Vintner Profile: Marco Caprai

by By Jeff Harding and Will Blunt
September 2012

The Italian region of Umbria is best known for its truffles and as the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi. But it’s also the home of the Sagrantino grape, and you will probably start to hear more about this ancient fruit, in large part due to Marco Caprai, winemaker at Arnaldo Caprai winery.

Umbria is the only peninsular region of Italy without a coastal border for shipping access, which is one of the reasons the wine has remained a bit of a secret. Adding to its niche status is the small wine-growing region of Montefalco, whose DOCG regulations require the area’s wine be made with 100 percent Sagrantino grapes. And once you start exploring, you find these wines have rich historical roots, introduced by the Franciscan monks in the 15th century for liturgical services. In fact, the name Sagrantino comes from the Latin root sacer, or sacred. And Caprai is one of the key players in the region making use of these sacred grapes. According to the winemaker, these winesare some of the best Italy has to offer, rich in polyphenols, which contribute to their deep purple color, full body and structure, and long capacity for aging. Caprai adds that one of the best ways to enjoy Sagrantino wine is with goose, steak, or lamb, especially the Umbrian classic preparation of lamb with olive oil and truffles.

Experiment and Innovate

The winery was started in 1971 by Arnaldo Caprai, and Marco Caprai joined his father in the vineyards in 1987, making it his mission to spread the word of Sagrantino through research, experimentation, and of course, producing great wine. He is currently experimenting with the lyra (or lyre) trellis system, which allows more sunlight on the vines, and increases air circulation. (The gobelet or “little tree” trellis is the traditional trellising system in Montefalco.)

Lyre trellis system at Arnaldo Caprai
Lyre trellis system at Arnaldo Caprai

Planting grass between the Caprai’s vines forces the rootstock to grow deeper in the soil, giving the vines better capacity to withstand drought and allowing the team to forego irrigation. Caprai also experiments with clonal varieties and various textile canopies over the vines with an eye toward global warming issues. The canopies trap the heat, and the resulting grapes help Caprai decide which clones fare better as temperatures increase.

Another Caprai innovation is a custom spray atomizer with a tank to spray the vines on one side of the trellis and a vacuum-type extension on the opposite side that sucks up the excess spray and prevents excess fungicide from dropping to the ground. “We must use technology to make better grapes and better wine,” explains the winemaker. “We work to have as little impact as possible on the wine, to maintain the conditions of today, and to leave [the land] for the next generation.”

Caprai relies heavily on his customized weather stations, which measure wind, temperature, and humidity, three factors that are imperative in his “war against insects.” If conditions are not right for insect reproduction, there is less need to spray on those days. And knowing the wind direction and other meteorological conditions allow him to optimize the efficacy of spraying.

Caprai isn’t just responding to an eco-trend. His dedication is cultural. Umbria is known as “The Green Heart of Italy.” And for Caprai, this is more than just a slogan. He tells us: “It’s not just a claim. It’s a contract for our work, and we work everyday to keep our region green and to keep our activity sustainable in the local community. We specialize in indigenous grapes—Sangiovese, Sagrantino, and Grechetto—from the center of Italy, and our story is a family story. It’s important to transmit these values to the next generation.”

Notable Wines from Arnaldo Caprai

Sagrantino 25 Anni One of the most award-laden wines in the Caprai portfolio, this wine’s name celebrates the 25th anniversary of the founding of Caprai vineyards in 1971 (its first release was in 1996). Only made in the best vintages, and the result of clonal research started in 1988 to select the best grapes for this cult wine, 25 Anni is one of the finest expressions of Sagrantino, and the inspiration for the Caprai “Bottled Poetry” collection, with famous wine-related quotes or poems printed on the corks.

Sagrantino Collepiano Collepiano is the part of Caprai’s vineyard where Sagrantino is grown. The name evokes rollings hills that bely the powerhouse of flavors in this wine. Caprai uses only 100 percent Sagrantino and ages it for over two years in French oak. Age-worthy but not overpowering, this wine almost demands grilled meat, so why not go with Caprai’s own suggestion of roast lamb with Umbrian truffles?

Montefalco Rosso The Rosso classification here allows a blend, and Caprai has a chosen 70 percent Sangiovese, 15 percent Sagrantino, and 15 percent Merlot with Slavonian and French oak aging. Lighter in style, this wine still has great tannic structure and huge fruit flavors; the Rosso plays well on its own or with cheese or charcuterie.

Grecante Grechetto dei Colli Martani Hand-picked and fermented at low temperatures to enhance the floral and fruit aromas, only 100 percent Grechetto grapes are used here, as opposed to a blend that usually accompanies Grechetto. Although fermented in stainless steel, it has a richness often found in oak aging, but with a mineral crispness reminiscent of a great Marsanne or Chardonnay. Add to your arsenal of go-to white wines when pairing with diverse entrée choices at the table.