Staying True to Native Varieties: The Wines of Antonelli San Marco
Antonelli - San Marco Winery
The Azienda Agricola Antonelli San Marco is located a short distance from the town of Montefalco in Italy's Umbria region. Montefalco is the unofficial capital of the Sagrantino DOCG winemaking zone and the gently rolling hills surrounding Montefalco are liberally sprinkled with vineyards and olive groves.
Antonelli San Marco’s 425-acre agricultural estate includes 100 acres of vineyards situated at an elevation of about 1,150 feet above sea level with good southern and western exposure. Ever respectful of tradition, the estate grows a small but select number of native varieties that include Grechetto, Trebbiano, Sangiovese, Montepulciano and Sagrantino. Some Merlot is the only non-native or “international” variety produced on the estate. Antonelli produces about 23,000 cases of wine annually.
Filippo Antonelli has been in charge of the estate since 1986. He is a debonair, courteous and affable Italian that speaks impeccable English. Filippo is also a conscientious caretaker of the land. Both the vineyards and the winery’s cellar have since 2012 been certified organic so no chemicals or artificial fertilizers are used in the vineyards. Organic cultivation requires the producer to more closely monitor the status and health of the vineyard plants to protect against blight and disease but this extra effort translates into better quality grapes and, hence, wines.
Ever mindful of environmental considerations, the multi-level production facility has been designed so that gravity can be used instead of pumps to move wines around the fermentation, maceration and decanting processes. The gravity method not only saves energy but enhances the quality of the wines by minimizing damage to the grape skins during the vinification process.
Filippo Antonelli indicated that their oak barrels are only lightly toasted so as to reduce the oak flavors imparted to the wines. They also used to use chestnut woods for their wine barrels but they found that they imparted too much tannin to the wines so now they instead use the less effusive French and German oak for their barrels. Barriques are also no longer used at Antonelli San Marco.
While Antonelli San Marco produces several varietal wines such as Grechetto and Trebbiano, the estate is best known for its impressive line-up of Sagrantino wines.
Sagrantino is the Umbria region’s major red variety. This indigenous variety has been planted for centuries but it was traditionally used to produce passito-style sweet wines. While a dry red wine made with Sangiovese and some Sagrantino was produced for local consumption it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that a dry red wine made entirely of Sagrantino became available. This dry, full-bodied red wine met with great acclaim and its popularity has only increased over time. In 1992 Montefalco Sagrantino was rewarded with elite DOCG status.
By regulation, Sagrantino di Montefalco must be comprised entirely of Sagrantino and be aged at least 3 years of which a minimum 1 year has to be in oak. It is a dark-hued, robust, full-bodied wine with gorgeous dark-fruit flavors and a good measure of tannins that typically require some additional ageing to soften. Sagrantino wines generally don’t reach full maturity until at least 10-15 years from the harvest date and will often age gracefully in the bottle for 30 years or more.
Most Sagrantino producers also market a wine called Montefalco Rosso which is made primarily with Sangiovese and a small amount (10 to 15 percent) Sagrantino. Although it is an extroverted wine, it is softer and more supple around the edges than those made entirely of Sagrantino. It is also more approachable in that it doesn’t require long ageing and also has the advantage of being considerably less expensive, typically half the price of a Sagrantino DOCG wine. Montefalco Rosso wines have their own DOC appellation.
Last fall my wife and intrepid companion, Julie, and I had the pleasure of touring the Antonelli winery and participating in a guided tasting of the estate’s wines accompanied by special dishes appropriate for each of the wines tasted .Five Antonelli wines are reviewed below. The Contrario was not part of the formal tasting but since I’ve had the pleasure of tasting it previously I included it in the review to present a fuller measure of the estate’s wines.
Antonelli, Grechetto dei Colli Martani 2014 (about $13)
This wine is comprised entirely of Grechetto which is Umbria’s most prominent native white variety. The Grechetto dei Colli Martani was the first certified organic wine produced by Antonelli.
The Grechetto grapes are hand-harvested in late September and fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. The wine is then aged on the fermented skins for 3 months in stainless steel and then spends 3 months in the bottle prior to release for sale.
Ii has a straw-yellow color with a tinge of green and delicate fruity aromas with some floral notes. It is pleasantly fruity with honeysuckle and peach flavors. It is a dry, crisp wine and a perfect accompaniment to seafood appetizers, poultry dishes, soups salads and simple fish dishes.
Antonelli, Contrario 2010 (about $20)
The Contrario is made entirely of Sagrantino grapes but carries an IGT designation. Unlike Sagrantino DOCG wines that require a long ageing regimen in order to soften the variety’s robust tannins, Contrario is vinified in a different way that makes the wine more accessible. Hence the wine's name “Contrario” which translates as “contrary” and is emphasized by the backward-facing “R” in the name on the label.
Rather than long ageing in wood, Contrario is aged for 18 months in a combination of stainless steel tanks and cement vats and an additional 6 months in the bottle. Hence, it is inviting and fresh upon release. Although it can be drunk immediately upon release, it will also continue to age in the bottle for several years.
The result is a wine that exhibits some of Sagrantino’s acclaimed intensity and flavor profile but is considerably more reserved in terms of tannins and rustic overtones than are Sagrantino DOCG wines. The Contrario is rich and structured but also graceful, supple and, well, downright charming.
With good acidity and well-developed red fruit aromas and flavors, this wine is a flavorful companion to a wide range of food dishes - from soups and salads to chicken and red meat dishes.
Antonelli, Montefalco Rosso 2011(about $19)
This is a classic Montefalco Rosso blend of 70 percent Sangiovese and small amounts (15 percent each) of Merlot and Sagrantino.
The Merlot is harvested in early September followed a few weeks later by the Sangiovese and the late-ripening Sagrantino in October. Each varietal is fermented separately on the skins for approximately 3 weeks. The three varietals are then blended and aged in large oak barrels for 12 months after which the wine is clarified and aged in cement vats for an additional 6 months. The wine spends a final 6 months in the bottle prior to release.
It is a ruby red in color and a gentle swishing of the glass releases rich and intense aromas of cherries and red berries with a hint of kitchen spices. It is a medium to full-bodied wine that is generous and mouth filling with opulent fruity flavors. The ‘11 Montefalco Rosso has great structure balanced with soft tannins and Sangiovese’s benchmark fresh acidity and lots of subtle and lingering dark fruit and plum jam flavors on the finish.
In sum, it is a very approachable, enjoyable and less-expensive alternative to the more serious Sagrantino DOCG wines.
Antonelli, Sagrantino di Montefalco 2009 (about $45)
Sagrantino di Montefalco wines are the pride and joy of Umbria and are praised and celebrated throughout Italy. Regulations require that the wines be made entirely of Sagrantino and, as of the 2009 vintage, must be aged at least 36 months of which no less than 12 months must be in oak.
Antonelli’s Sagrantino comes from vineyards located 1,000 to 1,300 feet above sea level with prime southern and southwestern exposure. The grapes are harvested in mid-October and fermented on the grape skins for approximately a month. The wine is then aged in lightly-toasted barrels for 6 months and then transferred to large oak vats for 18 months. The wine is further aged in cement vats for 12 months before being bottled, unfiltered, where it rests for an additional 12 months prior to release. Filippo Antonelli noted that this wine is aged a year longer than required.
This is a complex, elegant wine with dark cherry and blackberry flavors interlaced with a touch of kitchen spices. It is a plump, full-bodied and seductive wine with an intriguing complexity and a distinctive sense of place. While it has firm tannins and good depth it is not as big, brooding and gravitas-laden as some other Sagrantino wines with imposing tannins that can take years to tame. Antonelli’s ’09 Sagrantino, by contrast, is ready to drink now, preferably with savory meat dishes, hard cheeses or by itself for that matter. But if you can check the urge to consume it now and instead lay it away in your cellar it will continue to improve with time.
Antonelli, Montefalco Sagrantino Passito 2008 (about $41 for 500 ml bottle)
This is a sweet, dessert-style wine made from semi-dried grapes. In centuries past, the passito version was the traditional interpretation of Sagrantino wine and it wasn’t until the late 20th century that the first dry or non-sweet Sagrantino wine actually appeared on the market.
Today, the Montefalco Sagrantino Passito must be aged for at least 30 months before release and have a minimum alcohol content of 14.5 percent.
Antonelli’s Sagrantino Passito is made exclusively of hand-selected Sagrantino grapes with only the finest bunches selected for the appassimento process. The selected bunches are laid in single layers in special crates where they are left to dry. As the grapes dry they lose water, shrivel and become full of concentrated sugars and flavors.
After two months the grapes undergo fermentation on the grape skins for about 10 days after which the wine is aged in large oak barrels for 12 months. The wine is further aged in glass-lined cement vats for 18 months, then bottled where it spends an additional 12 months resting prior to release for sale.
This sweet red dessert wine fairly bursts with cherry and jammy dark fruit aromas interlaced with notes of spices and citrus peel. It has prominent dried fruit flavors, especially fig and prune, accented with touch of balsamico and aromatic herbs. It has a pleasurable full and velvety mouth feel with the salient sweetness balanced by vibrant acidity and soft tannins. It adds a very pleasant and civilized touch at the end of a grand meal.
This wine should be enjoyed with simple and not-too-sweet desserts such as fruit tarts, biscotti or crumb cakes. Or it is a pleasure to drink by itself or perhaps share with a small group of appreciative friends. Filippo considers it “the ultimate meditation wine.”
April 18, 2016
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