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Umbrian Montefalco

Jo Goodman on buffalo-spotting, devil-chasing, and wild and woolly sagrantino grape-tasting at Scacciadiavoli, our favourite Montefalco producer

Our journey westwards across Italy's spine from Abruzzo to the landlocked region of Umbria wasn't as straight forward as we had hoped (read about Part I of our journey here). On leaving Abruzzo we were told not to be deceived by the sunshine, and that the route we had planned to take was actually snow bound. As we were without snow chains, we were advised to take the main motorway across to Rome and then head north-east from there. Once again, springtime in Italy was not what I had expected!

Scacciadiavoli in beautiful Umbria - photo by Christ Filippi Scacciadiavoli in beautiful Umbria - photo by Christ Filippi

Buffalo in the snow

Winding our way through the Apennines we encountered almost blizzard-like conditions and were grateful for the advice to take this route. Just as the outskirts of Rome came into view, Sebastian suddenly shouted out 'buffalo!' (almost making us crash the car!) Sure enough, emerging out of the sleety gloom in fields alongside the motorway was a herd of buffalo. Sebastian was delighted. He said that in all the years that he has been visiting Italy he had never seen a single buffalo and had started to believe that Italy's famous mozzarella di buffala might just actually be an elaborate PR stunt!

Well here we were proved wrong, whizzing along on the motorway in the snow and sleet on the outskirts of Rome. The beasts looked surreal and majestic, even in this setting and, I don't know if it was the cold or if they were a special breed, but they almost looked pale grey-blue in colour, not the dark-pelted creatures that I had imagined. I wonder how many points you get for spotting these in the 'I-Spy on a car journey' books?!

Remote, beautiful Umbria

Once we'd left the motorway and had got into Umbria proper, I was stunned by the beauty of the countryside. Umbria is often a better bet than Tuscany for holidays, Sebastian told me, a bit more off-the-beaten track and less touristy. Of course later in the year the region would be hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons after the terrible earthquakes that struck the region. In fact our Montefalco producers, Scacciadiavoli, where we were headed, had been very close to the affected area. Though they themselves were unscathed, they were very upset and shaken, literally, by the quakes.

Having seen their incredibly solid 19th-century winery, I suspected it could withstand practically anything. Indeed, as this area is prone to quakes, no doubt it has been shaken about quite a lot in its time. In fact, we learned later that they did receive funds to restore the cellars in 1996 after quake damage.

The story behind the estate's fabulous name

Liu and her cousin Jacopo are the 4th generation of their family now looking after the property Liu and her cousin Jacopo are the 4th generation of their family now looking after the property

Its wonderful-sounding name – Scacciadiavoli (ska-tcha-DYAH-vo-li) means 'chase the devil' and came about because of a reported incidence of exorcism in this area in the 18th century. A young woman was said to be possessed by the devil and made to drink the local red wine which had the desired effect of banishing the devil. The story became famous and the village behind the estate become known as Scacciadiavoli, the winery later adopting the name too. Doesn't sound like a great advert for the wine though, does it?!

Though steeped in history, this is a dynamic winery, now in the hands of the equally wonderful-sounding Pambuffetti family. They are specialists in the wines of Montefalco based mainly on the wild and woolly sagrantino grape; a variety that has the dubious honour of being Italy's (maybe the world's) most tannic! Apparently the variety has the appearance of a wild grape with small berries and very thick skins and a kind of woolly white bloom on the skin. It's unique to this area and stories abound about how it came to be here.

We are met by Liù Pambuffetti, fourth generation of her family now running the estate alongside her cousins. She is smiley and chatty, telling us about the jazz bar that she and her American musician boyfriend have opened in the nearby town and how UK indie-folk band, The Leisure Society, had asked if they could record an album at the winery. It all seems rather incongruous!

A fascinating history

As we are taken on a tour of the winery, Liù fills us in on its history. Her family have been here since 1954, but the winery was established in 1884 (10 years after The Wine Society). It was the grand project of wealthy Roman Prince Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi whose idea it was to establish wine production on an almost industrial scale and to create an estate that was self-sufficient. 'He was really ahead of his time,' Liù says, 'he had really thought things through and designed the building to produce wine on a huge scale.'

The property still consists of 130 hectares but now just 32 are devoted to vines. The large winery is now used for ageing the wines (the tough sagrantino grape needs time!) and a modern four-storey gravity-fed winery was built to complement the historic cellars in 2000.

19th-century ingenuity

Lui points out initials of winery founder Prince Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi Lui points out initials of winery founder Prince Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi

As we tour the cellars, there are signs of Prince Ugo's ingenuity everywhere, along with his initials! Out in the vineyards he realised the importance of good drainage for vines, putting in a system of terracotta tiles to drain the fields.

In the cellar, he was ahead of his time in understanding the importance of cleanliness in the winemaking process, constructing the cellar floor with a 'donkey-back' design to aid washing it down to the drainage channels on either side. The large network of buildings cleverly has an air tunnel running through it; a well was sunk for fresh water and in 1884 a machine for creating steam was built. Prince Ugo had constructed the huge cellars over four floors to take advantage of gravity to transport the wine through the winemaking process, something that not all modern wineries can boast.

Founded in 1884 the winery was ahead of its time in terms of design Founded in 1884 the winery was ahead of its time in terms of design

Liù then shows us an enormous tank which dates back to 1909 and is still in working order. Sebastian says that he has never seen anything quite like it before; apparently, similar ones still exist in Slovakia and the Wachau district of Austria, Liù tells us.

Tank dating back to 1909 still in working order Tank dating back to 1909 still in working order
Well and boiler for creating steam dating back to 1884 Well and boiler for creating steam dating back to 1884

As if the history of the estate is not fascinating enough, Liù then goes on to tell us the story of how her great-grandfather came to buy the property. It's the stuff of fairytales.

The remarkable story of how the Pambufettis came to be here

Amilcare Pambufetti was born in 1883 and was clearly one hell of a guy. He lost both his parents aged just 14 and with two younger brothers to care for, he had to work extremely hard to put food on the table. He was a farmhand for Prince Ugo, here on the estate he would later own.

It was gruelling work even for an adult, but not only did he manage to feed himself and his brothers, he also put a little money aside and saved up enough to buy a couple of chickens. He sold the eggs at market and started to build up a steady business. He later married a local woman who had one hectare of land and together they started trading food and eventually the dynamic Amilcare became a successful merchant.

Sadly, Amilcare's wife died when she was just 30, and all that he had worked for was to come to an abrupt end when his anti-fascist views landed him under arrest and sent to Genoa for punishment. Despite the tough times there, his fortunes changed when he met a wealthy woman who was to give him funds to set up two highly successful cereal businesses. One of these, a pasta-production business, was only sold in 1980 and Liù's brother still works for the other side of the business which deals in prosciutto and baccalau.

When Amilcare discovered that the estate he had worked on as a youngster was on the market for a very reasonable amount, he realised what a good buy it was, knowing the land as intimately as he did. In 1954, Amilcare bought the estate. He was 71. The estate was run down after many years of neglect during the fascist era and it was his dream to restore it to its former glory. Though he never married again, he had three sons who took over the running of the estate after he died in 1971.

The estate is one of the oldest and best in the region and the winemaker, now in his eighties, has been there since 1956. He is handing over the cellar keys to the younger generation, while still being available for advice, having spent a lifetime taming the wild sagrantino grape.

Liu Pambuffetti (left) 4th generation running winery with Francesca (enologo) Liu Pambuffetti (left) 4th generation running winery with Francesca (enologo)

Time to taste

By now I was intrigued to try the wines made from the sagrantino grape and Liù showed us into their tasting rooms to take us through a vertical tasting of this mighty wine.

Sebastian explained that sagrantino is a late-ripening grape and that the vineyards are quite high here, allowing for it to stay on the vine even longer to fully ripen and retain some freshness too, so that the wines achieve finesse to set against sheer power.

Before starting on the Montefalco Sagrantino (which is the DOCG of the region), we tasted the DOC wine, Montefalco Rosso. This is a lighter wine designed to be drunk sooner and is a blend of sangiovese, sagrantino and merlot, the last of these is actually being phased out, which we all agreed was a good thing.

The 2012 Montefalco Rosso (which we still have stock of) was showing extremely well. It's a blend of 60% sangiovese, 25% merlot and 15% sagrantino and while it still has plenty of 'grip', it's none the less juicy and fresh with really attractive aromas of roses and violets; a great introduction.

Tasting and lunch at Scacciadiavoli Tasting and lunch at Scacciadiavoli

Next came the flight of vintages of Montefalco Sagrantino from 2003 up to 2011 – the property keeps back 600 bottles of each year, mainly for cellar-door sales, we were told.

Liu Pambuffetti inspecting the crop at harvest time Liu Pambuffetti inspecting the crop at harvest time
  • 2003 – lovely floral nose and loads of juicy fruit – perfect for drinking now.
  • 2006 – ripe, chocolatey and rich; floral but fruit a little stewed.
  • 2008 – stylish and elegant; more balanced and with finesse.
  • 2009 – a warmer year produced richness and velvety fruit; Agen prunes, Sebastian says!
  • 2010 – Everything in perfect balance, lovely rich, ripe fruit and great tannic structure underpinning it.
  • 2011 – a warmer year; chocolate and prunes on the nose; still quite tight.

We occasionally have small stocks of the Montefalco Sagrantino; look out for it and tuck the odd bottle away for a rainy day.

We finished the tasting with a sweet passito version of the sagrantino grape (a bit like a Recioto della Valpolicella, made with semi-dried grapes) which Liù tells us is the traditional style of the wine.

The sagrantino mystery

The grape is unique to this part of Italy but nobody really knows where it came from. One story is that it came from the Middle East in the 15th century and was cultivated by priests for religious sacraments; others say it came via Spain and the Saracens and that it was cultivated by farmers for family celebrations, or 'sacred' feasts at Easter and Christmas.

It certainly is a mysterious beast of a berry, and with its extremely high polyphenols, which give it its mighty tannins and ageing potential, I wouldn't be surprised if this wild and woolly corner of Umbria doesn't have more than its fair share of elderly citizens too.

The family produce isn't just wine The family produce isn't just wine

Before we headed off, after a quick bite to eat prepared by the estate's chef (an extremely young-looking grandma, who must like the local red or have done a deal with the devil!), we joked that we wouldn't need to worry about any devilish encounters on the road… then Liù dropped into the conversation that she had spotted wolves from the vineyards and that there were even bears up in the hills!

Thrilling though it would be to spot these creatures (not to mention the potential 'I-Spy' points!), I rather hoped we wouldn't, but it does all add to the mystery of this place.

If you're ever in the area, do arrange a visit and tasting – I thoroughly recommend it. (Information on the estate's website)

The classic dish to serve with Scacciadiavoli reds The classic dish to serve with Scacciadiavoli reds (click on the image to enlarge the recipe)

Where to go next?

The Barberanis in Orvieto >

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