Sunday, September 25, 2011

Montefalco, Umbria and Paolo Bea

Montefalco, Umbria and Paolo Bea

     A few weeks ago Ettore and I went to Umbria for three days to get more acquainted with the wine and towns of Umbria.  We spent a day in Orvieto, which was fabulous, and then the next day we visited Montefalco, where the wonderful Sagrantino di Montefalco is made.  Sagrantino could possibly be the most tannic grape that I know of, though if you are aware of a more naturally tannic grape, please let me know about it.  We decided to go to Montefalco because we made an appointment at Azienda Agricola Paolo Bea, which are at the forefront of the natural wine making movement in central Italy.  Out appointment was for 3p.m. so we decided to stop by the actual town of Montefalco for a walk around and lunch.  I made a point to eat as many black Umbrian truffles as possible and the lunch we had in Montefalco did not disappoint.  It was, in fact, one of the best meals of my life.  Umbria is called Italy’s “Green Heart” for a reason.  At the table one eats the finest and freshest of local ingredients.  It really is a farm fresh kitchen in Umbria.  September black truffles in Umbria aren’t overly aromatic, but they are very earthy and convey a certain Umbrian essence that is a combination of sun, extensive forests, hills and farming. 

    When we arrived at Montefalco, we happened upon a wine event held by Bibenda and the city of Montefalco called Enologica Montefalco.  It is an annual three day event where the “best” wine producers of Montefalco have a tasting area and there are also arts shows, music and a sort of medieval faire type of parade to celebrate Montefalco’s roots in the Middle Ages.  While we were there we visited an old monastery that had been converted into a museum and in the underground they had their ancient cantina where they made wine.   It was interesting to see what type of tools these old monks used and either how far away and modernized winemakers today are or how similar. 
 The most wonderful Farro Salad I have had in my LIFE!

Crostini Misti (one with black truffles!)

Crostinii of roasted peach and mustard with almonds.  DIVINE!

Me with a glass of Montefalco Rosso

Umbricelli with Black Truffles

   After lunch at La Alchimista and after our visit to the medieval cantina (wine cellar) we decided to spend an hour and half at the tasting to get an idea of what Montefalco wines are about.  We were fortunate that so many producers were in one place so we could evaluate the wines and discover what the tools of the winemakers are and what parts of the wines actually come from the land and the grape.  Montefalco gives her name to one D.O.C.G wine, Montefalco Sagrantino (dry or passito) and one D.O.C. Montefalco Rosso.  There are also a variety of other wines made from different grapes such as Grecchetto, Merlot, and Sangiovese. 
       We tasted wine from Agricola Castelgrosso, Antonelli, Arnaldo Caprai, Azienda Agraria Perticaia, Fongoli, Lungarotti, Tiburzi, Colpetrone, Scacciadiavoli, and a few more.  At this event the men and women presenting the wine were all Sommeliers from AIS, the organization I was certified through, but I have to admit, it was a bit of a disappointment.  I like to meet the winemakers, the farmers, the people who actually work with the grapes, not a person who has memorized facts and figures and couldn’t answer questions about yeasts used or clarification.  Some of the winemakers used so much oak; I couldn’t taste beyond the vanilla alcohol making my head swirl.  Headache?  Yes.  Some used combinations of steel and wood with natural yeasts and it was obvious which winemakers were being true to tradition, which were making wines for the nameless palate, and which were being true to tradition but still using somewhat modern techniques that were very surprising and pleasing.  I enjoyed the wines made from Sagrantino that were complex, with strong but silky tannins, lots of prunes, and lots of overall balance between the tannin, acid, and alcohol.  The one producer that stood out for us was Colepetrone.  The Sagrantino di Montefalco they had was very good and surprisingly aged for 12 months small barriques.  Perhaps that is softened after 18 months of bottle age.  Surprising indeed.  Their vineyards are planted in a clay lime soil and 350m above sea level.  It had a lovely inky and intense ruby red hue, concentrated aromas of prunes, cherries, black pepper, and underneath hints of smokiness, spices, and coffee.  I did not much enjoy the Gold Riserva, however.  Overall it was a good introduction/overview to Montefalco wines, but one producer I drove all the way up to Montefalco to visit was not at this event, Paolo Bea.  I doubt that the wines of Paolo Bea had a place at a more conventional wine event like the 32nd Montefalco Enologica.  We would have to leave town to visit this cantina.  And I promise, it was well worth it.  

     At 3p.m we arrive at Paolo Bea and were slightly confused.  It wasn’t anything like the sterile cantine I have visited in the past, it was like a farm house, but, it was also a work in progress.  They had an architect rebuilding the cantina to get the best results for the wine; everything was being meticulously selected from depth of cellar, to type of stone (lots of travertine).  The man who guided us, Sergio, was the manager, but we did manage to meet Paolo Bea, who was an older man of very little pretense.  In fact, it was a little surprising to meet this man considering how truly radical his wines are.  Well, as Elizabeth's comment below states, it is Gianpiero, Paolo's son,  who is the driving force behind this radical vision.   We went through every step of the wine making process at Paolo Bea.  It was fascinating to see the past meet the present in terms of ideas but also tools.  They have a very deep philosophy rooted in natural and authentic winemaking, using native yeasts, manual harvesting and no or little filtration.  The results are that we taste wines that are unique and flavorful, characteristicly Umbrian.  After about an hour and half touring the facilities we came to the tasting room which was really just a rustic old table next to some barrels that were storing their passito.  We tasted about 8 different wines but these are the ones that were the most striking for us.  The wines we tasted are as follows:
·         Santa Chiara-Bianco Umbria IGT 2008-20% Grecchetto, 20%Malvasia, 20%Sauvignon, 20%Garganega, and 20%Chardonnay.  13.5% Fermented for 20 days with the skins, without controlling the temperature, bottled without filtration or clarification.  Use of ambient yeasts.  So yes, it was not brilliant or clear, it had a slight oxidation in fact, but the color was what was so striking.  With skin fermentation the color of an otherwise simple white wine became near golden, I was expecting a much sweeter wine, but this was off dry, had a good acidity and fruits. 
·         Arboreus-Vino Bianco 2008-Made from 100% Trebbiano Spoletino, with natural processes, and from a later harvest, as is done in Umbria.  It is fermented for 28 days with the skins, and then aged for 209 days before bottling.  The fermentation is completely natural, not forced and used of only indigenous yeasts from the vineyards and cellar.  No temperature control, no added sulfites or any other substances.  Bottled without clarification or filtration.  This wine utterly changed my life.  Same grapes as the Santa Chiara, though I believe more Grecchetto.  It was LUSCIOUS.  I mean just pure nectar, but still off dry, fresh.  Fruits, pears, bread, citrus, flowers, complexity I never thought possible in an Italian white wine.  On the palate, explosions of flavors, slight maderization, similar to a good quality Madeira, and THAT COLOR, intense golden yellow, no hint at all of additives to make the color more brilliant.  I felt like I tasted the hills, it was strongly mineral; it tasted like the heat of the Umbrian summer when the grapes are getting the ripest.  Ahhh, what can I say, this wine was a true wine moment for me, a true epiphany! For the first time I knew what an Umbrian flavor was.  There was something mushroom, sunny, nothing green, pure summer and fall.  Rich and intense long-lasting fruity and mineral finish. 
·         Montefalco Rosso Vigna San Valentino 2005 DOC-2005 was a year of scarce rainfall, which produced very concentrated grapes and an unforgettable year.  This Montefalco Rosso consists of 70% Sangiovese, 15%Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and 15% Sagrantino.  Picked during the waning moon, without additives and use all natural processes including ambient yeasts, not filtered or clarified also there is some sediment.  This wine was slightly too bitter for me and I felt that the tannins were very hard and were not softened despite bottle aging.  However it was full of prunes and cherries, spicy tones, earthy rust, and a hint of fennel and the end that I suspect came from the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.  Long bitter finish.  Only 8,865 bottles were made. 
·         Montefalco Rosso Riserva Pipparello 2005 DOC-60% Sangiovese, 15% Sagrantino, and 25% Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.  Named after the Vineyard.  The fermentation lasted 42 days in large barrels aged for 24 months in oak (Slovenian), then in the bottle for another 14 months. All made using ambient yeasts, no filtration and no additives.   A truly OUTSTANDING wine.   Ruby red.  Though very tannic, the tannins were soft and velvety, no doubt this was due to age and contact with the Slavonian oak.  It was at first fruity, with cherry and raisin, but then a floral one to a deep minerality.  Finally, herbs and spices such as anise or fennel and juniper.  Overall a very complex nose that just kept on giving more with every swirl.  It was full bodied, well rounded tannin, weighty and fruity on the palate.  All well balanced with a very nice freshness.  Great mineral and berry finish.  Great aging potential.   
·         Montefalco Sagrantino (Sagrantino di Montefalco) Secco Vigna Pagliaro DOCG 2005-100% Sagrantino.   All hand harvested from vines grown in clay soil.  Fermentation with the skins from which those rich tannins and colors are harvested from.  46 days of fermentation, then 12 months of aging in steel, 24 months in large Slavonian oak barrels and 9 months in the bottle.  Rich ruby red, very concentrated nose with raisins, figs, dark berries, sweet vanilla, jams, with an undertone of rusty minerality and spice.  Not explicitly complex but very pleasant and expressive of Sagrantino.  Robust, very tannic though not harsh or sandy at all, heavy and rounded, warm with a good fresh backbone, all well balanced though needs a lot more time in the bottle.  It could use anywhere from 5 to 15 years of bottle aging to settle the tannins down and revel its true flavors, and it definitely has the potential to age gracefully.  Very long velvety berry finish.  A fantastic expression of a dry Sagrantino.  I asked Sergio what this would pair with, and he told me a crostata of prunes!   
·         Montefalco Sagrantino Passito DOCG- 100% Sagrantino harvested by hand and then placed on mats for drying for 78 days.  It is then fermented with indigenous yeasts for 40 days then aged in steel for 50 months which is changed annually to decant the wine and then aged for 12 months in the bottles.  A very time consuming process made with the passion of Paolo Bea.  I have to admit that I am usually not a great lover of Sagrantino passito, but this wine was so striking I may have converted.  It is an inky dark garnet red with honey and raisin aromas as well as dark fruits, like blackberries or forest fruits, lightly mineral and balsamic as well.  On the palate a rich contrast of sweet and tannic, berries and green peppers, deeply mineral and with a very long fruity finish.  Very original and authentic.  
The Visit:
Steel Fermentation tanks
Barrel Aging

The Tasting!

"Tasting Room"

Barrels and Bottles

Waiting for the Gold!

Arboreus-Vino Bianco 2008 

Montefalco Rosso Riserva Pipparello 2005 DOC

I was deeply moved by the attention to detail and the obvious love and passion these people put into the wine making.  I enjoyed their radical philosophy that edged them out of Bibenda events, but all the more likely to see them at the fringe festivals that focus on more radical wine making philosophies.  Slow. Traditional. Natural. Terroir.  Expressive.  Visiting Montefalco was a magnificent experience for me as an oenophile.  I had one of the best meals of my life in town, I was lucky and experienced and tasted a variety of local wines, and I really appreciated the slow travel slow food quality the town possesses.  They have made a point to celebrate their heritage in both food and wine and also in their history and culture.  A celebration of all four that proves beyond a doubt that Italy is more than museums or just food, nor is it just wine and history, or even the variety of natural beauty.  It is a combination of all of these, Italy is a diverse place of beauty that any oenophile, gourmand, naturalist, historian, artist, or travelling could spend years trying to unfold.  I feel that I will never come to the core.  I hope I can share this on a tour to Montefalco or Umbria, or even tasting wine on a wine tour in Rome or in an evening shared with friends.  Umbria, Montefalco and Sagrantino have all been imprinted in my heart.