Sagrantino, Umbria’s Jewels
How old and how native Sagrantino actually is has always been subject to debate. But there are also numerous testimonies previous to these. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (Naturalis Historia) reminds us that that Itriolan grape was cultivated in the Mevania area (in Roman times Montefalco was part of the Municipality of Bevagna), and in the Piceno area: “Itriola Umbriae Mevanatique et Piceno agro peculiaris est.” Some sources suggest that this grape variety was imported from Asia Minor by followers of St. Francis returning from their missionary trips sometime during the 14th-15th centuries. Other theories about the origins of Sagrantino claim that the grape is native to Spain and that it was the Saracens who first brought it to the area. However, as the Sagrantino variety does not seem to show any similarity to other grape varieties, it can be considered a local grape variety (Commission for the Ampelographic Study of Principal Wine Grape Varieties Cultivated in Italy – Italian Ministry of Agriculture). There is thus no relationship between Sagrantino and other known grape varieties cultivated in Central Italy as well, contrary to what is often believed (back in 1596 Andrea Bacci already identified the ancient Itriola variety with Passerina).
The name can be traced to the Sacraments (from the Latin “Sacer”- Sacred), since the grape was cultivated by monks to produce a raisin wine used for religious rites. It was also the wine that farmers drank on the occasion of the religious feasts and festivals that articulated the life of the time, such as Easter and Christmas.
After almost completely disappearing from Umbrian vineyards in the 1960s, this grape variety was revived thanks to the dedication of a few courageous wine producers, who obtained the D.O.C. label in 1979, followed by the D.O.C.G. label in 1992, putting the official seal to a long and important local tradition. In 1998, the few Sagrantino vines still flourishing within the city walls of Montefalco were labeled and classified. Some of them have been found to date back to between 1700 and 1800. Some of these vines grow in the ancient monasteries of St. Claire and St. Leonard, attesting to the sacred nature and lineage of this wine.
Between 2000 and 2008 Sagrantino production quadrupled, from 666,000 bottles to over 2.5 million bottles in the last harvest with earnings estimated at 60 million Euro. In the past seven years, thirty new wine cellars have been constructed and another two will be ready by the end of this year; while the total surface area of vineyards holding the D.O.C.G. label has grown to five times its original size (from 122 to 660 hectares). The quantity, then, is growing in parallel with a rise in quality, as there has been a new reduction in the yield per hectare, from 8000 to 7000 liters.
The history, the wine, the territory
Montefalco is the symbolic and geographical heart of the Umbrian Valley. Its centrality is evident: From anywhere in the Umbrian Valley if you look up you will see the hill of Montefalco with its splendid view of the Martani mountains, Mount Subasio, the Apennines, and the towns of Spoleto, Trevi, Foligno, Spello and Assisi.
The city is surrounded by twelfth century walls and designed so that all roads lead to the beautiful Municipal Square.
Montefalco is one of the few Italian cities where wine production was practiced even inside the city walls; visiting this city therefore allows you to discover truly unique sites related to wine production and to find traces of the fifteenth century agrarian structure, for example in the frescoes painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in the former Church of St. Francis, now the Civic Museum.
The Historical Archives of the City of Montefalco house numerous documents that attest to the care that the wine makers of antiquity gave to their “fields planted as vineyards” as far back as the fifteenth century local laws began to protect vineyards and wine.
One significant example is the law stating: “Whoever is found carrying unripened or ripened grapes and does not have their own vineyard, either rented or in usufruct, shall be punished as if he had entered someone’s vineyard and taken the grapes”.
Beginning in 1540, a city ordinance established the starting date of the grape harvest. The hilly area that produces Montefalco wine today includes the territory that gives it its name, along with parts of the municipalities of Bevagna, Castel Ritaldi, Giano dell’Umbria and Gualdo Cattaneo.