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#FoodFiction: “The Love Song of Montefalco”

#FoodFiction: “The Love Song of Montefalco”

Questo racconto è il risultato della collaborazione tra SapereFood e Umbra Institute. Dopo aver visitato alcune importanti aziende della regione, gli studenti hanno scritto delle storie di fantasia sperimentando il “product placement”, ovvero l’inserimento di un marchio all’interno della narrazione.

by Erin Welty

Inspired by a visit to Milziade Antano Fattoria Colleallodole Winery

This is a true story, and when I say it is as old as the hills, I mean it. It is a love story. It tells of the love between the green, rolling land in and around Montefalco, Umbria and the deep red Sagrantino grapes that grow there. The farmers of Montefalco know the story best – they’ve watched it unfold for centuries. I learned the story in the basement of a farmhouse at Fattoria Colleallodole, a glass of wine in my hand and the smell of fermenting grapes in the air. But of course, I’m getting ahead of myself. This is a story that takes time to tell. Let me start at the beginning.

No one can say for certain whether Sagrantino grapes came to Montefalco from other lands, or if they’ve been there as long as the grass and the dirt. If the grapes were brought to Montefalco from a far-off place like Persia or Greece, as some people suggest, then I’d like to think that the land became itself only once the grapes arrived. Like a long-lost puzzle piece found and fitting at last into its picture, the Sagrantino grapes thrived in Montefalco. The land was made complete in the rightness of the match. All was harmony.

Later, scientists and wine aficionados would name the elements of this flourishing with words like “tannins” and “soil acidity”… “The Sagrantino, particularly intense in tannins and polyphemols, is uniquely compatible with the lime-heavy soils of Montefalco,” they would say. But without these names, without witnesses, without purpose other than its ancient, unbreakable promise of steady care, the land loved the grapes. Cool mountain breezes and the moist clay of the soil silently nourished the vines on hot days. With the patience of a gentle mother, Montefalco turned cold every fall with careful hesitancy, giving the grapes the time they needed for long growth on the vine. The land’s deepest instincts – the movements of the seasons, the air, the soil – found a perfect purpose in the seasonal growth of Sagrantino grapes. The vines’ first green in spring, the new infant grapes of summer, the burst of red ripe fruit in fall, and even the withering vines of winter gave the land of Montefalco a new and beautiful face. 

The farmers who planted the grapes watched with wonder as the face of the land came alive with rows of Sagrantino vines. Through the droughts, floods, fires, and earthquakes of the years to come, the farmers tended the land and the grapes with steady planting, pruning, and harvesting season after season. They learned to leave the grapes to dry before pressing to make a Passito, sweet wine. With the passing of time, the farmers became certain of the love between the land and the grapes. In the stories the farmers told themselves about their home and their work, Montefalco became the only place for the Sagrantino, and the Sagrantino became the precious treasure of their fields.

In time, the Sagrantino vines crept out of the boundaries of fields and farmhouses and found their way into abbeys and monasteries. Priests came to understand the land’s unconditional love for Sagrantino grapes and felt its holiness. The Sagrantino Passito became the blood of Christ in the masses of the chapels dotting each hill town. Their sacramental wine was given a name –“Sagrantino” – meaning “holy.” The sacredness of the wine, the manifestation of love which it had always been, became manifest for the people of Montefalco around the Eucharistic table. With its presence at every christening, wedding, funeral, and evening mass, the Sagrantino wine carried its mark of love to the people of Montefalco.

After many years, there came a time when the face of the land grew weary and downtrodden. There were fewer and fewer farmers to care for the land and its fruit, and those who remained became less and less able to see the love that the land had for the Sagrantino grapes. The great grindstone called the Market wore down the hearts of the farmers until they only desired the grapes that the Market loved…if one could even call it love. The Market loved grapevines with an insatiable jealousy that was so unlike the land’s abundant generosity and care. Soon most of the farmers in Montefalco were abandoning their rows of deep red Sagrantino grapes to grow the grapes that the Market hungered for.

The earth of Montefalco gave the care that it always gave, and the seasons turned with the same slow patience, but the land was incomplete. The hills missed the flourishing Sagrantino vines with an aching heart. Most of the farmers, hungry, tired, and longing for a more comfortable life, walked over the earth without feeling its ache. Only a few remaining Sagrantino vines held fast to their beloved clay and limestone soil with strong roots. The land nourished them with desperation. If these last Sagrantino vines were to break away from me, the land silently asked, what would I be? What is Montefalco without the Sagrantino?

The relentless weight of the Market was unable to sway those who continued to see and taste the love that the land had for the Sagrantino. There were a few farmers in Montefalco who continued to grow their long-sacred grapes. With determination learned from the aggressive boldness of Sagrantino wine and with resilience learned from the steady, generous land, these farmers persisted. The farmers watched the wave of modernity and the weight of the Market creep threateningly close to their ancient livelihood. They worried that by the end of the century, the Sagrantino grapes would be gone from their hills. Still, the farmers pressed on as the land had always pressed on, proceeding in the knowledge their fathers had inherited from the land itself: the Sagrantino grape was something that could not be lost in Montefalco.           

Slowly, guided by near-extinct faith in the rightness of the Sagrantino grape for the Montefalco hills, vineyards returned, little by little, to cultivating the Sagrantino. The love song of Montefalco – that of the land for Sagrantino grapes – started to spread throughout Umbria. It was heard resounding with increasing strength. The other winemakers of Montefalco, longing to make a place for Sagrantino vines in their vineyards again, learned to make a dry Sagrantino wine, a more intense, bold wine than its brother passito, and soon the land was full of Sagrantino vines again. Once again, the land rejoiced. The seasons sang in their changing as the yearly crop of Sagrantino grapes grew from bud to fruit. The farmers knew the land’s joy, recognizing its face from the stories their fathers and grandfathers used to tell about the land and the Sagrantino.  

I said earlier that this is a story that takes time to tell, and I suppose that time is still telling it. The Montefalco hills continue to flourish with Sagrantino vines. New vineyards open; sons return to singing the love song of the land that their fathers have kept and preserved. I would not know the story without one such son, Francesco of Fattoria Colleallodole, who continues his father’s work of winemaking in the hills surrounding Montefalco. He spoke of living out his passion, of utmost respect for the earth, and of loving each bottle like his own child. In these words I heard echoes of the land’s love for the Sagrantino grapes, a love that the farmers had learned to embody with centuries of watching and listening.

I did not fathom the depths of the love myself until my first sip of dark Montefalco Sagrantino in the cozy basement of the Fattoria Colleallodole farmhouse. A complex dance of aromas – leather, berries, tobacco – sang the patience, intensity, and fortitude of the land from which the Sagrantino grows and the farmers who tend to it. This was a grape that was deeply loved. It gave purpose and identity to the green rolling hills and found a perpetual home in return. Probably only the farmers, those constant guardians of the story, are able to fully comprehend this sacred unity between Montefalco and the Sagrantino. But for anyone else open to hearing the song, you will find echoes of it in the smell, taste, and feel of a well-made Sagrantino wine.

In the past thirty years, the world has come to know the Montefalco Sagrantino grape. Sagrantino has come to define the Montefalco region for those who would otherwise have never heard its name. “This is an up and coming wine varietal to watch!” the experts exclaim. They revel at the complexity and value of such a new grape. The land of Montefalco laughs at these words. The farmers smile. With the work of another harvest season finally complete, as the leaves of the Sagrantino vines redden, wither and fall yet again, they remember that the story is as old as the hills.

Umbra Institute

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