Offbeat grapes and wines: Sagrantino
Regular readers will know that one the special pleasures I enjoy in wine is the exploration of relatively obscure and little-known grape varieties, styles and regions.
Some of these offbeat wines, frankly, are little-known for good reason: Once you get past the excitement of their novelty, there's not much reason to come back for a second try. In many cases, these wines earn their obscurity.
But every now and then, a less-familiar name qualifies as a delicious discovery, so delightful that it's tempting not to blab but to keep it secret among the cognoscenti so there's no need to share.
Naah. Can't do that. Today let's talk about Sagrantino, a truly excellent red grape from Umbria.
Called "the green heart of Italy" and located between Rome and Bologna, just about dead center on the map of Italy, Umbria produces excellent wines but generally labors under relative obscurity compared with its better-known neighbor, Tuscany. In Umbria's central Montefalco region, however, between Perugia and Spoleto, the local Sagrantino makes such a memorable wine that even the Tuscans are starting to think about planting a few themselves.
For centuries, Sagrantino was used mostly to make dessert wines in the traditional passito process, the grapes being dried into intensely sweet raisins before being pressed and vinified. In modern times, though, Montefalco producers have been gaining increased attention with deep, intense and ageworthy dry Sagrantino wines.
Granted Italy's top DOCG ("Denominazione di Origine Controllata Garantita") status in 1993, Sagrantino must be aged at least 29 months before release; the producer of today's wine, Galli & Broccatelli, opts for 36 months in French oak barrels followed by additional time in bottle before its sale; accordingly, the 1998 and 2000 vintages are most likely to be found in the export market, with more recent years still awaiting release.
Sagrantino's origin is lost to history, says the Italian Trade Commission. Some experts speculate that it was a local wild variety, while others believe it was brought to the district by Franciscan friars, imported from Spain or even brought in by Saracen invaders during the times of the Crusades.
With the well-known wine maker Riccardo Cotarella as its consulting oenologist, Galli & Broccatelli is winning substantial critical acclaim, a factor that's bound to be reflected in its price. With 60,000 bottles of the Sagrantino produced annually, though, it's fairly widely available, and at retail prices ranging from the upper teens into the $20s, it's still a bargain compared with wines of similar quality from better-known regions. And best of all, in an age of increasingly "international" wine styles, it remains a distinctly Italian wine that speaks clearly of the land and the soil.
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Galli & Broccatelli 1998 Montefalco Sagrantino ($18.99)
This is a clear, very dark garnet wine, blackish-purple at the core. Lovely black-fruit aromas are accented with violets and attractive "tarry" notes surprisingly reminiscient of Nebbiolo, and the wine is not unlike a Barolo or Barbaresco on the palate, too: Big, brooding black fruit and firm acidity, almost forbiddingly tannic upon first opening. It softens with vigorous aeration and a little time in the glass to reveal black cherries and whiffs of fennel, smooth tannins providing good structure and body, with clean hearbal fruit and a pleasant hint of bitterness in a very long finish. Although the wine sees three full years of aging in French oak barrels, the oak is beautifully integrated and not at all intrusive. U.S. importer: Winebow Inc., NYC; Leonardo Locascio Selection. (Feb. 1, 2005)
FOOD MATCH: Rare red meat or even game would serve it well; it was fine, too, with a pasta dish crafted to match, nearly rare duck breast tossed with sauteed red and green bell peppers and red onions in a subtle chipotle cream.
VALUE: A bit above the everyday-wine niche, but the local price under $20 is a virtual steal; I've seen the '98 and the newer 2000 going for well up in the $20s, where it's still a bargain compared to better-known varieties of similar high quality.
WHEN TO DRINK: Enjoyable now with aeration and a good food match, but it will surely reward 5 to 10 years of careful cellaring.
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Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005