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February 16, 2014

GRAPE SENSE: The rare but exciting 100 percent Sagrantino wine

It’s easy to buy a big, expensive California Cabernet, red Bordeaux or Oregon Pinot Noir for an intimate dinner party or special gift. But to really surprise a serious wine lover or yourself, why not try something really different?

Odds are even the biggest wine fans are going to scratch their heads when you present them with a bottle of Sagrantino. The grape grows primarily in just one region of the world. Sagrantino’s home is the hilltops around Montefalco, Italy. Its origins are largely unknown though it’s been suggested it arrived in Umbria from Greece. There is also a school of thought that the Franciscans or St. Francis of Assisi brought the grape from the Middle East as a sacramental wine. The grape can be traced back 400 years in the Montefalco region.

What makes the wine special and rare is that there are only 250 acres of Sagrantino in the region. A bit of Sagrantino is planted elsewhere in Tuscany, but not much. There are only a few producers specializing in the wine. The number is usually reported as about 25 wineries.

Sagrantino is often blended with a large percentage of the traditional Italian Sangiovese grape to make a Montefalco Rosso; Sagrantino Passito is made from partially dried grapes.

But let’s stick to the rare but exciting 100 percent Sagrantino.

What’s so special? It is a big, rich and dry wine. It probably will be the most dry wine even an experienced wine fan has ever tasted. It is an extraordinarily complex wine worthy and demanding aging before drinking. Most recommendations range five to 10 years beyond vintage year before consumption.

The wine is aged at least 30 months before it can be released. It’s a full-bodied wine driven by muscular tannins, rich taste and subtle floral hints.

Such an obscure and difficult grape requires a champion. Arnaldo Caprai is the little black grape’s biggest booster. For years Caprai made his substantial living as an Italian textile giant. He bought a winery in the 1970s near Montefalco. Caprai partnered with the University of Milan to study the grape and its background. Marco Caprai joined his father’s efforts in 1987 as they expanded vineyards and built a state-of-the-art winery. He continues as the winemaker and Sagrantino ambassador today.

The Caprai wines are the best among four to five labels I’ve tasted. The wines would pair well with Italian-seasoned beef or meat in red sauces. This is not pasta wine! The latest Caprai Sagrantino release was a consistent 90-94 point wine.

There are other labels available in the U.S., but you’ll only find Sagrantino in better wine shops.

I opened a bottle of Tenuta Alzatura Disente Uno 2004 Sagrantino for this column. It was a bit silkier than most with a strong sense of earthiness on the nose. Frankly, it was a little thin. It still had the huge tannic finish but wasn’t as rewarding as others.

The second bottle I tested was Tabarrini 2006 Colle Grimaldesco, aged 24 months in oak and 12 months in the bottle before release. This wine had the intense dark colors and a dense taste of blackberry and spices. It warms the palate and surprises a novice with its sheer power. Wine Advocate gave this wine 91 points.

Grape Sense has always focused on value wine. But the least expensive Sagrantino is around $30 and you can easily spend up to $150. So Sagrantino is not for everyone, but something really special to give a try if you see a bottle.

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, writes about wine every other week for 23 Midwestern newspapers. Read his wine blog at: www.howardhewitt.net.

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