Que sera Sangiovese: Lessons learned from a failed experiment
For a classic example of a fad that fizzled, you need look no further than California’s brief, disastrous experiment with Super-Tuscans.
It started when Piero Antinori, of Tignanello fame, bought a chunk of land on Atlas Peak and planted what was then the biggest Sangiovese vineyard in California. (Seghesio, and maybe a few others, had planted Sangiovese long before that, but it was off anyone’s radar.) When people heard that the Titan of Tuscany was planning on producing a Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend — a “Super-Tuscan” — in Napa Valley, the wine media’s collective head exploded, and Cabernet producers looked nervously over their shoulders. Was this where the industry was going? Nobody wanted to miss that bus.
So everybody put in a few rows of Sangiovese. But a funny thing happened: California Super-Tuscans came, they saw, and they flopped. It turned out that Sangiovese by itself wasn’t very interesting, so there was simply no point in dumbing down a perfectly good Cabernet with it, except for the purpose of creating a novelty. Besides, there was something vaguely un-Californian about mixing Sangiovese with Cab. We had worked so hard at perfecting Cabernet and Bordeaux blends; it was as if Napa’s heritage were being disrespected, or even deliberately compromised for marketing purposes.
In Italy, some people in Tuscany had always felt the same way about Cabernet. They thought Sangiovese and Chianti should be made the traditional way. But there was no denying the money and fame that Tignanello was getting, so copycat Super-Tuscans began rolling off the assembly line.
But even in Tuscany, Super-Tuscans may have had their moment in the sun. A recent article in the World of Fine Wine magazine is headlined Rebels Without a Cause? The Demise of Super-Tuscans. It explains that “consumers are apparently turning their backs on these once trailblazing wines,” even in Italy. Why? Because they’re so muscular and powerful, “they’ve become less and less Tuscan,” the article quotes a Tuscan winemaker as saying. In other words, they could be from anywhere.
This argument is essentially the same one you hear in California: that Cabernets, Syrahs, Pinot Noirs and other (mainly red) wines have become so big and ripe that, luscious though they may be, they define an “international style” rather than one reflecting a particular terroir. In recent years there’s been some critical speculation that the pendulum is swinging back to more nuanced wines; in part, this may be due to relatively cooler vintages. But I can’t say that California wines are particularly nuanced. Barolo is nuanced. Bordeaux is nuanced. Young Burgundy is nuanced. The best California wines are explosive and fruity, which is what we like about them. Europeans can criticize them for being “international” in style, but you know what? California invented the international style. “International” is just another word for “Californian.”
When you think about it, California Super-Tuscans were the only ambitious wine experiment California ever tried at and failed. Are there lessons to be learned? I thought about this for the better part of a week. Don’t do something just because Antinori did? Make small, experimental lots before you jump off the cliff? Don’t always be thinking you have to seize onto the “new hot variety” train before it leaves the station? Stick to what you know you do well? I couldn’t come up with anything specific. Maybe the lesson is that there is no lesson. The development of wine in a new region like California is like Darwinian evolution: some branches led to us, while others led nowhere.