Sangiovese: Hot Red

TIMES WINE WRITER

For people unhappy with the current state of American red wines, there's a maverick on the California scene.

Sangiovese is the name and a different sort of red wine is the game. The problem at the moment is supply. You won't find many California Sangioveses at the local grocery store. Most of what's out there is limited in supply, and because of that are sold only in specialty shops and upscale restaurants. And for an unproven newcomer, some of the wines are overpriced.

Within three years, however, the grape variety Sangiovese will be in much wider supply and this will make for a broader selection in red wines than are now available.

Sangiovese has great potential when grown in hillside soils in warmer regions. This is the grape of Tuscany and other regions in the Mediterranean climate of Italy. For centuries it has made some of the finest red wines in the world, Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino among them.

In Chianti, blended with the local Tuscan variety Canaiolo and a dollop of white wine grapes for softening, Sangiovese makes an intriguing wine. Its basic aroma is of strawberries and violets, rather than the cherry/black currant character we associate with Cabernet. The wine is rarely very dark, but not lacking for flavor. And it has a remarkable affinity for food.

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Sangiovese has been planted in California for more than a century, but no more than a handful of acres of it existed before 1988. The state says no more than 35 acres existed in California until larger plantings--one by Robert Pepi Winery and another by Piero Antinori, one of Chianti's most important producers--began in the Napa Valley.

The Antinori project, a joint venture with Allied Lyons of Great Britain, has the largest planting of Sangiovese in the state, more than 120 acres on its Atlas Peak ranch above the valley floor in a craggy hollow near Stag's Leap--an area with more rock than soil.

Today there are some 400 acres of Sangiovese in California and demand for the variety at nurseries is growing rapidly.

Today there are some 400 acres of Sangiovese in California. A single nursery, Sonoma Grapevines, the largest grapevine bench-graft firm in the United States, sold more Sangiovese vines (52,407) in 1993 than ever before, equivalent to 65 acres and demand for the variety at nurseries is growing rapidly.

Experts say Sangiovese should do well in areas such as Atlas Peak--slopes where drainage is good and where the temperatures in late summer are warm enough to push the grapes to full ripeness. But Sangiovese is similar to Zinfandel in that it is a maddeningly slow ripener; as late as two weeks before harvest, some otherwise purplish bunches will still display a few green berries.

Moreover, the variety likes to produce a huge amount of fruit per acre, and if left to do that it will make remarkably mediocre wine. "You can't let it get out of control, or it will make terrible wine," said George Bursick, winemaker for Ferrari-Carano Winery in Sonoma County. Producers must whack off large amounts of fruit at an early stage to allow the remaining grapes to gain flavor.

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The first Atlas Peak and Robert Pepi Sangioveses, seen about three years ago, gave the earliest inkling that the variety had potential in California. Both were more aromatic and accessible than typical Chiantis. And for those who had never tasted one, it was sort of like a cross between Cabernet and Pinot Noir with a bit of Zinfandel thrown in for aroma.

However, where Cabernet Sauvignon is high in tannin, Sangiovese is relatively soft. Where Pinot Noir often has vegetal aromas, the Sangiovese has little, if any. Where Zinfandel is often high in alcohol, and tastes it, Sangiovese usually is not, and even when it is, it hides it.

One problem with Sangiovese is that it likes wood. "You have to be careful with it because it soaks up oak like a sponge," said Swanson Vineyards' Marco Capelli. Such wines, when very oaky, may be initially appealing in an exotic sort of way, but they are tiresome to drink much of, and they don't age well.

In the last six months, a half dozen new producers have come on the market with new efforts from the Sangiovese grape, and more are on the way. Supply is still limited, but the wines are worth trying if you should find one.

Tasting through a number of these wines, I liked the following:

1991 Ferrari-Carano Vineyards ($12): Stunning fruit with violets and traces of strawberry and spice. Bursick's first Sangiovese was fashioned in a lighter style, structured like Zinfandel, but with more refinement. This wine is available only from the winery, (707) 433-6700.

1991 Swanson Vineyards ($16): Capelli crafted an elegant wine with a strawberry and citrus nose, lovely balance of flavors, and a harmonious, clean, fresh finish with a trace of anise or mint. A lovely first effort from Swanson's 5.5-acre vineyard.

1991 Noceto ($8): A good value in a tasty, tart, typical "Chianti-type" Sangioivese. Some raspberry and spice with a very ripe note in the nose. Excellent value.

1991 Estancia Vineyards , Alexander Valley ($12): This brand of Franciscan Vineyards released its first Sangiovese and it's a lovely wine with chocolate notes (probably from oak), alongside cherry and raspberry aromas. It comes only in 500-ml bottles.

The following wines were all judged to be less than acceptable because of flaws in the aromas, and all were too expensive: 1991 Seghesio Winery "Vitigno Toscano" ($14): 1991 Atlas Peak Vineyards ($24); 1990 Robert Pepi Winery "Colline di Sassi" ($25); 1990 Trentadue Winery($15).

In addition to these wines, Mosby Vineyards in Buellton makes an excellent Brunello from the Sangiovese grape. Martin Bros., with an eight-acre block of Sangiovese in Paso Robles, will release its first 100% Sangiovese in March at about $12. It will be called "Il Palio," named after the famous horse race in Siena.

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