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ALTERNATIVE VARIETIES

V I T I C U LT U R E

Savouring Sagrantino
By Corrina Wright
Oliver’s Taranga, McLaren Vale, South Australia

T

he Oliver’s Taranga journey with
Sagrantino began more than 10
years ago, when bright-eyed and
bushy-tailed Mark Lloyd, from Coriole,
and Chester Osborn, from d’Arenberg,
spent a bit of time in Italy scoping out
some varieties that may have potential in
McLaren Vale. They were inspired to visit
the home of Sagrantino, in Montefalco,
Umbria, by the late great Greg Trott,
of Wirra Wirra, after many evenings of
pizza and Sagrantino di Montefalco at
the iconic Russell’s pizzeria in Willunga.
Oh, to have been at those dinners! But I
digress.
Although they enjoyed the wines
they found in Montefalco immensely,
Mark and Chester had both run out of
plantable land at the time, so requested
we plant some Sagrantino for them to
purchase under contract. At the time,
more than 60% of our 300-acre vineyard
was planted to Shiraz, so Sagrantino was
a significant departure from the norm,
but an exciting journey to embark on.
The variety had been in Australia
for a couple of years. The Chalmers
family brought it in from Italy via their
relationship with the Matura Group,
and had planted it in their Euston
vineyard on the New South Wales/
Victorian border. There was very little
information available on the variety due
to its rarity, even in Italy. In Montefalco,
it had been made into a sweet passito
style wine used in religious ceremonies
for centuries, but in 1992 was granted
DOCG status as a dry red wine. This
resulted in somewhat of a rebirth for the
variety, of which only a small number of
plantings remained. There is now thought
to be close to 300 acres of Sagrantino
vineyards in Montefalco, but they still
only make up around 6% of the grape
production of Umbria.
In 2004, after sourcing the vine
cuttings from Chalmers Nurseries,
we planted the first Sagrantino vines
in our vineyard in McLaren Vale. They
are grafted onto Paulsen rootstock and
are the MAT 1 clone, as selected by the
Matura Group. The soils the vines are
planted on are very shallow, comprising
low water-holding red brown earth over
ironstone and limestone. The soils are
quite tough, lacking nutrients, having
traditionally being used as cropping land. ▶

V 28N 2

SAGRANTINO
By Peter Dry
Viticulture Consultant
The Australian Wine Research Institute
BACKGROUND
Sagrantino (SAH-grahn-TEE-noh) is a very minor variety in Italy that was rescued
from extinction in the 1960s. It is grown in a very small area, around Perugia
(Umbria), to produce Montefalco Sagrantino (granted DOCG status in 1992). There
were just 360ha in Italy in 2000. Sagrantino has been known since the late 19th
century in Montefalco but does not appear to have spread elsewhere in Italy.
The fact that it has very few synonyms (Sagrantino di Montefalco, Sagrantino
Rosso) is perhaps indicative of its restricted range in Europe. It is said to have
been introduced from Greece in the Middle Ages—but there is no DNA data yet
to support this proposition. Historically it was used to produce a sweet wine from
partially-dried grapes. Today Sangrantino is most likely to be used for varietal
red wine—but may be blended with Sangiovese in Montefalco and surrounding
communes. It was imported to Australia by Chalmers Nursery in 1998, and is
now grown in many regions including Murray Darling, Swan Hill, Heathcote, King
Valley, McLaren Vale, Eden Valley and the Granite Belt. There are now more than
14 wine producers. There is also a small area in California.
VITICULTURE
Budburst is mid-season and ripening is mid to late (about one week later than
Shiraz at Swan Hill). Bunches are small to medium, loose to well-filled (with
some clonal variation for the latter). Berries are medium, dark-blue or black with
thick skin. Vigour is low and growth habit is semi-erect. Yield is said to be low and
variable in Italy but moderate yields can be achieved with irrigation in Australia. It
is adapted to a hot, dry climate and has stood up very well to heatwaves in inland
regions in Australia. It also has good tolerance of spring frosts. Bud fertility is
good and spur pruning is most common. Harvest can be fully mechanised but low
shaker speed is required because canes are brittle. It has moderate tolerance of
powdery mildew and Botrytis, but not downy mildew.
WINE
Very high juice polyphenolics results in wines with good structure, high in
colour and tannins. Wines are fruity with a good body and acidity and delicately
perfumed. Descriptors include forest fruits, cherries, mulberries, violets and
vanilla. Ageing potential is very good. Long maceration, e.g. four to five weeks,
with gentle cap management may be used in Italy.

This is an extract from the manual developed for the Research to Practice on
‘Alternative varieties: emerging options for a changing environment’ (Tassie,
L., Dry, P.R. and Essling, M. 2010). For further information on this and other
emerging varieties, contact Marcel Essling (rtp@awri.com.au; tel. 08 8313 6600)
at The Australian Wine Research Institute to arrange the presentation of this
Research to Practice program in your region.

WIN E & VIT IC ULTUR E JO URN AL M A RCH/ APRI L 2013

www. wi n eb iz . co m. a u

53

V I T I C U LT U R E

ALTERNATIVE VARIETIES

Sagrantino grapes in the Oliver’s Taranga vineyard.
The vineyard was shallow ripped prior
to planting with a 2m spacing between
vines and 3.3m between rows. Each vine
has two 2L drippers, and the vines were
sprawled for a year, before establishing
a single-wire, spur-pruned canopy. We
largely based the vine structure on what
has worked for Shiraz in our vineyard for
years. Limited information was available
on the establishment of Sagrantino at the
time, so we ended up going with our gut
feel.
We very quickly discovered that
Sagrantino in our vineyard was very slow
growing, had super short internodes
and was generally extremely sluggish.
Perhaps planting the vines on one of
our toughest soils wasn’t the best idea
after all! The vines also turned out to be
carrying a fairly high viral load. After two
years trying to establish the vines with
very slow results, Don (our viticulturist)
travelled to Montefalco to meet with
growers in the homeland of Sagrantino.
He learned that they were generally
pruning to only one bud, and the vines
were planted at much higher densities
than ours. When discussion turned to the
sluggish growth, Don was informed by a
number of growers to “just be patient!”
While they acknowledged the impact of
the virus, most informed him that the
‘clean’ stocks were not popular with the
local winemakers at all, and warned
against going down this path.

54

www. wi n eb i z . com . au

Eventually the vines established and
produced their tiny first crop in 2007,
giving solid results for both Coriole
and d’Arenberg’s resultant wines.
Unfortunately, the 16-day heatwave of
2008 resulted in the fruit cooking on the
vine, and it was not picked. So, it wasn’t
until 2009 that we had the chance to
experiment with the variety again and,
by this stage, we decided that Oliver’s
Taranga would also have a crack at making
a Sagrantino under our ‘small batch’ label.
A typical bunch of Sagrantino is quite
small, with very small, round, thickskinned berries that are compact within
the bunch. They have the look of Cabernet
berries, but more red-purple in colour,
with a significant bloom on the skin. The
growth of the vine is not vigourous, hence
the canopy is quite sparse and tends
towards yellow-green in colour. In autumn,
the leaves are particularly spectacular,
turning a vibrant, almost fluorescent
red, and becoming the subject of many a
painter’s brush or photographer’s lens! It
is common to see numerous cars pulled
over with people checking out the vineyard
or setting up an easel.
Sagrantino tends to ripen relatively late
in our region, after Cabernet Sauvignon,
but before Petit Verdot. It doesn’t seem to
be particularly susceptible to any of the
mildews or botrytis, though the tightly
packed bunches could cause havoc in
very wet regions. The vines are relatively
WIN E & VITI C ULT URE J OUR N A L M ARC H/AP RI L 20 13

tolerant to heat (apart from 16-day
heatwaves!), and don’t tend to drop leaf.
In terms of water requirement, the vines
seem to be similar to Cabernet Sauvignon,
requiring slightly more than the hardy
Shiraz.
The most striking thing about the
Sagrantino grape is its extraordinary level
of tannin in its skin and its high natural
acidity. This is truly challenging to get
your head around when you first taste the
variety on the vine. It is this high tannin,
high acid character that drives the choices
when turning the fruit into wine.
Now heading towards our sixth
vintage with Sagrantino, we have worked
on a number of trials in the winery.
Everything from traditional fermentation,
to significant extended skin contact, and
many things in-between. We are now
feeling a little more confident with the
management of the tannins, and have
come to a happy place by splitting the
ferment. One portion of Sagrantino is
processed using heading down boards and
not much cap movement in an indigenous
yeast ferment. We then press off using a
basket press at around 1o Baume, popping
the wine straight into old, large format
oak. The other portion is left on skins
for around 40 days before pressing. The
tannins in the extended skin contact parcel
start to gain in generosity, becoming like
a rich 70% cocoa chocolate. Meanwhile,
the pressed off early portion has more
apparent tannins, but the beautiful violet,
floral fragrance is maintained. We don’t
add any tannin or acid to the ferment, and
just let it do its own thing - it is a pretty
hands-off kind of wine! It does need some
time in barrel to allow the tannins to
develop. In Montefalco, there is a minimum
ageing required to meet the DOCG
regulations of 30 months, and the wines
have been known to age for decades. If
you would like to experience some of the
‘real’ thing, I highly recommend wines by
Arnaldo Caprai or Paolo Bea.
It has been very interesting introducing
customers to this wine in our cellar door
and via our distribution networks. There
has been significant interest from the
trade, especially in restaurants and highend specialist bottle shops. The tannin
structure of Sagrantino screams out for
food. Even when we are out on the road
tasting with restaurant and wine shop
buyers, we make sure to bring some slices
of prosciutto or salami, and encourage
them to try the wine with and without food.
Sagrantino is currently very much a hand
sell, but we still believe that the potential
is there to produce an exciting wine, and
will continue to produce small volumes
under our ‘small batch’ range into the
WVJ
future.
V2 8N2


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