MAKE WAY FOR SANGIOVESE

Sangiovese is Italy’s number one varietal, with 247,000 acres and 10% of the entire wine grape crop. It was best been known as the grape behind the Italian red wine, Chianti, but Sangiovese began a new era in the 1970s with the Super Tuscan movement. At its best, it can be distinctively smooth in texture with spice, raspberry and licorice flavors and it is wonderful to enjoy with the foods of Tuscany, where it grows so well. That made it a great wine to enjoy when we attended a Sangiovese/Tuscan food blind tasting recently.

The Sangiovese grape is slow to mature and late-ripening. Normally at the end of September Tuscany enjoys fair weather, but starting the first week of October, the time in which Sangiovese is harvested, the risk of rain is high. Because this thin-skinned variety is sensitive to rot, a prolonged period of rain can compromise an entire vintage. The current research advises to produce new, earlier maturing clones of Sangiovese.

Nevertheless, during the grape’s growing season, the hot, dry Tuscan climate is excellent to draw out Sangiovese's endemic flavors. It tends to be fruity, with moderate to high natural acidity and generally a medium body. The aroma is not as assertive and identifiable as, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, but it can have a strawberry, blueberry, faintly floral, violet or plummy character.

The top three Sangioveses in the tasting we attended included a Castello Farnetella, 2003 Chianti, ($13 at Lazy Acres) purchased by Sarah Loebman, a Montecito resident. This dark pomegranate-colored wine had vanilla and violets on the nose. The flavors were of oak and orange peal, and the finish was balanced with pepper and toast. No wonder why it was voted favorite all around food wine of the evening, especially with the onion tart, bruschetta and olives.

Currently, the minimum amount of Sangiovese permitted in Chianti is 90%. Other grapes that may be used now include Malvasia Toscana, a white grape far superior to the previously used Trebbiano. Still, the total white grapes used must not exceed 5% of the blend. In some ways Sangiovese is to Chianti as Cabernet Sauvignon is to the Bordeaux blends: both form the base of wines normally blended with other varietals and both by themselves share a certain elegance and complexity, when well-made.

That brings us to the other much-praised Italian Sangiovese of the evening – a Super Tuscan, Il Carbonaione, 2001 ($57 at Wine Cask) made by Vittorio Fiore, one of Tuscany’s viticultural and enological pioneers. The last 20 years had dramatic increases in wine quality in Tuscany with advances in viticulture and winemaking, producing both newer-style as well as traditional Sangiovese-based red wines. Before Tuscany emerged as a leader in this renaissance, they first had to remedy the problems related to preceding decades of problematic vineyard practices.

During the 1960s it was not unusual for one man to be responsible for the entire Tuscan farm – olive oil, wine, wheat, cows – so wine was not the primary focus. The Tuscan wine producers were selling large quantities of fair quality wines at inexpensive prices so varietals such as Chianti developed the reputation of casual table wines.

The 1970s were the first generation of technically trained Tuscan enologists, bringing better scientific understanding and a focus on quality by increasing vine spacing, developing better clones and rootstocks, and replacing the cement and fiberglass-lined tanks with stainless steel.

Sangiovese, like Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir, is different from Cabernet or Merlot in that it is more difficult to extract tannin and color. With the use of better techniques to extract color and flavor and the elimination in 1997 of the legal requirement to include 2-3% white grapes in wines designated Chianti Classico, Tuscany began to realize its potential for high quality wines made from properly managed vines in the region’s favorable climate, low-vigor hillside terroir and well-drained soils.

Sangiovese Success Stories

Italian immigrants from Tuscany probably introduced the Sangiovese grape to California in the late 1800s, but the past several decades of success for the new wave of Tuscan wines has led to an increasing number of Sangiovese vineyards being planted here. By 1991, there were 200 acres of Sangiovese planted in California. (It is interesting, possibly foretelling, to note that this is the same total as the entire Cabernet Sauvignon acreage planted in California in 1961.) The best results so far have come from Napa, San Luis Obispo, the Sierra Foothills and Santa Barbara county.

When the vines of Italian varietals were first being planted, Jeff Newton of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates immediately saw how well they took to our terroir. I almost got him to predict that these could follow the Rhone planting explosion in the Santa Ynez Valley. That was about 10 years ago and Jeff is sticking to his story.

“Of the Italian varieties we've attempted to grow in Santa Barbara county, we've had the most experience and the most success with Pinot Grigio, a white, and Sangiovese, a red grape,” Newton explains. “Pinot Grigio from the cooler portions of the Santa Ynez Valley, has made delicious wines with good fruit and acidity. Di Bruno is a good example. Sangiovese has found a home in the cooler (but not too cool) parts of the Santa Ynez Valley. Ballard Canyon is an outstanding source of Sangiovese and has caught the attention of the international wine consultant Alberto Antonini from Italy. Stolpman is an excellent example of how good Sangiovese can be in Santa Barbara county. We are in the process of experimenting with other white Italian varieties including Arneis and Tocai Friulano.”

What about other Italian reds, including Nebbiolo, Lagrein, Barbera and Dolcetto? “I think we need a few more years of experience with these varieties to get a sense of how they will do in Santa Barbara county,” Newton responded.

At Stolpman Vineyards, winemakers Sashi Moorman and Peter Hunken make a wonderful Sangiovese from the Stolpman grapes. Owner Tom Stolpman says that while Sangiovese doesn’t find the highest praise from critics, it always finds a place at his dinner table. “At home I often serve Tuscan wines for my guests,” Stolpman says. “These wines share a commonality: a tremendous intensity of flavor without being ponderous. This quality of Sangiovese makes it one of the best wines to enjoy with meals. Its intense aromas, savory tannic bitterness, balanced acidity and deep but subtle fruit marry perfectly with honest straightforward cooking.”

Jim Fiolek, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association, says the county’s winegrowers are just now starting to make room for new varietals, after years of focusing on types such as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. “It’s like writing music for the string section only, and then getting the full orchestra,” Fiolek says. “We’re still learning and these Italian varietals are looking wonderful in some of our areas best suited to these grapes. We already have eighty-seven acres of Sangiovese planted and thirty acres of Nebbiolo. We also have over nine hundred acres of Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio) planted, almost twice as much as Sauvignon Blanc.”

Sangiovese Suppliers

As the county makes more room for Italian varietals, here are Sangiovese makers I’m fond of: Bruno D’Alfonso (DiBruno), Kris Curran’s Sangiovese-Rogun Vineyard, Steve Clifton (Palmina) and Brian Babcock (Babcock La Moda Toscana). Look also for Sangiovese or Sangiovese blends from Vandale, Longoria (Lusso), Foxen, Mosby, Shoestring, Rusack, Morovino, Mandolina, McKeon-Philips, East Valley Vineyards and Koehler. Benjamin Silver makes a wonderful Silver Sangiovese. Silver’s year of study in Tuscany, punctuated by frequent instructional tastings of the Italian varietals, honed his appreciation of and adeptness with that grape.

Sip Tips

A great opportunity to sample great Central Coast wines will be provided on April 29 at Bacara Resort. Wines from some of our top wineries will be accompanied by dinner-style hors d’oeuvres, live band and a silent auction under the sponsorship of The Junior League of Santa Barbara. For more info visit www.jlsantabarbara.org or call 963-2704.