By Celia Strong
Faster than we can think, spring is plowing into us. Truly a good thing, but we must make preparations. That means new wines and a good supply of them — our wines this week should absolutely fit the bill. So, off we go to Italy, for two really lovely wines.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that our white will be a Pinot Grigio and our red will be a Sangiovese. (These are two of Italy’s most popular grapes!) That makes it two weeks in a row that we’re doing a Pinot Grigio, but, as we discussed last week, where this grape is grown makes a big difference in the wine in the bottle. Ours this week comes from the Veneto area of northeastern Italy. I would imagine we all can see some difference right away in the growing conditions here over those that we had last week in Sonoma, California. Here, in the Veneto area, which is near Venice, the climate is warm, the soil is lean with some volcanic ash mixed in, and the wines tend to be light, body and color, crisp and acidic. Sometimes, they are so dry and crisp they come across in our mouths as almost spritzy. Of course, for warm weather, these wines are perfect.
The second grape this week is Sangiovese. This is a red variety whose name means “the blood of Jove” (also known as Jupiter, the head Roman deity). Obviously, with such a name to live up to, this grape must be something. It does come in two sizes, Sangiovese Grosso, also known as Brunello, and Sangiovese Piccolo. There are about 14 different clones of Sangiovese, most of which we’ll never see on a bottle label. And, along with Moscato and Trebbiano, it is one of the most widely planted varieties in Italy.
The history of Sangiovese is as confusing as its family tree. Despite repeated DNA studies of Sangiovese, Grosso and Piccolo, and all its clones, science can tell us which grapes are related to Sangiovese, but not which is the parent or which is the offspring. The first documented mention of it is from 1590, in writings of Giovanettorio Soderini. He called this grape “Sangiogheto” and said that in Tuscany it made good wines, but, if winemakers were not careful, they risked their wines turning into vinegar.
It was not until the 18th century that Sangiovese gained widespread attention throughout Tuscany. In 1783, Cosimo Trinci described wines made from Sangiovese blended with other varieties as excellent. Others also wrote about how good Sangiovese blended wines were. One of the early recipes for Chianti was a blend of Sangiovese and Cannaiolo. With time, each of the appellations of Tuscany (Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Carmignano, Morellino di Scansano, Brunello di Montacino, Rosso de Montalcino) and other regions, as well as what we now call “super Tuscans,” all determined their best clone to use and their best blend. Some, with the right soil and clone, did succeed in using just Sangiovese.
The high acidity and light body characteristics of Sangiovese are a challenge to winemakers. In addition to blending with other grapes, to enhance its strengths and fill in “holes” in its wines, modern techniques include vineyard pruning to make low yielding vines, longer macerations (grape juice soaking with the skins before fermenting starts), adjusting the temperature and length of time for the wine’s fermentation, and the use of oak, both in fermenting and aging. Since the 20th century, Bordeaux varieties, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, have been used for blending in many Italian wines with great success. Some of DOC/G laws have been adjusted to allow the Cabernet in, like up to 15 percent in Chianti. Apparently and lucky for us, commercial success can change centuries of tradition.
Today, Sangiovese is the most widely grown red variety in Italy. It is the officially recommended variety in 53 provinces and authorized for use in 13 more. About 10 percent of the country’s vineyards are Sangiovese vines, more than 250,000 acres. Besides Tuscany, Sangiovese is spread throughout central Italy — Umbria, Lazio and Marche, and beyond into Lombardia, Emilia-Romagna, Valpolicella and Campania and Sicily in the south. Sangiovese can makes wines from everyday drinking styles to premium wines with aging potential. It can make rosé wines, semi-frizzante (sparkling) wines and sweeter style wines.
And, now, thank goodness, it’s wine time. Ours this week come to us from Primaterra, Italian by design. By design says it all. Primaterra is a company, not really a winery. They work all over Italy, looking for and making wines for everyday enjoyment. Each of their varietally named wines comes from a different part of Italy. And, each wine is made to reflect the combination of the soil and climate of its origin and the unique flavors of its grape variety. Then, just for fun, each label is a really cute cartoon, for lack of a better word.
The Primaterra Pinot Grigio comes from the Venezie region, up near Venice. It is an IGT level wine, like so many others from that area. It is 100 percent Pinot Grigio. These grapes are grown in soil that is mixed clay and stones, at an elevation of 300 meters. They are fermented in stainless steel, for 15 to 20 days. The wine is well balanced, crisp and fresh. It has lively fruit flavors, that include apples, and floral notes. And, just so it’s not too puckery, it has a softer style finish. Many of us have enjoyed this wine for a long time now.
The Primaterra Sangiovese comes from Sicily, also an IGT wine. This wine is also 100 percent its variety and is, actually, grown in soil similar to the Pinot Grigio — clay and rocks. The Sangiovese benefits from the warm growing climate in Sicily. These grapes are fermented in stainless steel, 70 percent, and oak barrels, 30 percent. It has the cherry aromas and flavors that are part of the signature of Sangiovese. It has some acidity, balanced in with a clean and gentle finish. There are some spice notes and slight hints of vanilla — Sangiovese soaks this out of its barrels.
As we go into warmer weather, both these wines should find a way into our glasses. Perfect for just sipping, but, also, well matched to all our warm weather meals. And, truthfully, just looking at these labels has to put you in a good mood. And so does their price. Each of these wines is $10.99, artwork included. Enjoy.