Old Grapes, New Wines: Sagrantino, Ciliegiolo, and Vernaccia Nera
Youthful owner of Raina, Andrea Mattioli works with what he has always loved, agriculture and particularly viticulture after his degree from the Istituto Tecnico Agario di Gubbio. His partner in the business, Francesco Mariani earned a degree in philosophy but then attended culinary school and worked in high-end restaurants in Spello and Firenze before turning his attention to wine. In 2001, Mattioli and Mariani acquired 40 acres that included an old farmhouse in Montefalco, Umbria, and over the years they have transformed the property with state of the art vineyards and winery. Their land is located between 656 and 984 feet above sea level. Exposure is mainly southeast, and the soil is rich in limestone and gravel, which promote water drainage, a key condition for quality grapes. The land is planted mainly with Sangrantino and Sangiovese, the traditional grape varietals of Umbria, and enologist Tiziano Vistali, with long experience in the region, assists with winemaking. Raina wines are lately attracting international recognition.
Tenuta San Rocco
Owned by the Morghetti family, Tenuta San Rocco is located in the Umbrian region and from its own hilltop at 1150 above sea level, it provides a panoramic view of the medieval hill-town of Todi, just four and a half miles away. The 140-acre estate cultivates vines, olives, grains, and sunflowers and practices sustainable agriculture for all of its crops. The winery specializes in white Grechetto di Todi, which naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) praised in his monumental work, Naturalis Historia. The estate also grows the reds Sangiovese and Merlot. Surrounded by gardens, the Villa San Rocco dates back to the 16th Century and provides accommodations for visitors.
Although the Sassotondo estate is located in the Maremma district in Southern Tuscany, the area has much in common with Umbria, which is near and directly east. The white Bianco di Pitigliano from Maremma is often compared to Orvieto from Umbria, and some of the same grapes are planted in both regions, especially the reds Sangiovese and Ciliegiolo. The terrain is similarly hilly. Owned by Carla Benini and husband Edoardo Ventimiglia, the 178-acre Sassotondo estate has 27 acres of organically farmed vineyards. The winery is credited with restoring the reputation of ancient Ciliegiolo, thought to have arrived from Spain. Ciliegiolo Riserva San Lorenzo is the winery’s iconic wine. The estate also grows Sangiovese and Merlot and the whites Trebbiano, Greco, and Sauvignon. Renowned Attilio Pagli is the consulting enologist.
Located at the base of the Appenines in the Le Marche region, just north of Umbria, between the cities of Ancona and Perugia, the Quacquarini family devotes itself exclusively to the ancient and rare vine of Serrapetrona, Vernaccia Nera (black), producing a sweet and a dry version, both slightly effervescent, and a third still, dry wine. Some scholars think that this ancient and rare vine got its name from Petronius, an exiled Roman noble who was supposed to have settled in the area, while others think that the name is due simply to the stony (petrus) fields in the surrounding area. Founder of this family business, Alberto Quacquarini, has lived by the dictum that e la forza delle idée che movimenta la vita (the strength of ideas moves life forward) and fervently believes in the value of his land when so many others have left and emigrated elsewhere. Son Luke is the winemaker, and his brother Mauro runs the business.
Italian Wines of the Month
Raina – 2007 Umbria Rosso
This deeply flavored wine is a blend of Sangiovese and Sagrantino, the premium wine grapes of the Umbrian region. Aged for 18 months in stainless steel tanks and for three months in bottle, the wine emits intense fruit aromas of red and black cherries. On the palate, the freshness of Sangiovese and the structure of Sagrantino balance the wine and contribute to a long and pleasant finish. The winery made just 652 cases of this Rosso. Serve at cool room temperature.
San Rocco – 2008 Poggio Marcigliano Grechetto
This delicious white Grechetto di Todi is straw-colored and has a striking bouquet of fresh flowers. After three months in oak barrels and one month in stainless steel, its flavors are intensely refreshing. Serve with appetizers or with fish, poultry, or fresh cheeses. Serve chilled
Quacquarini Vernaccia di Serrapetrona
Most of us know Vernaccia as a white wine from San Gemingnano. But this delicious Vernaccia di Serrapetrona is red and is made in the Le Marche region from one of the most interesting grapes in Italy. Produced from Vernaccia Nera (black) grapes, part of the harvest is dried on straw mats and added to the wine in January for a second fermentation that enriches flavors. A third fermentation produces a fine effervescence. Its rich flavors may taste almost sweet much like Amarone or California Zinfandel does, but the wine is totally dry. Like a white wine, serve chilled as an aperitif or with salumi appetizers, or with a final course of cheeses, nuts, and dried fruit. This is a remarkable wine for the holiday meals just ahead of us.
Raina – 2008 Rosso di Montefalco
This Raina Rosso blends 70% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino, and 15% Merlot. The color is dense ruby red with purple tints, and the bouquet suggests smoky balsamic aromas. The wine combines the fresh flavors of Sangiovese, the structure of Sagrantino, and the softness of Merlot in a rich and balanced wine with a long finish. The winery made 863 cases of this Rosso di Montefalco.
Raina – 2006 Sagrantino
In the Central Ages, the nuns of Montefalco made sacramental wines from the noble Sagrantino grape. But its recent incarnation is attributed to Marco Caprai, who rescued the grape from obscurity, and in just 15 years, established its reputation as one of Italy’s finest wines with long aging potential. During these years, the grape has proliferated in Montefalco vineyards. The Raina Sagrantino has deep ruby color and blackberry aromas with spicy balsamic notes and a finish of chocolate and tobacco. Aged for 15 months in French oak barrels, five months in stainless steel, and 12 months in bottle before release from the winery, the wine is structured and harmonious with fine-grained tannins and a long finish. Decant before serving at cool room temperature.
Sassotondo – 2006 Ciliegiolo Riserva San Lorenzo
This Riserva is 100% Ciliegiolo from estate vineyards that are approximately 40 years old and have been farmed organically since 1994. The wine is made naturally and fermented with yeasts from the vineyard rather than extraneous yeasts and is then aged in caves dug into volcanic rock, which is common to the area. For 18 months in oak barrels and 12 months in bottle, the wine ages in ideal conditions of humidity and temperature that the natural underground environment provides. Cherries dominate the fragrance of this wine along with black currants, white pepper, and cloves, all of which are part of the flavor. The wine is elegantly fresh and spicy with fruit flavors, acid, and fine tannins in balance. Serve at cool room temperature.
Italian Regions of the Month
Umbria is a combination of pastoral countryside and mountain wilderness. Nurtured by the Tiber and its tributaries and Italy’s fourth largest lake, Lago Trasimeno, the region is known as the “green heart of Italy” and produces fine olive oil, truffles, grains, tobacco, and livestock, along with its vines. But Umbria also has a cluster of ancient cities, which offers glimpses into the past. The Umbri, Etruscans, and Romans all left their marks here. Magnificent Orvieto is perched on a plateau and looks down on vineyards below. Its grand Duomo is among the greatest of Italy’s Romanesque/Gothic cathedrals. Perugia’s ancient center embraces a 15th Century duomo, and the city’s most extravagantly decorated church, founded in the 10th Century and rebuilt in the 15th, stands beyond the old walls. Medieval Assisi with its beautiful views and piazzas is the home of St. Francis, who is buried in a basilica frescoed by Giotto among others. And the nearby hill towns of Todi, Spello, Gubbio, and Montefalco blend medieval monuments with Roman remains. Spoleto, surrounded by woods, is the loveliest of the hill towns and hosts one of Europe’s leading art festivals in June and July each year.
Noted mainly for its white wines, such as Orvieto, Procanico, Malvasia, Grechetto, and Trebbiano, Umbria also produces two noble red wines with special DOCG status, Torgiano Rosso, which is called Rubesco, and Sagrantino, both unmistakably grand wines, capable of aging for decades. The sweet white Vin Santo is a local favorite and is made from semidried Grechetto or Malvasia grapes.
Among the many outside varieties planted in Umbria, Merlot and Barbera have been prominent for more than a century. More recently, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Nero have produced some fine wines.
Up until the late 1980s, nearly half of Umbria’s vineyards were mixed agriculture, the vines often trained onto trees or grown alongside other crops. But today, most vineyards are monoculture, using vertical systems on wires strung between poles.
Le Marche is a remote area between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennine mountains, a quiet region, whose inhabitants drink more wine per capita and live longer than other Italians. Its pre-Christian inhabitants were the Piceni, who were assimilated by the Romans, and its coastal capital Ancona was established by the Greeks. In the Central Ages, the region marked the southern boundary of the Holy Roman Empire, from which it got its name, “Le Marche” or “boundary.” In the 15th Century, Urbino became one of the leading cultural centers of Europe, and its Palazzo Ducale is one of Italy’s most beautiful Renaissance palaces. Ascoli Piceno is almost as extraordinary with its Piazza del Popolo. But the smaller towns of San Leo and Urbania are also remarkable medieval monuments. Visitors also come to Le Marche for its beaches on the coast and for its skiing on the peaks of Monti Sibillini.
The Castelli di Jesi DOC zone in the hills west of Ancona is the home of Verdicchio, which has been dramatically increasing quality in the last ten years, so much so that many now consider it central Italy’s best wine for fish, but Verdicchio should not be confused with the unrelated Verdeca, Verdone, Verdello, or Verduzzo, whose names all refer to their green skins. Verddicchio di Matalica is grown at a higher altitude and can have even more intense flavors. The wines from both DOC zones also make fine sparkling wine. Other whites such as Bianchello del Metauro and Falerio dei Colli are also good with seafood.
The red wines of Le Marche are based mainly on Sangiovese or Montepulciano, the most important Rosso Piceno, is mostly Sangiovese. Rosso Conero is based on Montepulciano.