After a century of acting like star-crossed lovers, Italian varietals and California are starting a modern-day romance. The result is some excellent wine—not all of which is Sangiovese.

Why is it that, with Italian-American immigrants practically founding winemaking in California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we Americans drink so few Italian varietal wines?

Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah are our favorites—all French grapes. Where’s the Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Trebbiano, Dolcetto, Refosco, Pinot Grigio, and the rest of the Italian varietals California growers could have chosen from?

“Good question,” says Scott Kelley, the director of winemaking at La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi, which specializes in Italian varietals.

Why were the grapes in those “field blend” vineyards that were synonomous with the early Italian growers—Alicante Bouchet, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah, Early Burgundy, Red Malvasia, Grand Noir—also overwhelmingly French? “I’ve never been able to figure it out,” says Frank Altamura, who makes Sangiovese at his Napa Valley winery.

I’ve asked this question of lots of California vintners, and nobody knows, not even the old-timers. Whatever the reasons, California never developed a history of Italian varietals the way it did with French ones.

But now, at the dawn of the 21st century, that may be changing. So-called Cal-Ital wines (the phrase colloquially used in California) are now enjoying the most popularity they’ve ever had, and for good reason: The wines are good and getting better. Over the past decade, growers have found the right terroirs and viticultural practices needed to grow these sometimes finicky grapes, while winemakers have developed techniques to boost quality. By 1997, there was a big enough group of California wineries tinkering with Italian varietals to form a trade and marketing group, the Consorzio Cal-Italia ( Membership has grown to more than 50, with representation from every important region in California.

The most successful Cal-Ital grape by far, from a qualitative point of view, is Sangiovese. But when Californians first began experimenting with it on a widespread basis, about 15 years ago, they encountered disaster. Difficult to grow and vinify even in its native Tuscany, where it’s responsible for the 100-percent varietal Brunellos of Montalcino and, in Chianti, is blended with other grapes, Sangiovese presented Californians with challenges they neither anticipated, nor at first were able to solve.

“People planted it in all the wrong places, yields were astronomical, and the wines were bitter with acidity and tannin,” says Pete Seghesio, CEO of Seghesio Winery, which owns Chianti Station, perhaps the oldest Sangiovese vineyard in America, planted in 1910 in the Alexander Valley.

Bob Pepi, whose family, in 1985, was among the first to plant Sangiovese in the Napa Valley in modern times, also notes that the vines grow like weeds, sending out masses of leaves and grape bunches. Without controlling this vigor, he warns, “There are problems getting concentration, and with extracting color and phenolics,” chemical compounds that add to a wine’s aromas and flavors.

To counter that excessive vigor, growers reduce crop levels through aggressive pruning and thinning of bunches of grapes, thereby concentrating flavors. “Sometimes it feels like you’re dropping half the crop,” says Beth Zeitman, the winemaker at Amador Foothill Winery, in Amador County. “But if I leave more, I don’t get the fruit I want.”

Growers also are planting the vines in nutrient-poor soils, often on water-starved mountain hillsides that naturally limit a vine’s vigor. And they’re hacking away at the vine’s overhead canopy of leaves, which helps ripen the grapes.

Limiting crop loads, however, isn’t the only solution to this hard-to-deal-with varietal. Unlike, say, Chardonnay and even Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese is acutely sensitive to its terroir, a trait it shares with Pinot Noir. But it isn’t always easy to determine just where the right place is. Frank Altamura, whose Altamura Sangiovese is coveted among aficionados, credits his “rocky, well-drained soils” in the mountains above Napa Valley with limiting yields. Even so, he has to “thin and thin [vines], three or four times a year.”

But down on the floor of Napa Valley, in alluvial river-bottom soils that are notoriously difficult to grow a rich red wine, Benessere Vineyards is doing just that. Their Sangiovese, which is, like Altamura’s, unblended, is also one of the state’s best. Winemaker Chris Dearden counters the soil’s water-holding capacity by using devigorating rootstocks and by installing drain pipes that leech water out of the subsoil. Still, he says, just why his Sangiovese is so good is a bit of a mystery. “Sangiovese is a really site-specific grape,” he says.

Even with good grapes, however, Sangiovese winemakers have their work cut out for them. Further improvements have been made thanks to better enological techniques, some of them home-grown, others borrowed from the Tuscans.

Beth Zeitman and her husband, Ben, who manages Amador Foothill’s vineyards, hired noted Italian winemaking consultant Alberto Antonini, who introduced them to some European winemaking techniques particularly suited to improving Sangiovese-based wines. One of them is tight spacing in the vineyard, up from 450 vines an acre to 2,000. The theory is that when vines compete with each other for available nutrients, including water, their vigor is slowed down.

Another is the winemaking practice known as “saignée” (“sen-YAY,” French for “bleed”), by which the winemaker drains off some of the unfermented juice, concentrating color, aromas and flavors. Pepi also utilizes saignée, which he observed in Italy during a 1991 visit.
Even with these improvements, Sangiovese remains comparatively rare in California, with only 2,943 acres under vine in 2001. That’s fewer even than Cabernet Franc, and less than 4 percent the acreage of the number one red grape, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sangiovese’s modern era in the state didn’t begin until 1987, when the Italian winemaker Piero Antinori, with the backing of European business interests, bought land on a mountain above Napa Valley and established Atlas Peak. That spring, he planted five acres of Sangiovese, using budwood from his Santa Cristina estate in Chianti. Atlas Peak now has 495 acres of vineyards, 25 percent of them in Sangiovese, making it the largest contiguous Sangiovese vineyard in coastal California. Production of the 2000 was 24,000 cases, which makes it easy to find.

Atlas Peak’s focus on Sangiovese was an exciting development. Their investment, at least $22 million through the early 1990s, was impressive, and many in the industry believed that, if someone as smart as Antinori thought Sangiovese had a future, then maybe it did. Acreage in California accordingly increased 600 percent between 1993 and 2000.

Antinori’s move into California also focused attention on the tremendous success he had enjoyed in Italy, and around the world, with his Tignanello wine, a non-traditional blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvigon. (Alberto Antinoni, Amador Foothill’s consultant, used to make Tignanello.) First introduced in the mid-1970s, Tignanello not only became one of the most expensive wines in Tuscany, it inspired a new breed of Tuscan wines, including Solaia, Ornellaia and Sassacaia, that came to be called super Tuscans.

The high price these wines fetched was reason enough for Californian vintners to add a little Cabernet Sauvignon or something else to their Sangioveses, and market them as California-style super Tuscans. But as it turned out, there was another reason to do so. With Sangiovese so site-specific, so difficult to craft on its own, blending in a strongly flavored wine like Cabernet was like adding salt and pepper to an otherwise bland dish.

That’s the approach many California wineries eventually took, and are still taking. Cabernet Sauvignon remains the varietal of choice to blend into super Tuscans. But “Cabernet makes Sangiovese too Cabernet-like, even in small quantities,” says La Famiglia’s Kelley, a sentiment that other winemakers share. That’s why Kelley, like Beth Zeitman, switched over to Syrah. Merlot, Cabernet Franc and a few other varietals are also used.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve given my highest scores ever to unblended, or nearly unblended, Sangiovese wines. In addition to Benessere and Altamura, I’ve been impressed by Babcock’s lush and dependable “Eleven Oaks” bottling from Santa Barbara, the oaky Luna, which contains 2 percent Merlot, the easy-to-find Valley of the Moon, Pepi’s “California” version, a steal at $14, Charles Krug’s “Family Reserve,” and Atlas Peak, vastly improved since the late 1990s.

What these wines have in common is, in Pete Seghesio’s words, “Chianti’s intensity with California’s rich fruit.” Italian Chianti, even the best Classico Riservas, can be bitter and sharp in acidity and tannins. Poor vintages suffer from a lack of fruit. Grown under California’s warm sun, and with almost no danger of rain or hail to mar a vintage, the best Sangiovese here ripens to reveal intense and succulent red and black cherry flavors, with a smoky, tobaccoey, sometimes tarry edge. They have more acidity than Cabernet and are drier, but are also light and silky on the palate, like a fine Pinot Noir.

But my highest scores lately have gone to the super Tuscans: Luna’s incredibly ripe, rich “Canto,” which contains both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; Shafer’s astonishing Firebreak, year after year among the supreme efforts in California (the 2000 had 6 percent Cabernet, down from 40 percent in 1991); Falkner’s deliciously complex “Amante,” from the Temecula area and, at $16, an amazing value; Pepi’s rare “Colline di Sassi,” with a little Cabernet and Merlot; Ferrari-Carano’s elegant, ageworthy Siena, from mountain vineyards in Sonoma; Amador Foothill’s Grand Reserve (hard to find, with only 99 cases in 2000); and another from the surprising Temecula area, Castelletto’s “Trovato,” with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Tannat.

These wines preserve the fresh vitality of pure Sangiovese and its pristine cherry flavors, but lend it additional tiers and nuances of flavor and a deeper texture. Depending on the varietal, you’ll find complexities of blackcurrants and cassis, chocolate, plums, pepper and even bacon. The super Tuscans also are usually oakier, so the potpourri of flavors is enhanced with smoke, vanilla and sweet tannins from new barrels.

The future of Sangiovese, both unblended and in super Tuscan form, is an open question. “To be honest, it’s a hard sell,” says Altamura. Even Dearden acknowledges that, good as it can be, “Sangiovese will never take the place of Cabernet or Merlot.” Acreage actually fell in California between 2000 and 2001. Several Napa Valley wineries that used to make it, including Swanson and Sterling, no longer do, while others, including Pepi, now source their fruit from outside Napa Valley. With average prices for Napa Sangiovese grapes at $2,400 compared to $4,000 for Cabernet Sauvignon, you can’t blame them.

But fans are optimistic. “I think Sangiovese has the potential of being an alternative wine [to other reds],” says Glenn Salva, who was general manager of Atlas Peak for many years before going out on his own; he’s now a consultant for Piero Antinori. Salva adds, “I would hope that people like Shafer and Atlas Peak will continue to have the real commitment to make Sangiovese a great wine.”

My own recommendation for Wine Enthusiast readers is to branch out and try a good Sangiovese or super Tuscan the next time you’re at a restaurant, or buy yourself a bottle for home. These wines may not get the high scores or attention that Cabernet Sauvignon does, but they deserve a place at your table, and the best are definitely worth searching out.

Published on May 1, 2003

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