Sometimes wine grapes bring together places and cultures. In this age when vines have traveled the globe, I suppose it’s not so strange to have an Italian grape grown in California made into wine by a winery with a Spanish Name.
We opened a bottle of Sagrantino from Ser the other night. Made by Nicole Walsh, the grapes for this wine come from the Siletto Vineyard in San Benito County.
But since I’ve been digging into Italian wines lately, let’s start with some history on Sagrantino.
Sagrantino from Umbria
Umbria. I love this word! Umbria is where you are most likely to find the Sagrantino grape, and it is likely native to this landlocked region in north-central Italy.
This grape was used for communion wine in the 1500s, and the name may come from “sacrestia,” which means “sacramental wine.”
Grown near the town of Montefalco, this vine has small bunches with small berries with thick skins. These thick skins account for why it was made into a passito wine for so long. The thick skins protect the sugar content as they dry.
In the 1960s, this grape all but disappeared as sweet wines fell out of favor. A few producers began making and marketing a dry version of the wine.
Today you find Sagrantino made in two styles a passito (sweet wine) called Montefalco Passioto and a dry style called Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG. This Passito style was the only style of Sagrantino until the late 1970s. Now the passito style is rare and hard to find.
Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG
When those winemakers began making the dry style of this wine, it was good! Sagrantino di Montefalco became a DOCG in 1992. The regulations require that the wine be 100% Sagrantino aged for 30 months, and at least 12 of those months must be in wood. Typically the wood is older neutral oak so as not to increase the already high tannins in the wine.
Notes in this wine can typically include plum, violets, black cherry, blackberry, black olive, anise, black tea, tobacco, leather, clove, bitter chocolate, coffee, Cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper. Typically Sagrantino is full-bodied and tannic.
The production of these wines is limited, so they can be pricey. Expect to spend $35 and up for a bottle.
Sagrantino outside of Italy
Around the globe, you will find Sagrantino grown in Australia, Argentina, and the US. In the US, you will find it in California, Washington, and scattered vineyards further afield in Texas and North Carolina.
The wine we tasted came from Siletto Family Vineyards in San Benito County. The vineyards sit between 500-720 feet elevation on Alluvial terraces of gravelly loam.
John Siletto now runs the vineyard. The Siletto history comes from the Piemonte region of Italy. John’s father immigrated from Italy and spent time in the Navy before working at Almaden Vineyards, eventually becoming their President. His father bought the smallest of the Almaden properties when Almaden was sold. John joined him in 1988, and they expanded their properties. Today they farm 125 acres with 34 varieties and are 100% organic.
They sell their fruit to multiple winemakers, including Nicole Walsh of Ser.
Nicole is a surfer and a winemaker. She began in Northern Michigan. Of course, they didn’t have a degree in viticulture there, so she created her own curriculum at Michigan State University.
In 2001 she began working at Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz with Randal Grahm, with whom she still works. She spent a few years in New Zealand and returned to start “Ser,” which is all about coastal wines.
The name means “to express origin,” and I can’t think of a better name for a winery! She says
“I was inspired for the name, Ser, after reading an article by Andrew Jefford, ‘Wine and Astonishment’. It was in that writing that the notion of the ‘Being’ of wine truly resonated with me. Being is different than existing. It is true, wine exists; you can touch it, smell it, drink it. To quote Jefford, “Being, by contrast, is the ‘isness’ inside”; in other words, the natural essence of the grapes unique to each specific growing area. Ser Winery
The story behind the Ser Sagrantino
We have been members of the Bonny Doon wine club for a while. Of course, Randall sold the winery in 2020 to WarRoom Ventures but is still involved as winemaker and a partner. So we tagged along for as the DEWN club (Distinctive Esoteric Wine Network), re-invented itself. This is where Randall and Nicole collaborate with wines made together and on their own. In the first shipment, we received this 2020 Sagrantino from Ser. Nicole only made 55 cases of this wine, and you won’t find it on her website.
I was able to do a virtual tasting with Randall and Nicole the other night, and she shared the story of the Sagrantino.
Siletto vineyard is known for growing some oddball grapes. Those are grapes that the winemakers we love are drawn to. Nicole was out there one year near harvest, searching for some fruit. It was after a heatwave, and grapes everywhere were suffering, berries not ripening properly and flavors muted. She came across the Sagrantino, and it was a revelation, filled with flavor. She had it analyzed and settled on getting some of that fruit. “It withstood the heatwave without flinching,” that was the kind of grape that would take us through these crazy climate days. She planned to get more in the future and talked Siletto into planting more.
2020 Ser Sagrantino
100% Sagrantino, the grapes are destemmed and do a native yeast ferment. It ages 20 months in neutral oak before bottling.
These come from the 29-acre Siletto vineyard. Located on south facing slopes with a wide range of elevation the vineyard sits on alluvial terraces carved out by Tres Pinos Creek. They have two blocks of Sagranito totaling less than 2 acres with vines that are around 25 years old.
Michael pulled out this bottle one night. We paired it with a quiet evening on the couch.
I found this wine to be young, vibrant, and rich. I remember telling Michael that “it tastes purple,” and indeed, it is dark in the glass, with rich anthocyanins (the thing that gives grapes their color.). Michael noted mulberry that he remembered from his grandparent’s farm as a child. This wine was juicy with fruit but also had earthy notes underneath. My notes say “fine velvet with a satin lining,” so the tannins while there, smoothed out quickly.
If we had planned, well, then I would not have opened it! This wine will age through 2030! They suggest pairing it with high-fat and umami dishes, sausage, and mushrooms. (If only I had another bottle).
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Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine and WSET 3 Certified. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.