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Chianti California Style: New World Sangiovese
A glance at the index of previous Vintner's Choice articles on Sally's Place will confirm that much has been written in this space about the emergence of California Syrah as an exciting, increasingly well made red wine. At about the same time that interest in Syrah was sparked, another Old World varietal, Sangiovese, caught the imagination of several California winemakers who dreamed of crafting their own versions of the popular red wine many had experienced on its home ground in Tuscany.
While the varietal has been grown in Italy for over 600 years, where it is the primary varietal of all of Tuscany's famous red wines -- Chianti Classico, Carmignano, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile do Montepulciano -- it's quite new to California except for a few tiny, scattered plantings dating back to the late 1800s, such as that at Chianti Station in Sonoma County (now owned by Seghesio Winery).
Yet while Syrah's quality curve has shown fairly constant improvement and refinement, California Sangiovese has been a mixed bag. Most of the early efforts I evaluated tended to be either harsh and acidic, or simple and tart. Really good Sangiovese should exhibit a supple texture reminiscent of a fleshy Pinot Noir, medium to high acidity and medium-full to full tannins, sometimes floral scents reminiscent of iris and wild violets and bright cherry-strawberry fruit, often including blueberry and cranberry, plus warm spice (clove, cinnamon, nutmeg). Only recently has the picture begun to brighten, as California growers have become more familiar with the grape's clonal differences (there are more than 200 Sangiovese clones in Italy) and how vineyard sites affect the quality of wine produced. For Sangiovese especially, the performance of any given clone is very site specific.
As an example of this heightened awareness of Sangiovese's special requirements, Shari Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyard, an excellent producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, recently provided the following background information for the winery's Stagliano Sangiovese: "Planted just below the western foothills in the Rutherford Bench of Napa Valley, the grapes face eastward, the direction considered the most hospitable for this clone in our valley. The budwood is from a Biondi Santi Brunello vineyard in Montalcino. David Abreu, our vineyard manager, chose the southwest corner of the vineyard, where the soil is a medium dense clay. He selected a 5C rootstock to match the soil."
When I tasted the 1994 version of the Stagliano Sangiovese in February 1996, it compared favorably with the best of Italy's "Super Tuscans," which are expensive, highly sought after blends of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. The 1994 Stagliano is 20 percent Cab and 80 percent Sangiovese from the Sangiovese Grosso clone, which, according to Shari Staglin, was "smuggled in" from Italy. The wine offers attractive aromas of spicy black cherry-raspberry fruit accented by a pleasant leathery note, often found in first rate Chianti Classico Reservas. The palate is round and soft, but with fine acid balance, exhibiting lots of delicious black fruits with good depth. One wonders, however, whether the Sangiovese could have carried the wine alone. Probably not.
When Cabernet Sauvignon is blended into Sangiovese, it tends to smooth out the wine's texture and tones down the inherently high tannins. Other blending possibilities for California include Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Nebbiolo. According to Shari Staglin, "Merlot doesn't seem to work well with Sangiovese. It doesn't fill in the hole in the Sangiovese middle." In Italy, the law until 1984 required a blend of 20 percent of traditional varietals, Canaiolo, Colorino (red grapes), Malvasia (a slightly sweet white grape) and the bland and neutral white grape, Trebbiano. The current law allows a blend of up to ten percent of non-traditional varietals (such as Cabernet Sauvignon) so long as the rest is pure Sangiovese. Some Italian Chianti producers consider these restrictions too limiting, and blend "outlaw" Sangiovese under non-varietal proprietary names.
The consumer will see more and more bottles of California Sangiovese on the shelves in the future as more acres of vines mature and come into production. As of the end of 1996, some 1300 acres were planted to Sangiovese (including both bearing and nonbearing acreage). The ranks of the early producers -- Atlas Peak (the winery's 120-acre Sangiovese vineyard is the largest in the state), Ferrari-Carano (whose benchmark "Super Tuscan" blend, Siena, is composed of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec), Robert Pepi (now owned by Kendall-Jackson), Swanson, Flora Springs and Robert Mondavi -- have swelled in number to more than 40, with more likely to jump on the bandwagon.
The goal for most of these producers is to create a wine thoroughly at home with food, as is the case in Italy, as opposed to some "monster" California Cabs and Zins that almost demand to stand alone. According to Julie Garvey of Flora Springs Winery, "We believe that people want to drink more red wines, but because people are eating lighter foods that they also want to drink lighter wines. Sangiovese fits this niche perfectly. It has a bright focused fruit character that marries with a wide range of foods and occasions."
In addition to the producers listed above and in the Tasting Notes below, other Sangiovese producers of note include Shafer Vineyards, which offers an outstanding Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend called Firebreak, Turnbull Wine Cellars, Silverado Vineyards, Vino Noceto (a Sierra Foothills producer whose Noceto Sangiovese is a great value at $10), BV (the terrific Sangiovese is part of the "Signet Collection"), Altamura Vineyards (rich, generous and delicious) and Chappellet Vineyard.
Recently, the Vintners Club panel evaluated in its traditional blind tasting format 12 new release California Sangioveses from several growing areas, including Napa Valley (which has the most acreage in the state planted to this varietal), Dry Creek Valley and Mendocino County; several of the bottlings bore a "California" appellation. Prices ranged from $15 to $35, and styles ranged from lighter, early drinking reds to heavier, ageworthy wines.
1994 Signorello Sangiovese, Atlas Peak Vineyard, Napa Valley ($35)
Showing lots of smoky, toasty oak, the nose also reveals fruity varietal scents of hard-candy cherry plus cinnamon spice. Rich and spicy in the mouth, this moderately complex wine offers good depth of cherry-berry fruit, firm acidity and medium-full tannins. Slightly tart in the long finish.
1995 Swanson Sangiovese, Napa Valley ($24)
While not particularly complex, the Swanson Sangiovese is appealing for its vibrant black cherry-strawberry fruit aromas which translate to the palate in moderately rich, concentrated flavors, accented by notes of black tea, dried cherry and vanillin oak.
1995 Atlas Peak Sangiovese, Atlas Peak, Napa Valley ($16)
An initial whiff of earthiness blows off soon with airing to reveal vanilla, red fruits and peppery spice. Soft and round on the palate with easy tannins, this delicate wine is easy to sip.
1995 Gabrielli Sangiovese, Redwood Valley, Mendocino ($18)
Intense, very pleasant nose of berries, violets and oak is replicated in the mouth with impressive, moderately rich flavors which showcase the fruit over oak. A tasty wine with good depth and concentration of fruit.
1994 Belvedere Sangiovese, Dry Creek Valley ($16)
Scents of hard candy or "cough drop" cherry plus intriguing notes of licorice and fennel seed. Nicely varietal in its acidity, tartness and bright red fruit, the wine cries out for food.
1994 Atlas Peak Sangiovese Reserve, Atlas Peak, Napa Valley ($24)
Showing more oak and depth than the third place bottling from the same producer, this reserve Sangiovese offers scents of violets, red cherry-berry fruit and oak spice. Medium-full tannins are matched by lots of berry fruit, although some tasters complained of "palate punishment" from the combination of tannins and tartness. A big, somewhat uneven wine.
1994 Robert Pepi Sangiovese, "Colline di Sassi," Napa Valley ($25)
Initially fumey and smoky, the nose eventually clears up, showing berries, red plums and bing cherries. Soft and fleshy on the palate with medium tannins and muted acidity, the wine's tasty flavors replicate the nose.
1994 Clos Du Val Sangiovese, "Tre Grazie," Napa Valley ($26)
Slightly minty in the nose with shy cherry fruit and clove spice, the wine's flavors never go very deep but are tasty, offering strawberry-red cherry fruit. Medium tannins, moderately tart; abrupt finish.
1994 La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi Sangiovese, California ($22)
Appealing aromas of leather, smoky oak and ripe red cherry fruit are replicated on the palate in simple, delicate flavors that lack concentration. Soft with a slightly chalky aftertaste.
1995 Venezia Sangiovese, "Novo Mondo," California ($24)
Produced by Geyser Peak, this wine is better than its ranking would suggest, offering forward, fragrant, slightly herbaceous scents of ripe strawberries and cherry cough drops. Moderately complex on the palate with tasty, ripe strawberry-like fruit with good depth and a hint of bell pepper. Some tasters complained of the wine's grapiness and short finish.
1994 Bonterra Sangiovese, "Organically Grown," Mendocino County ($22)
Another wine that is better than its ranking suggests, the Bonterra, which is produced by Fetzer, exhibits a nose of raspberry-cherry fruit, roasted coffee beans and a hint of herbaceousness. Generous and nicely concentrated on the palate with medium tannins, the wine's flavors focus on bright red fruits and are tasty.
1995 Chameleon Cellars Sangiovese, California ($15)
Not much to like here. Vinous (grapy) nose with a dirty component; perhaps a corked bottle. Tart and unimpressive in the mouth with stingy strawberry-like fruit.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.