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Sangiovese’s bold, noble road to nowhere



Reading about Piero Antinori in the April 30 issue of Wine Spectator brought back memories of the early and mid-1990s, when the Marchese had hundreds of acres of Sangiovese growing in a beautiful section of Atlas Peak.

The sprawling vineyard was a fine sight to see. Sangiovese, the grape and wine, still was on the upswing in Cailfornia. Many winegrowers and critics thought it could be California’s answer to Tuscany—indeed, the term “Cal-Ital” was coined to express this desire.

To understand Sangiovese’s allure at that moment, you have to put it into context. Cabernet Sauvignon was the undoubted king of red wines. Pinot Noir was not then seriously considered to be a candidate for anything. Merlot was on the rise. Zinfandel, as always, was in one year, out the next. Petite Sirah? Hmmph. It was okay for blending, but nobody took it seriously as a standalone. So people were left to wonder: What is the “next big red wine?”

In California, with its edge-of-the-continent tradition of radical reinvention, there always has to be a “next” everything. The next big movie star. The next big politician. Even the next big earthquake. This concept of “nextness” is uncomfortable with tradition—tradition, after all, is what drove so many people to leave their homes and travel westward, where they would be free from stifling oppression. So it was with wine.

Sangiovese was crowned early on with this crown of nextness. But there was a problem—a big one. It never seemed to make very good wine. Grown on fertile flatlands and benches in Napa Valley, it made a light, pale, savory wine, almost a rosé, at places like Flora Springs. But its lightness disqualified it from being the next big red wine. So it was that growers and vintners headed to the hills.

Enter Piero Antinori. The Atlas Peak vineyard, as I’ve said, was gorgeous, and the fact that the master of Tuscany presided over it was inspirational. However, once again, Sangiovese failed to live up to expectations. The tannins in the wines were enormous, gigantic, impossible. I remember attempting to review them and fundamentally giving up. Would these wines age well in 15 or 20 years? Who knew? Who cared?

So it was that, as the Wine Spectator explains, Antinori eventually gave up on Sangiovese and replaced almost all the Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, which he bottles under the Antica brand.

As for Sangiovese in California, it’s one of the really few disasters in the state’s wine varietal history. Acreage over the last ten or fifteen years has remained practically stagnant statewide. In Napa, less than 300 acres remain. I can barely remember the last one I reviewed for Wine Enthusiast.

Someday, somebody might resurrect Sangiovese in California and make something of it, but I doubt if we’ll ever see it return to glory. It’s awfully hard to attempt something important in California wine, only to fail, and then to return. Some politicians have done it—Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan conspicuously come to mind, men who ran losing campaigns that embarrassed them, but then came back and triumphed.

Wine, however, is not man. Whatever niche Sangiovese once promised to fill has been replaced by Pinot Noir. Sangiovese’s experimental period in California was a bold and noble venture, but it led nowhere.

  1. Try the wines from Noceto in the Foothills. They make some really nice sangiovese!

  2. doug wilder says:

    I too remember these wines from the early ’90s. There was an Atlas Peak varietal Sangiovese, and a blend with Cabernet. I forget the proprietary name of the latter even though I preferred it. Over the years as a buyer I tasted many California Sangiovese and came to understand that if they were essentially ‘pure’ they may show unique character. If blended with more then a few percentage points of anything else, the Sangiovese became what I described as a ‘chameleon’ taking on much of the character of the other variety. The examples that usually stood out to me were Showket and Altamura as they were predominantly Sangiovese (>97%). My general feeling about the variety was that if all the Sangiovese in California was torn out overnight that I wouldn’t shed a tear. There have been some others I have tasted and enjoyed over the years but can’t recall them. I recently tasted the 2013 Alexander Valley Vineyards Rose of Sangiovese, a purpose-grown Estate block for pink wine. If that represents the end of the road for Sangiovese in California I might just move there.

  3. Old joke in wine country:
    What’s the difference between Syrah (Sangiovese) and Pneumonia?
    You can get rid of pneumonia…

    Steve, your article certainly reflects much of what we see today, Cab is still King, Pinot is number two and then the rest of the field of varietals all looking to be the “next big thing” in red wine. Zin, still, always on the cusp. I hear more each season about Tempranillo and Barbera, even Aglianico. Sangiovese has become a niche, an anecdote, a low production wine club shipment.

    What I have encountered is that many buyers don’t know what Sangiovese is. Is it a brand name? A region? Something from Italy? How do I pronounce it? Many every day buyers of grocery store brands don’t know where Sangiovese fits on their kitchen counter. And while plenty of movies love to talk about Italy and people drinking Chianti, there hasn’t been that ‘Sideways’ moment for Sangiovese.

    My brief experience with Sangiovese in Dry Creek Valley shows me that the grape is often very high in acid with light color and an absolute new oak sponge. Acid and light color are two negatives when it comes to consumer preference to be sure; and yes, there is something called over-oaked, even for the consumer. Try over-oaking Sangiovese, it’s easy to do and honestly off-putting.

    Enter Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab adds color. Cab adds tannin. Cab can handle new oak. Cab could use some extra acid. Blended with Sangiovese early or co-fermented, naturally balances the two varietals into something beautiful; at least in Dry Creek Valley. Given the trend that consumers love blended wines, Sangiovese would seem like a natural candidate to put in a big blend, which is where the bulk has gone.

    Enter native fermentation. Fruit from the northern extreme of Dry Creek Valley is literally across the street from the esteemed Rockpile Appellation. Plenty of research has been done on the RP15 yeast. There are radical color differences between inoculated and native fermentations of Sangiovese after pressing, not to mentioned flavor profile differences. RP15 isn’t just for Zin and Big Cab!

    Piero Antinori was on to something with Sangiovese and maybe he should have bought some property elsewhere, other than in Napa. Napa doesn’t do everything well, despite its reputation.

    Sangiovese doesn’t have to “return to glory” but there is certainly a place at the table for this noble varietal.

  4. I think that the Atlas Peak wines did more to kill winemaker’s enthusiasm for Sangiovese, given the Antinori involvement, than just about anything. If the Antinori’s couldn’t make a decent Sangiovese wine who could? And with a few exceptions, like the Altamura and a few vintages from Benessere I pretty much stopped tasting California Sangiovese.

    Then last year, on a trip to Amador County I tasted some examples that changed my mind completely. The Sangiovese wines being made by Vino Noceto are remarkable and proof that wines made from Sangiovese in California can succeed. The 2011 Vino Noceto Hillside Sangiovese from vines sourced from the Isole e Olena vineyard was my personal favorite but all of their Sangiovese wines are worth trying. They are also very well priced when you compare them to their Italian counterparts.

  5. Gary Cowan, you’re right to point out Noceto for praise.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    The first and only version I enjoyed was Dalla Valle Pietre Rosse Sangiovese.

    But at it’s suggested retail selling price and limited availability, why not just buy “the real deal”?

    Here’s a link to national retailers selling the Dalla Valle:

    Note not a single wine merchant operating outside of California.

    Underscores the non-adoption of that wine by the retail trade and the general buying public.

  7. Thanks for the nice comments regarding Noceto’s Sangiovese. Amazingly Noceto has been quietly producing Sangiovese in Amador for 25 years. They now have 7 different Sangioveses in the lineup – each showcasing a different cutting/clone. Sangiovese is very much like Pinot Noir it can be very light elegant food friendly wine or bigger richer more complex version depending on the clone and winemaking style. Sangiovese is difficult to grow and the numbers do not pencil out to grow Sangiovese in Napa. There has been a little excitement recently in growing Sangiovese in Washington and other spots so hopefully someday it will be recognized as the noble grape it is.


    Gregg Lamer
    Vino Noceto

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