Sagrantino is a red wine grape native to Italy, one of the three most tannic red wine grape varieties grown in Italy, Longanesi and Pignolo being the others. Sagrantino’s most renowned incarnation is Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG which is 100% Sagrantino and comes from around the hills of the commune of Montefalco, in the province of Perugia in Umbria in central Italy. There are no significant plantings of Sagrantino beyond the Montefalco area (Ian D’Agata: 2019, p.266). Note that the Montefalco Rosso DOC contains 60–70% Sangiovese and just 10-15% Sagrantino ).
The name: ‘Sagra’ may derive from the word sacristy or ‘sacrestia’ in Italian, meaning the room in a church where the priest prepares for Holy Mass, which involves the presence and serving of red wine (sacrament). When the Montefalco Sagrantino DOC was created in 1977 it was for a sweet passito wine, with the dry version created later, both of which subsequently (1992) became DOCGs (Ian D’Agata: 2019, p.265).
Origins: Sagrantino’s origins are ‘unclear,’ says Ian D’Agata (2014, p.424), pointing to a lack of documentation to prove claims that Sagrantino was possibly the Hirtiola of antiquity described by Martial and Pliny the Elder in the territory of Mevania, between where the Umbrian towns of Bevagna and Montefalco are found today. The first reference to Sagrantino wine dates from 1598.
Clones: D’Agata (2014, p.424) reports the available clones are 2 ISV-ICA PG (said to be ideal for air-drying), UNIMI-CAPRAI-25-anni, UNIMI-CAPRAI-Cobra, UNIMI-CAPRAI-Collepiano, and VCR 26. Ian D’Agata (2019, p.265) says the ‘Cobra’ cone developed by Caprai is appropriately named due to what he describes its ‘almost toxic tannin levels’.
Tannin: ‘Sagrantino has twice the polyphenols of Tannat,’ (Stephen Brook, 2016). Sagrantino’s wealth of polyphenols can be an Achilles heel, as its wines can be ‘very tough and ‘astringent’ and, says D’Agata (2019, p.265) in his experience bottle ageing will reduce the stubborn nature of the tannins in less successful wines. One argument made by some winemakers agree that the tannins are sleek and polished but there are simply a lot of them. As such the grapes can withstand long macerations; and the wines are very long-lived.
Soil: Sagrantino does best on clay soils, and gives good results on loam-rich ones (D’Agata 2019, p.265)
Viticulture: Sagrantino needs lots of sun and a long growing season to properly ripen, especially its tannins, therefore site selection is important to achieve ripe, well-balanced fruit. It is prone to downy mildew (peronospera) but not powdery mildew (Oïdium). Sagrantino requires more water than Sangiovese, therefore in rainy years, the area’s wines that are focused on Sagrantino will be more successful than those that rely on Sangiovese. Chiara Lungarotti is quoted (in Stephen Brook, 2016) as saying Sagrantino is vigorous, needs a low vigour rootstock, is late ripening, is hard to get ripe, and produces small berries with thick skins and big seeds.’ At Collisioni (16th July 2017) the Lungarotti oenologist said Sagrantino is a leafy vine. Pruning early is a risk in Montefalco because the vine will come out of dormancy too early, when there is a risk of frost because Umbria has a continental climate.’ He suggested the best rootstocks for Sagrantino in Montefaclo were 3309 C (V riparia x rupestris) and 161-49 Couderc (V berlandi x riparia).
Sagrantino’s above-average vigour means it produces a huge (leaf, shoot) canopy–which can cause water stress–but it is not especially productive, needing plenty of heat and light plus good water availability to ripen successfully (D’Agata 2019, p.265). Sagrantino needs this heat, light, and water ‘gradually rather than all at once or in intense, short bursts,’ because it accumulates sugars quickly (D’Agata (2019, p.265), meaning you can end up with a wine with unripe tannins and a high alcohol level. D’Agata (2019, p.265) says Filippo Antonelli of the Antonelli San Marco winery describes Sagrantino’s polyphenols as being in the skins rather than in the pips, meaning long macerations for early-picked Sagrantino are not advisable because the pips will not be ripe. Instead, and guided by research from San Michel all’Adige on the tannic structure of Sagrantino producers like ASM are harvesting 10-15 days earlier, and using cooler, shorter fermentations and no oak to make lighter, earlier drinking wines.
Pests: The underside of the leaf is hairy, which can provide a home for spider mites (D’Agata (2014, p.425).
Winemaking: Softer winemaking has covered Sagrantino’s firm but attractive, lively, bitter tannin with rich, durable fruit and noticeable alcohol. Stephen Brook (2016) says producers favour squat fermentation vats to maximise contact between juice and skins, giving more even extraction. But Burgundy-style cold soaks are considered of little advantage in Montefalco.’
Typical flavours: ‘Sagrantino is not a grape with a very complex nose,’ said Marco Baldovin of Antonelli San Marco (Collisioni, 2017). ‘Aromas of liquorice, leather, undergrowth and balsamic vinegar in an aged example,’ (Stephen Brook, 2016). Black fruit. Blackberry. Blueberry. Pepper. Roses (dried). Violets. ‘Rich, brambly black fruit, aromatic herb aromas,’ (D’Agata (2014, p.426). Also dried plums, cocoa, tar, tobacco, cinnamon, dried herbs and balsamic notes.
Polyphenols: Chain esters (eg. 2-methyl butanoate, the methyl ester of butyric acid, aka methyl butyrate) may be responsible for some of Sagrantino’s fruit aromas, despite methyl butanoate smelling mostly of apple and banana, and Sagrantino being a red grape, but it is the presence of ethyl cinnamate which augments the notes of small red fruits (D’Agata, 2019, p.266).
Terpenes: Sagrantino’s floral aromas derive from the presence of terpenes. Green, herbal, pine needle and balsamic oil notes are very characteristic, are due to α-Terpineol, and are still active after many years in bottle (D’Agata, 2019, p.266). Some producers add a small percentage of air-dried grapes because dehydration techniques help degrade the polyphenols in the skin mainly, but also in the pulp (D’Agata, 2019, p.266).
Food pairings: Beef Beef stew. | Boar Wild boar stew. | Chocolate Sagrantino is one of the few red wines that can handle chocolate. | Eggs with black Umbrian truffles. | Lamb Grilled. In Umbria Sagrantino is traditionally paired with lamb at Easter. | Mushrooms Grilled porcini mushrooms (on toast). | Pasta Pasta with olive, oil, salt garlic and black Umbrian truffles. | Pork Pork sausages.
Dr Ian D’Agata, Native wine grapes of Italy (University of California Press, 2014), p.424-6.
Dr Ian d’Agata, Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs (University of California Press, 2019).
Oz Clarke, Oz Clarke Wine A-Z (Pavilion, 2015), p.228.
Stephen Brook, ‘The might of Montefalco’, Decanter, Italy 2016 supplement p.72-76.