Italy in California?

in Wine by

By Celia Strong

This week, we take one more look at Sangiovese, but this time from California. As we’ve learned from many of our wines, in Europe, different grapes and different wines come from different countries and regions. And, for the most part, these grapes for these wines from these regions in these countries are not interchangeable. Legally. We know that their wines laws were developed to protect their wine industries and their customers, and that their laws were based on centuries of traditions and tried and true practices for each and every wine. Chardonnay is not grown in Bordeaux; Tempranillo is a Spanish variety, etc. There are some crossovers, yes, but for the most part there is not a lot of flexibility. And, those who crossed over may have suffered for their transgressions. Look at the loss of status on the original “Super Tuscans” — they were not allowed DOC or DOCG ratings in the beginning, even if their grapes came from that level source. (They were smart, though, and charged prices that they were worth.)  By contrast, in California, where we don’t have all those centuries of traditions, winemakers have been able to spread their wings a lot more.  Each one of them may have become a winemaker with a feeling for one particular variety, may have bought their first vineyard with that variety’s growing needs in mind, but they were never told not to grow anything. Imagine the windows that they could look through. Not only were they building a new industry in a new country, but they could do it how they wanted.  So, here we are with wide open windows and winemakers going through them as fast as they can. Pretty much the epitome of the United States. No wonder we’re so proud of “our” wines.

So, back to Sangiovese now. An Italian variety in California. We’ve covered its history in Italy and its prominence in Tuscan wines. But, it was brought to California in the late nineteenth century by Italian immigrants. (You may remember about phylloxera invading most of the vineyards of Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, forcing many field workers to emigrate to the United States, South America and Australia. All New World wine regions to be developed.) The first location may have been the Seghesio family’s “Chianti Station,” in Geyserville. It wasn’t until the 1980’s, though, that Sangiovese became important in California, with the success of the Super Tuscans in Italy. In 1991, there were only two hundred acres of this variety planted in California. By 2003, there were over three thousand. The early wines made from this grape were not overly successful. Imperfect locations and poor clones were the main problems. The Antinori family, that we drank last week, owns Atlas Peak Winery in Napa and found the intense sunlight of California may have been a factor, too, in these wines not being like those from Italy. Sangiovese can’t be grown where Cabernet does well, can’t made like Cabernet and sure shouldn’t try to taste like Cabernet. With time, a fruit-forward style of Sangiovese wine has been developed, with some floral notes, good structure and a more supple texture. Also, let’s not forget the help that a bit of blending of other grapes, any other grapes, can be in a finished wine.

As the popularity of California Sangiovese wines grew, the need to categorize them came too. Somehow the name “Cal-Ital” took hold. Short for California-Italian, duh. Wineries like Gallo, Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini, Martinelli, Sebastiani, Simi, Seghesio, Foppiano, Trinchero, Rafanelli, and others all helped develop our interest in this new category. Additionally, they let us know other varieties, like Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, Nebbiolo, Barbera and even Anglianico could be grown in California. (Actually, Pinot Gris is a French variety, but the Italian name has definitely won out.) When grown in California, these grapes are able to hang on their vines longer which means a more extended growing season. More ripeness is the result.  More intense fruit flavors is the end result; instead of the dry, earthy, often lighter bodied red wines of Italy, we get fruitier, fuller, more approachable wines. Sangiovese, in particular, has had a wider range of success in California. Most of its wines, here, are medium bodied, with classic prune and cherry characteristics and pleasant acidity. Most American producers use more oak aging which helps to smooth out the texture of these wines.

And, what do we get to drink this week. I thought two, really good versions of Sangiovese Cal-Itals would be nice. First, we have Miner Family Winery’s Gibson Ranch Sangiovese from Mendocino. Miner was founded in 1998 by Dave and Emily Miner along with Dave’s parents. Dave was an avid consumer when he decided to get into the wine business, and his wife, Emily, went to school in California. There she enjoyed visits to Napa, and, when she went back home to Minnesota, decided the weather in California was much nicer.

Located in Napa, on the Silverado Trail, the Miner Family Winery has partnered with the Gibson Ranch in Mendocino since 1997. The grapes are organically grown and the cooler growing climate of this area lets Sangiovese ripen more evenly. This gives them more fruit flavors and more balance in their textures. This Sangiovese is a sturdy wine, rich in cherry, pomegranate, plum and baking spice flavors. Hints of vanilla from its barrel aging sneak in, too. The tannins are moderate, and the lingering finish is extraordinary. A perfect pairing  for light meat dishes with tomato based sauces.  For 25.99.

Ferrari-Carano Siena is our second wine. This one is a blend, hence the non-varietal name. But, we can’t ignore the Italian name — Siena is a town in Tuscany. You may remember Don Carano’s story about being raised by his Italian grandmother. Cooking, eating, drinking. This wine is another link to that heritage. The blend for the current vintage is 74 percent Sangiovese with 14 percent Malbec, 8 percent Syrah and 4 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.  A perfect example of no limits except to make a good wine. Where except in California would this combination of varieties be imagined or successful. The wine goes beyond just Sangiovese flavors with layers of blackberries, raspberry jam, cola, baking spices, and vanilla (from the oak again).  The flavors are deep and concentrated but not heavy, a medium-light bodied wine. The Caranos pair this wine with Italian style foods and sauces, especially pizzas. For $19.99.

Now, we have our new wines. And their “Cal-Ital” special name. I do believe each of us has a bit of Italian heritage in us, because otherwise we couldn’t  love pizza and pasta so much. That means this category wines is perfect for all of us. Once we love these wines, too, and share them with our families and friends, we’ll all be happier. Enjoy.