Marco Caprai has elevated Sagrantino to the top rank of Italian varietals.
For Italy, Arnaldo Caprai is a relatively new wine producer—especially when compared with the centuries of experience of the Antinori, Frescobaldi, or even Biondi-Santi families. Arnaldo Caprai founded this Umbrian winery in 1971, after a long, successful career in the textile industry, with the idea of diversifying his investments and making his own wine as a hobby. As he and his son Marco discovered the potential of their terroir and the indigenous Sagrantino grape, expanding their reach with land purchases and research, their winery became known not only as the best producer in Umbria, but as one of the best in the country.
The green heart of Italy, this area of rolling hills and mountains lays claim to one of the world’s most flavorful, spicy olive oils. Lentils and bread are also local specialties, along with the tartufo nero (black truffle) of Norcia. Cultural tourists visit the ancient towns of Perugia and Assisi, while wine lovers enjoy ancient Umbrian wines such as the dry and nutty or softly sweet white Orvieto, which was served at the medieval papal table, or robust reds like Sagrantino di Montefalco and Torgiano Rosso, both Denominazioni di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), which were favored by the Romans. Grechetto, a native white grape, makes wines with that signature Italian combination of lemon, nutty, and mineral notes. Its red counterpart is Sagrantino, a magnificent variety that yields big, ripe, black-fruited wines of tremendous depth, length, and vigor. Sagrantino is the powerhouse behind the red wines of the Montefalco zone, and “Mr. Sagrantino,” Marco Caprai, is clearly the visionary behind its success.
When Arnaldo Caprai bought the property, it was planted mostly to Merlot, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Barbera, Trebbiano, and Grechetto. According to Marco, “In 1988, I succeeded my father and started to run the winery. I completely changed the approach to wine production there, trying to discover the potential, if there was any, of the native varieties of the area: Sagrantino and Grechetto. The first intuition was to make a bet on the unique, intimate relation between Montefalco and its own beloved Sagrantino.”
Marco went to Milan University to do his research after the local university in Perugia “told me that the project was not interesting, and that I was a crazy visionary. First, we researched the biodiversity of piante madre [mother vines] from all over the Montefalco area for a genetic comparison. We studied different training systems, then began studies on polyphenolics. In 1993, we introduced the grass in the vineyard—inerbimento—to fight against soil erosion and to maintain the natural minerality of the soil. Our result came in 1996, when we bottled our 1993 Sagrantino 25 Anni, the first wine obtained by years of research, and it was a success. If I think about the revaluation of Sagrantino, I can never forget the difficulties at the beginning and the fact that at that time, no one was able to believe in what I saw so clearly in front of me.”
Roger Corder, author of The Red Wine Diet, observes that “the Caprai Montefalco Sagrantino Collepiano is not only rich and powerful, it also has one of the highest procyanidine contents I’ve ever found.” As Marco explains, “With over 5 milligrams per liter of polyphenolics, Sagrantino seems to be the richest kind of grape in the world for tannins, and that plays a very important role if we want to talk about the benefits of drinking a glass of red wine daily. So many studies to uncover a cause for red wine’s effects have focused on its phenolic constituents, particularly resveratrol and the flavonoids. As it turns out, Sagrantino, with its thick skin, is one of the richest grapes in resveratrol.”
Health benefits aside, Marco is fighting to restrict the grape to its Umbrian home. “Most of our varieties have developed for centuries in isolation from each other,” he notes. “Italy is physically broken up by mountain chains and spurs, and you have to remember that not so long ago, every region was firmly separated from each other. Those long centuries during which one region was isolated from the other have produced Italy’s abundance of grape varieties, and the extremely varied nature of Italy’s geography and geology has further made those varieties site-specific.” In his view, Sagrantino, which can be traced back to the Franciscan friars of the Middle Ages, is a case in point. But that important connection with the soil was threatened a few years ago when Tuscany decided to include Sagrantino among its allowed varieties. “I had to put all my strength to the highest level of Italian politics to make them realize that it would have been an unforgivable mistake, not only for the Sagrantino, but for all of the Italian enology,” Marco says. “All our grapes produce great wine only on their own turf and nowhere else. They were putting under big risk the progress that nature made over 2,000 years.”
Sagrantino’s longevity (commonly more than 20 years), its richness in tannins, and its genetic superiority in producing antioxidant polyphenolics are ideal talking points for sommeliers. To make things even more interesting, Marco Caprai has just launched a pilot project for sustainable viticulture with a new certification called “Montefalco Rules,” which will be a guarantee to consumers that vintners are respecting the environment and focusing on the quality of their wines. “This is something all the producers in the entire world, for the planet, should do,” he maintains. I couldn’t agree more.