By Frank Cipparone
This is a story of a grape and two winemakers I visited in Montefalco two years ago. Giampaolo Tabarrini and Francesco Botti are advocates for and committed to Sagrantino, the grape that binds them to their native soil.
Sagrantino is, without reservation, my favorite Italian wine. Traditionally made in the sweet passito style, only since the 1980s has it gained recognition as an outstanding dry wine. Not as widely planted or well known as Sangiovese nor as revered as Nebbiolo, to me it’s the most characteristic of its homeland. Sagrantino is tough and resilient, an authentic representative of its paese and people. Like them, it is a wine of contrasts, one that takes time to get to know, an uncompromising grape that forces you to take it on its terms, or as Botti puts it, “ … wonderful and welcoming but hard and reserved at the same time.”
Tabarrini pulls no punches in his assessment of Umbria’s signature grape: “Sagrantino is a great wine. I can easily put it among the five or six best of Italy.” He also notes that people in other regions are realizing their wines can’t age as well as Sagrantino, even though “ … when it’s young it’s surely difficult, but there is a smoothness and depth which makes me think it will evolve like a Barolo from a great producer.”
Spending time with them got me to thinking that maybe it’s true that a wine reflects the personality of the winemaker, an idea I’d long resisted. The two couldn’t be more dissimilar, but they are on the same page in discussing their relationship with wine. Tabarrini says, “My wines and I have the same character, they come from my way of thinking and taste. They mean a lot to me, they are my creatures.” Echoing those thoughts, Botti feels his wines “… must be the expression of my character, of my ideas … ”, which is why he works without an enological consultant. “What the market wants cannot decide in place of me. I interpret what every season offers me.”
Tabarrini is a wiry bundle of kinetic energy, enthusiasm bursting from him like runaway atoms in a reactor. When I met with him, he was eager to show me a work in progress that by now has become the largest cellar in the region, a space he needs for long- term projects fermenting in his restless mind. You get the sense that if he slowed down he wouldn’t know what to do. He admits that he must “… move forward and step up to the next rung of the ladder. This motivates me to push my work to the next level every time.”
A case in point would be taking a chance on Grero, another of the rediscovered grapes that keep popping up and one which Tabarrini decided to experiment with after DNA research proved it to be unique to Umbria. He’s not sure what the outcome will be, only that “ … it will take us somewhere else.” For him it is “ … the natural evolution of winemaking to become a maverick.” That attitude explains him being the first to bottle single vineyard Sagrantino, a concept he considers “ … the most interesting thing we can do in wine. The same grape can be so different from single vineyards, so I think there can be different versions of the truth.”
Mild-mannered, contemplative and scholarly, Botti has a quote from Virgil on his website: “Praise a large estate but cultivate a small one.” The notion that “less is more” accurately describes his Colle del Saraceno cantina. Making only four wines totaling 2,800 cases a year, he sees no need to expand or compete, believing that “ … by staying a small producer I can respect nature and its cycles.”
When asked about his connection to the land, he replies, “I was born among olive trees and vineyards and felt that nature and its fruits had to be in my life. I think the most important thing in making wine is passion and seriousness.” He wants his wines to “ … tell about the land they come from … where they are born, live and grow, the vegetation all around. Only then can you understand them.” You can picture Virgil sharing a bottle with him, praising his small estate, and listening to words of wisdom from a man in touch with his surroundings. “If you listen to nature, every day it teaches you something about life.”
The two men are divergent paths leading to Sagrantino in the image of its makers. Tabarrini’s single vineyard wines are boldly outgoing, balancing finesse and power, Muhammad Ali in a bottle. Botti’s are serious, complex and low key, more a kiss on the cheek than a knockout punch. Savoring their wines validates Tabarrini’s contention that there can be different versions of Sagrantino’s truth. IAH
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