In Italy, as in other parts of the wine-blessed world, there is a tendency to link certain regions with certain beloved grapes – thus the Chianti region in Tuscany with its sangiovese, the Veneto with its pinot grigio and all of Sicily with its nero d’avola. The commercial success of these grapes has inspired their plantings all over the wine world. Yet if you want to taste sagrantino, you can’t go looking in your own backyard. You have to travel deep into the heart of Umbria – where St. Francis of Assisi made miracles and Gian Carlo Menotti made music – to a medieval hillside town and the lush vineyards that spread out around it. You have to travel to Montefalco.
We did exactly that recently, as guests of the Consorzio Tutela Vini Montefalco – sure, we could say the “Montefalco wine growers association,” but that would be far less romantic. Staying and even sometimes dining at the lovely Villa Pambuffetti, we traveled out during the days to wineries strewn about the rolling countryside, including one with the coolest name owned by the same family that owns the villa. In the process, we learned a lot about the concept of “light lunch,” usually four courses starting with prosciutto and many local cheeses, plus way too much great wine, and we also enjoyed a dramatic encounter with the sagrantino grape.
For a long time (and in Italy, a “long time” is really long), the marketing types discouraged local winemakers from taking their bottles beyond the near-universal “family consumption.” Every shed or porch or garage around the old stone city of Montefalco seems to house a small-scale wine operation. The problem, said the marketing types, was tannins. Sagrantino was simply “too tannic” for global popularity, even though, of course, all red wines have tannins. Tannins are what make cabernet sauvignon (whether from Napa Valley or Bordeaux!) so wonderful, especially as those tannins soften with age.
Through better winemaking techniques in recent years, however, the old marketing wisdom has been rocked on its heels – as we are here to assure you. Montefalco now makes four different and terrific wines: Montefalco Bianco DOC (no tannins there anyway, since tannins come from the grape skins not used to make white wine); Montefalco Rosso DOC (in which sagrantino takes a backseat to local sangiovese), Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG (yes, it’s 100% our new favorite grape – the additional “G” for guaranteed), and a lush sweet wine we loved called Montefalco Sagrantino Passito DOCG.
In the course of our days around Montefalco, we visited the wineries of Antonelli, Castelbuono, Perticaia and Arnaldo Caprai, each making wines as unique as its family and its history. Yet considering where we were staying, we retain a certain special fondness for Scacciadiavoli – the Pambuffetti family’s place with the name from ancient exorcisms meaning “chase away the devils.” If Montefalco has been able to chase away the tannins, we believe anything is possible.
- 1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 1/4 pounds fresh cherry or small San Marzano tomatoes, halved lengthwise
- 1 pound fresh wide pasta noodles, such as tagliatelle or parpadelle
- Fresh basil sprigs for garnish
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Place a medium sized skillet over medium heat. When the skillet is hot, add the oil. When the oil is warm add the garlic cloves and a few pinches of salt. Cook for 3-4 minutes until the garlic is fragrant but not browned. Add the tomatoes to the garlic and oil and cook, stirring occasionally until the tomatoes begin to break down. Season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook until the tomatoes have released all of their liquid and softened. Taste and adjust seasoning. Keep warm on low heat until ready to serve.
Meanwhile bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the fresh pasta and cook for 3-4 minutes or until al dente. Drain the pasta and set aside. To serve, divide the pasta evenly among 4-6 plates. Place a large spoonful of sauce in the middle of each mound of pasta. Garnish each with a few sprigs of basil. Serve immediately. Serves 4-6