By Robert Sterling Scott, host of WineLineRadio on Overseas Radio
A chard of aged Picorino cheese is dabbed with a dollop of homemade apricot jam. What seems like an odd combination is perfection when tasted with a sip of Sagrantino di Montefalco wine while overlooking pristine vineyards heavy with fruit waiting to be picked for the next vintage.
My wife, Mary, and I have been searching for the ultimate pairing since our arrival in Umbria a few days ago. Have we have found it? Why are we doing this and how did our search begin?
It all started with an email to the Villa Pambuffetti in the Commune of Montefalco, an ancient walled town known as “the balcony of Umbria” for its elevated placement overlooking the verdant valley stretching toward Lake Trasimeno and Tuscany to the west.
The result of that email was a commission to create a portfolio of artwork for the Villa Pambuffetti that would capture the Umbrian experience and illustrate the ambiance of the villa, the town of Montefalco and the surrounding countryside.
If I was to be able to create art that would reflect that experience I would need to know more about Umbria and the Commune of Montefalco.
We began by researching the history, the art, the cuisine and regional events. To our delight, we discovered that the annual wine festival, Settimana Enologica – Wine Week, was to be held in Montefalco during our stay. Perfect! We hit pay dirt because art, wine and food are personal passions of ours.
Research on the festival, the indigenous grapes and the local wine producers kept yielding the term “Sagrantino.” My wine cellar holds a good number of Italian varietal reds but, I was totally unfamiliar with the Sagrantino grape. And, I discovered, the festival is dedicated to the latest release of Sagrantino based wines.
They produce a dense, dark wine of great power and structure called Sangantino di Montefalco. It is revered throughout Umbria yet, little known throughout the wine drinking world. Italian wine professionals consider Sagrantino di Montefalco to be a wine of great stature and potential, equal to the well known wines of neighboring, Tuscany. It has recently been granted the coveted DOCG status – reserved for the best regional Italian wines.
The Sagrantino grape is also blended with Sangiovese and Merlot to make Montefalco Rosso, a more immediately approachable red wine. Also, the grapes can be laid on racks to dry before being pressed. This process, which is similar to the production of Amarone in the Veneto region, produces a sweet dessert wine of high alcohol content named Passito.
The Villa Pambuffetti commission was now combined with the opportunity to attend a festival devoted to a wine grape that was unknown to us. That started me thinking about the possibility of developing a theme for my artwork revolving around the pairing of wine and art. Naturally, the local cuisine would need to be included.
Off we went to Italy and, after a few days in Naples, we drove to Montefalco. It was like going from summer into autumn in a short span of four hours. The salty sea air had been replaced by the clean crisp smell of pine woods.
The villa is set in the middle of a lovely park. It features a gourmet restaurant, notable cooking school and a Sommelier on staff. There is a lovely veranda for alfresco dining. The rooms are comfortable. The baths are modern and the water hot. To have found such an oasis of style and hospitality in the midst of the rural setting of Montefalco was much more than we expected.
The cool night air was perfect for alfresco dining. An sparkling aperitif arrived as we sat down. Mario, the Sommelier, suggests, decants and serves us a bottle of Montefalco Rosso from Rocca di Fabbri, a well known local producer.
It is our first taste of a Sagrantino based wine from Montefalco. We are impressed. Dinner is a delight.
For our first night at the villa, we have been given the “Tower Room” with panoramic windows. We awake to a view of mist rising from the valley floor. It is breathtaking and I record the event with a series of photographs.
After a breakfast of sweet breads, Umbrian ham, deep yellow yoked eggs, cappuccino and espresso we descend into the basement kitchen of the Villa Pambuffetti and meet another other couple for a cooking class that lasts for 3 hours. It is hard work and very educational. It is also very rewarding as we get to lunch on our efforts with Umbrian wines.
So far, the scenery, food and wine have measured up to our expectations. The afternoon is spent exploring Montefalco with our new found friends from cooking class. Down one of those narrow side streets we find a local restaurant that we will return to for dinner.
The first plate – primi piatti – is risotto al Sagrantino. It’s a unique local version of Italy’s famous rice dish that is infused with Sagrantino wine and takes on a deep reddish purple hue. Delicious. The risotto is followed by veal, pork and lamb and shared desserts of tiramisu and creme of caramel. The evening’s wine is a Montefalco Rosso from Ruggeri.
The morning light is perfect so, I grab my cameras and head out to document the villa grounds, surrounding landscape and the tree-lined walk to Montefalco. Inside the walls, Piazza del Comune is quiet. A lone lady and her dog walk slowly by as I take pictures of an umbrella covered vegetable stand next to an Enoteca.
I had the good fortune to be able to set several meetings with Sagrantino wine producers. The first of which is with representatives from Luigi Cecchi & Sons. I hurry back to the villa. I don’t want to be late for the meeting.
Much to our surprise, the winery representative was Andrea Cecchi himself, along with assistant, Giulia Dirindell. We strike up an immediate, friendly relationship and set off for lunch at one of Andrea’s favorite restaurants in the town of Bevagna, a few miles away.
During lunch, Andrea explains, “We love Italian grapes and the variations in the lands they come from. Because of that, we purchased land in this area in 1998.” We are tasting 3 of Cecchi’s Tuscan wines with the antipasto and pasta courses. All of which are excellent. Andrea continues, “The relationship between grape and land is vital for the production of top wines and Sagrantino has the potential for excellence.” That relationship is a very real pairing, I thought.
We finish lunch and Andrea insists we go back to Montefalco for a vertical tasting of “Uno”, their 100% Sagrantino di Montefalco from Tenuta Alzatura.
We taste 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, and the newly released 2003. “2002 was a difficult year. We did not release that vintage and only reserved a thousand bottles for our library,” explains Andrea. The younger wines have a strong tannin load in the mouth. As we progress to older vintages, the tannin takes on a velvety softness and hints of blackberries. Plums, vanilla, leather and coffee begin to come to the forefront. “Now, you are beginning to understand Sagrantino”, exclaims Andrea. Indeed, he is right.
Wine Week is off to a fast start. The day is spent tasting from the plentiful selections until our senses are overloaded and we walk back to the villa for a very light dinner with no wine. Mouro, Allessandra Pambuffetti’s husband, comes by and insists that we have to meet his winemaker friend, Giampaolo Tabarrini. Giampaolo drives up a few minutes later and we are introduced. He is young, bright and excited about giving a new life to his grandfather’s winery. He will pick us up tomorrow morning for a tour.
We arrive at a new modern winery built on the latest technologies. It even has a computerized weather station that can signal critical changes that effect vineyard activity and adjust sensors that keep the aging room at a specific temperature. That may be well and good but, how are his wines?
We taste barrel samples from several vintages… impressive. Papa Tabarrini joins us. He bears a weathered golden tan from spending most of his time with the grapes and, he speaks no english. We all go upstairs for a vertical tasting of 1998 to 2003 Sagrantino di Montefalco.
Again, the older the wine, the softer and more complex it is on the palate. There is a consistency to the vintages yet, each is different… a reflection of Giampaolo’s ability to understand the weather and its effect on the annual yield of the vines. Papa really likes the 2000, Mary the 1998. Me, I like them all.
Suddenly, Papa bolts from the room and returns with a special Picorino cheese made by a local shepherd and aged in a wrapping of lard and ashes. Giampaolo opens a jar of his mother’s apricot jam. We dab it on the cheese and take a bite, followed by a sip of Sagrantino. The magic of the moment is marvelous. This could be the ultimate pairing.
In a world filled with complexity, sometimes, the simple things become the benchmark against which we have the ability to measure life’s experiences.
We have been seduced by Umbria’s beauty, history, wine, art, food and people. It remains to be seen if I can capture these ingredients in my art and, if wines from the Sagrantino grape will become the next “new wave” on the international wine scene. Forces seem to be in place to try and make that happen.
We return to Villa Pambuffetti and, with a heavy heart, pack to return home. However, we have been invited back to Settimana Enological for 2007 and to spend some time with the Cecchi wine family in Tuscany. We can’t wait, could you?