Tasting the heart of Italy's heartland

Updated 4/5/2011 3:09 PM

"Umbria is Italy's greener half," says Marco Caprai, winegrower of Umbria's Arnaldo Caprai winery.

Umbria is landlocked in Italy's center and, like our Midwest, it's the country's agricultural heartland. But instead of raising grain, farm animals and corn like we do, Umbrians raise grain, farm animals and grapes: grapes you know, like Sangiovese; grapes you've never heard of, like Grechetto; and grapes even I've never heard of, like Sagrantino.

Umbria's white Grechetto is a distant cousin of southern Italy's Greco, and may share Greco's ancient Greek origins. Grechetto is consumed worldwide but thanklessly, as a nameless ensemble player in Orvieto, the region's dry-ish white. Attempts to raise Orvieto's profile above neutrally refreshing (at best) have failed, so high quality-oriented producers like Caprai focus on Grechetto as their region's signature white (see Ross' Choice).

Sagrantino is Umbria's signature red grape, originally planted for sacramental wine in Asissi -- according to legend -- by the new order of monks of St. Francis in the 1200s. The grape's blue-black skin signals high levels of polyphenol, with resulting heart-healthy antioxidants and powerful tannin.

Caprai's Rosso Montefalco (about $17) blends Sagrantino with Sangiovese for a rough-and-ready quaff, an excellent Chianti alternative, to serve with Umbria's hearty fare, such as minestra di lenticchie (lentil soup) and pork -- sausages, smoked or barbecued.

To elevate your porker to porchetta (salted and spiced pork roast) and to enrich other roasts, serve Capria's 100 percent Sagantino "Collepiano" ($60), that cries for meat with a bouquet of leather, wild herbs and dried berries, firm and chewey mouthfeel and layers of flavor. Marco Caprai mis-tranlsates the wine-speak "finish" (meaning a wine's ending flavors) with "polish," which turns out to be an apt description for this rich and stylish wine.

• Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross writes Good Wine. Write her at food@dailyherald.com.