Posted by: tomciocco | March 12, 2013

CALIFORNIA SANGIOVESE – A NOW RARE BREED

The noble and ultra-famous Central Italian grape variety Sangiovese and the State of California share quite a long and checkered history. There is documented proof that Sangiovese had been planted in the Napa Valley  as early as the 1890s (long before California’s unofficial state red grape Cabernet Sauvignon) by Tuscan vineyard workers who came to California to work in already functioning wineries.

Prior to the (very) earliest flowerings of (truly) quality winemaking in California in the 1950s, much of the state’s huge output was bottled in gallon jugs and were willy-nilly blends of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Barbera, and other varieties including Sangiovese. Often known as “field blends” (you picked what was planted in your field, and you made wine from it) these unregulated blends prevailed as pure and direct reflections of their producer, and what he happened to have growing in fields because the notion of imitating Bordeaux or Chateauneuf-du-Pape didn’t even exist yet…

And so it continued until the invention of the “Meritage” blend, and first tries at Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. As these varieties exploded, the local Sangiovese was seen to be nothing more than the base for a then mostly cheap and easy straw-covered bottle Chianti which was plentiful and…imported. The upshot was that as a result, California’s Sangiovese fruit became permanently relegated to the jug, and then production began slip quickly in favor of the planting of less fussy and more productive varieties.

Eventually, the Sangiovese still extant in California’s vineyards (in many cases it was re-planted in the same areas where it had previously been ripped up) was re-discovered with the idea of possibly hammering it into the Californian Brunello di Montalcino or Chianti Classico. But after much experimentation with site, training systems, pruning, and clonal selection, the results were never very good. As mentioned previously, Sangiovese is a challenging vine to grow, and its Tuscan homeland has a very different soil composition than almost any California wine region. And though the climates are similar, Tuscany is quite a bit less sunny, somewhat cooler and damper as well, so the results in California were often clumsy, alcoholic, simple, and overly fruity. It’s always important for a vine to express its terroir but the grape’s general lack of expression was quite notable, and as a result Sangiovese vines began further disappearing from California’s vineyards …

But as you likely know, California is a very big and geologically diverse place, and one pocket in the state in which Sangiovese seems to do quite well is in Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley. This region is formed by the San Rafael Mountains to the north, and the Santa Ynez Range to the south, and it leads directly out to the Pacific. One soil type that the Santa Ynez Valley is particularly long on is a type of friable limestone (rare in the rest of the state) very similar to Tuscany’s so-called Galestro soil, and on which Sangiovese thrives. And because the parallel east-west mountain ranges at times siphon in cold, damp air from the ocean, the area’s climate mimics Tuscany’s far better than the often scorching hot and quite arid Napa region. All that said, Brunello and Chianti have little to fear from Santa Ynez Valley Sangiovese, but this is undoubtedly the wine with the most Sangiovese “typicity” that I’ve ever tasted from The Golden State.

And since California Sangiovese is a Italian-American wine, I made a sort of informal Italian-American dinner to go along with it – pepper and onion cheese steak sandwiches with two salads: one potato, cauliflower, scallion, and parsley, and the other, green with carrots and grape tomatoes.

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Stolpman Santa Ynez Valley La Coppa Sangiovese 2009

Very deep, brownish garnet color. Nose of dry earth, bark, wild blueberry and cherry fruit, menthol, sea spray, violet, and coal smoke. The wine is initially full-bodied, burly, and deep, with very dry, scouring, peppery tannins that follow into a thinnish mid-palate but with still big sweet and sour flavors of plum, pomegranate and myrtle berry fruit notes, as well as flavors of sauteed forest mushrooms and cocoa. Rustic, tart acidity. Warm, Brut-dry leathery finish. 

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