Sagrantino: A Grape Emerging from Darkness

Adventures with Weird Wine Grapes

There are 1,368 varieties covered in Master of Wine Jancis Robinson's Wine Grapes. Bet you can't try them all.

Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Wine Grapes by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. Bet you can't try them all.


Sagrantino vines in Montefalco in the winter. [Photograph: Montefalco Consortium]

Things got tricky last week.

Monday arrived with the devastating news out of Boston. As a runner with three marathons under my belt, this hit me hard. On Tuesday, the week devolved—not only across the country, but in my personal life: a number of my close friends' relationships and health were spiraling toward disaster, and I found myself mute, overwhelmed and unequipped to help. Then there was the explosion in Texas and all the eerie, unfolding drama on the East Coast.

I sought comfort in three stalwarts of hope: my dog, a recipe for my Italian great grandmother's tomato sugo, and wine.

The wine I pulled out was from a grape called Sagrantino, grown in an area called Montefalco in Italy's Umbria region. To be fair, I opened three of them—because, hey, I had three different bottles on hand and, well... like I said, the week had been trying.

What struck me in reading about Sagrantino was this line in Wine Grapes: "The variety had become almost extinct in the 1960s." Yet here I was with three different bottles at my table, not to mention two others I remembered tasting in the last month. In roughly 50 years, things had turned around completely for Sagrantino, "rescued by Marco Caprai," Wine Grapes explained, "and other local growers who believed in the qualities and potential of this variety."

About those qualities and potential: Sagrantino is one of the most tannic varieties I've ever tasted, with a wild, mouth-drying character (imagine your tongue being coated with fine-grained sandpaper). "When the tannins are well managed," Wine Grapes notes, "the wines are firm but smooth and well suited to oak aging." They also age forever, those tannins holding the other elements—sweet-spicy black cherry and currant, licorice, iodine, cedar, roasted roots and herbs—all upright, in place, unwavering.

I decanted... then double-decanted the wines, trying to mellow them out, since exposure to air tends to open and soften a tightly bound wine. Paired with the rich and meaty sugo, they were still brooding. On day three, I tried the open bottles again. Here, at last, they were attractively agreeable, those jagged edges and fiercely dark fruit faded toward the background while earthy and floral aromas gently smoothed over their edges.

I found this trajectory, along with the Sagrantino's resurrection in the last half a century, wonderfully promising: evidence that rough patches eventually smooth out with time and patience, and that out of the darkness we can catch glimpses of light shining up through the cracks.

2005 Arnaldo Caprai Collepiano Sagrantino di Montefalco The Grape: Sagrantino The Region: Umbria, Italy Retail Price: $50

2005 Di Filippo Sagrantino di Montefalco The Grape: Sagrantino The Region: Umbria, Italy Retail Price: $44

2006 Perticaia Sagrantino di Montefalco The Grape: Sagrantino The Region: Umbria, Italy Retail Price: $48

About the Author: Stevie Stacionis is a wine writer and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. She's currently drinking her way through the 1,368 varieties included in Wine Grapes. Follow her on Twitter @StevieStacionis and check out her snobbery-free wine videos at A Drinks With Friends TV.

Wines provided as samples for review consideration.