By Frank Cipparone
As Christians around the world prepare for the holiest day on the calendar, thoughts turn to family, friends and joyous gatherings to celebrate the Nativity. Throughout Italy, regional festivals and pageants are the occasion for feasting and drinking. And, just as here in America, unless someone at the table is a home winemaker it means figuring out what wines to serve.
The arrival of the winter solstice seems the perfect time to uncork bottles that will not only ward off the chill of evening but warm the soul as well. A trio of full-bodied reds is in order — Sagrantino, Aglianico and Amarone.
There are different versions of how Sagrantino got its name (this is, after all, Italy). Some claim it derives from “sagra” (feast), since it was imbibed on feast days or holidays, which makes it a natural for Christmas. Others say it comes from “sacrestia” (vestry). Both share the same Latin root. What can’t be debated is that Sagrantino has grown around Montefalco in Umbria since the middle ages. Up until the 1970s it was made as a sweet wine in the passito style from air-dried grapes.
Sagrantino is a broad-shouldered, full-bodied wine that can age well. Even though it might be Italy’s most
tannic red, a rustic edge adds to the appeal of the savory blackberry flavors and earthy texture.
The tannins may be softer, and there’s a higher level of acidity than Sagrantino, but Aglianico is no lightweight. Most likely brought by Greek settlers to southern Italy in the pre-Roman era, Aglianico from the Vulture area of Basilicata is dark and brooding, firm and tarry in the mouth. Aromas and flavors of tobacco, cherries, plum and espresso beans leap from the glass. When done right, it’s more a basic, no-holds-barred peasant wine than an example of high toned elegance.
Aglianico is also found in Campania, in the hills near Taurasi and Taburno. Volcanic soils add a smoky coating to a mixture of spicy black cherries, blackberries and pepper. These wines are just a bit lighter and less dense than their neighbors in Lucania. Still, they can be a little rough and tumble when young, which is why the best have some age on them.
Amarone is the most well- known and popular of the three. Unlike the others, it’s not a grape but a style of wine that’s only been around since the mid-1950s. The same grapes that are used for Valpolicella are air-dried for two to three months, during which they lose up to 40 percent of their liquid weight before they are pressed. The result is a fuller concentration of aromas and flavors of jammy fruit, chocolate, brown spices and resin. Amarone fills the mouth with syrupy texture and a nutty sweetness like aged Port due to an increased amount of fruit extraction.
Of the three, Aglianico is the most reasonably priced, followed by Sagrantino. But buyer beware of any that are unusually underpriced. The same goes for Amarone, with older vintages frequently topping out in triple digits. What’s certain is that if you show up at dinner or a party with a bottle or two of these impressive labels it will be a gesture of bella figura guaranteed to make a buon Natale for everyone.