Crazy Good Wine in Umbria

Round trip airfare for two to Rome: $1410. Eight nights at an agriturismo near Montefalco: $750. Spending an afternoon with Giampaolo Tabarrini: priceless.

The seeds were planted at Slow Wine Italy’s February trade show in Manhattan, where I met Daniele Sassi, Azienda Tabarrini’s PR and marketing director. He insisted that a planned viaggio di vino in Umbria must include meeting the winery’s head man, adding that his compadre “is a little crazy.”

Tabarrini is crazy all right… like a fox. He’s a dynamo of passion and enthusiasm, bursts of energy flying from him like atoms in a reactor. Proudly showing us the work in progress that will make his cellar the area’s largest, he explains that space is needed for the long-term projects and creative ideas fermenting in his restless mind. He’s the shark who must keep moving or expire, always trying, as he puts it, “to 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.”

Which explains taking a chance on Grero, one of those rediscovered grapes that keep popping up in Italy. A decade ago Tabarrini’s DNA research showed it to be an indigenous varietal and he gave it a shot. “Clearly in Umbria we have unique native grapes that are different from anywhere else,” he adds. “My work is bound to them and to the context of Montefalco.”

The result is Piantagrero, a not-yet-released, 100% varietal stunner he defines as a versatile wine. As Sassi pours from an unlabeled 2015 (one of only a hundred made), I ask Tabarrini where he hopes to go with this oddball grape. “It’s not going to be us taking Grero anywhere in particular, but rather it taking us somewhere new. When the wine is special, it’s the wine that will lead us somewhere.”

Destination unknown, it’s weirdly appealing and geeky. Sassi calls the vibrant reddish-purple color psychedelic, and it certainly resembles a high school lab experiment gone haywire. Unlike most reds, Piantagrero is vigorously fruity and highly acidic, an unusual combo of tingling mouthfeel and savory ripeness. There’s nothing to compare to this quirky brainchild of Montefalco’s excitable boy, who calls it the “natural evolution of traditional winemaking to becoming a maverick.

“My wines and I have the same character,” he continues. “They come from my way of thinking and taste… They mean a lot to me… They are my creatures.”

Grero’s story may be uncertain, but that of Tabarrini’s Sagrantino has been written. A fourth generation winemaker, he was the first in Umbria to bottle single vineyard Sagrantino in 2003. He believes that “the single vineyard concept is absolutely the most interesting thing we can do in wine. Noticing that the same type of grape can be so drastically different when it’s coming from single vineyards makes me think there can be different versions of the truth.”

The truth is that he makes his three expressions of Sagrantino the same way, eliminating the variables to showcase variations in altitude, exposure and, as he points out, especially the soils.

Tabarrini pulls no punches about his flagship grape. “Sagrantino is a great wine. I can easily put it among the five or six best wines of Italy. People in other regions have started to realize the wines can’t age as well… When it’s young, it’s surely difficult, but even a 2010 already has smoothness and depth. This lets me think that bottle will have a great evolution, like a Barolo would from a great producer.”

The Sagrantino we taste validates his single vineyard theory. Colle Grimaldesco is beautiful, the least broad shouldered of the three. a balance of elegance and rich flavors of cherry and blackberry in a firm tannic structure. Colle alla Macchie is the big bad wolf of the trio that blows me away with its muscle and woodsy, tarry depth. Campo alla Cerqua is the bruiser, a wallop of power and finesse, Muhammad Ali in a bottle. Warmth, depth and complexity make it a Sagrantino for veterans of the vine. There’s already a lot going on, but time is on its side. To my mind, Tabarrini’s best.

Afternoon turns into evening as we pass around plates of house-cured charcuterie and homemade bread brought to the table by Tabarrini’s parents. Chatting and drinking with two cool guys. It just doesn’t get any better, at any price.

Top image by Mike Madaio. All others via Tabarrini Facebook.