The Italian Grapes Making Their Mark in California

Two glasses of wine on a balcony, Pacific Ocean in the background
Overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Mendocino, California/Getty

Often described as having a Mediterranean climate, it’s no surprise that grapes with Italian origins have taken root in California. From the North Coast to Central Coast, winemakers make good use of a host of Italian grapes. These bottles offer a bit of variety and excitement against a sea of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir coming from the state.

Some of the varieties might already be quite familiar, like Sangiovese, which is used in Chianti and Chianti Classico wines, or Nebbiolo, which is used in the ageworthy wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. While these red and white wines can’t take the place of their Italian counterparts, they are certainly worthy of discovery.

The Rise of Italian Grapes in American Vineyards

Lepiane 2014 Bee Sweet Vineyard Nebbiolo (San Luis Obispo); $45, 93 points. Vibrant aromas of black cherry and crisp boysenberry are dusted with vanilla on the nose of this single-vineyard expression. It’s a lively style of Nebbiolo, combining fresh berry with earthy tones of shiitake mushroom and roasted cherry. –Matt Kettmann

Seghesio 2016 Venom Sangiovese (Alexander Valley); $50, 92 points. This bold, full-bodied wine is earthy in tar and leather. Black olive, licorice and blackberry follow, with elements of violet, orange peel and currant. It has well-integrated power and weight. –Virginie Boone

Pear Valley 2017 Pear Valley Vineyard Aglianico (Paso Robles); $30, 91 points. It’s always encouraging to see wineries explore uncommon grapes, and this spin on the dark Italian grape Aglianico succeeds. Aromas of black cherry and mushroom lead into a woody palate of sandalwood and boysenberry, all framed by buoyant acidity. Editors’ Choice. –M.K.

Alara 2017 Montepulciano (San Benito County); $43, 90 points. Deep aromas of cola, mint, gooey chocolate and rust show on the nose of this bottling. Firm tannins frame the blackberry jam, mint and cocoa flavors, and then strong barrel influence arises in clove and cardamom accents. –M.K.

Amador Cellars 2017 Fields Family Vineyard Barbera (Shenandoah Valley); $30, 90 points. Full bodied and full flavored, this big generous wine overflows with attractive berry and oak flavors that coat the mouth and linger on the finish. The texture is moderately tannic and nicely supports all the richness. –Jim Gordon

Bartolo 2018 Fiano (Santa Clara Valley); $25, 90 points. Clean and precise aromas of lime peel, wet chalk, chiseled rocks and guava peel arise on the nose this bottling of a relatively uncommon grape in California. There’s a fresh sizzle to the sip, where honeydew and orange-blossom flavors meet with a flash of petrol. –M.K.

Bella Grace 2016 Primitivo (Amador County); $32, 90 points. This is a serious, dry wine fashioned to pair with a grilled steak or chop, and nicely packed with ripe blackberry and cherry flavors that are framed by firm tannins and good acidity. –J.G.

Fleur de California 2018 Estate Vineyards Vermentino (Carneros); $18, 90 points. Waxy green apple and sour cherry dot the landscape of this textured, freshly energetic wine, which shows briny, savory personality. It finishes in a fresh bite of peach. –V.B.

Wrath 2017 Ex Dolio Falanghina (Monterey); $29, 90 points. Winemaker Sabrine Rodems and proprietor/archaeologist Michael Thomas emulate Roman winemaking, with this skin-contact bottling that’s aged in a ceramic vessel. Golden yellow in the glass, the wine offers apple juice and butterscotch on the nose, with a hint of citrus. The palate shows dried citrus and bitter orange. It’s funky but enjoyable. Editors’ Choice. –M.K.

WineShop At Home 2018 SunFish Malvasia Bianca (California); $25, 90 points. This dry, full-bodied and very floral-tasting wine shows strong honeysuckle and butter aromas, rich peach and hibiscus-tea flavors and a tempting texture that combines tangy acidity with creamy richness. Try it for a change of pace. –J.G.

Published on June 17, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings