though the vine yields fine offerings from nearby Umbrian communes, including Bevagna and Giano. Should you come across a "Rosso di Montefalco," however, you're dealing with a generally softer blend made mainly from sangiovese, the red grape widespread in Umbria but more popularly associated with Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino across the border in Tuscany.
Sturdy though sagrantino tends to be, particularly in its youth, producers have been softening the tannins through a variety of winery techniques, enabling the cherry-like flavours and spicy-earthy overtones to come forward. Those tannins also help shield the wine against oxygen and render it a fine candidate for up to 15 years in the cellar, where it can develop nuances of leather and tobacco. If cellaring's not your thing but you're keen to give sagrantino a whirl, I'd recommend decanting the wine into a pitcher to expose it to oxygen and round out the tannins. And I'd recommend roasting up a leg of lamb or grilling a herb-crusted steak to medium-rare.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) won top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.