A Toast To The `Cal Italians'

California's wine industry was cultivated mainly by Italian immigrant families. Yet it has prospered on the strength of the French-style wines more familiar to consumers--primarily cabernets and chardonnays. The Napa Valley climate, however, is more like Tuscany than Bordeaux. And in the past few years, vintners have been experimenting with Italian grape varieties such as sangiovese and nebbiolo. Early offerings were uneven and sometimes overpriced. But suddenly, the category of "Cal-Italians" is bursting with high-quality new wines and refinements on earlier vintages from respected producers.

Many well-known vineyards are embracing the Cal-Italians, including Atlas Peak California Wine, Bonny Doon, Ferrari-Corono, Robert Pepi, Swanson, and Viansa. Wine buffs are eagerly anticipating the May launch of La Famiglia, a new line from Napa's esteemed Robert Mondavi. In unique sculptural bottles with elegant foil labels, Mondavi's first release will be collector-edition quantities available only at the winery. The Mondavi offerings will cost $11 to $20 and include sangiovese, barbera, malvasia bianca, and tocai friulano. Look for La Famiglia in fine wine shops around the country starting in '96.

This trend coincides with Americans' growing love of northern Italian cuisine, which features grilled meats, fish, and lighter sauces, according to Napa-based Ron Wiegand, editor of Restaurant Wine. Even the red wines common to northern Italian regions, such as Chianti, are spicy and flavorful but lighter than cabernet sauvignons and so complement the region's foods. Wiegand estimates that one in eight California wineries now has an Italian-style wine or soon plans to produce them.

FAST FINISH. As usual in the wine world, the names can cause confusion. Chianti is a region in Italy, but the primary grapes that go into Chianti-style wines are sangiovese. Wines dubbed "California chiantis" have appeared over the years, but they were of varying quality and not necessarily made from sangiovese grapes. Also, some California sangiovese offerings in recent years have retailed for $20 to $30 yet had no advantage over $10 true Italian Chiantis. Several recent Cal-Italian sangioveses priced above $20 are highly regarded, however, including Swanson and Atlas Peak Reserve.

Good midpriced Cal-Italians are appearing, too. In an informal BUSINESS WEEK tasting, Pellegrini's 1993 Barbera (which sells for about $9 in California) won raves for being soft and full-bodied. Characteristic of that grape, it tends to "finish" quickly on the tongue--reinforcing its lighter profile. More values for around $10: nebbiolos from Martin Brothers and barberas from Louis M. Martini, which has made Italian-style wines for decades.

Bonny Doon's malvasia bianca is a bright, lively,

dry white wine with a spectacular bouquet of fruit and fresh flowers that sells for about $8. Bonny Doon is better known for its red, Rhone-style wines, but the malvasia is from its Ca' del Solo line, which also includes a Chianti-style wine called "Il fiasco"--its label shows a waiter nearly upsetting his tray. Mondavi's new malvasia, on the other hand, has a sweet finish and refreshing citrus flavors.

ROOT LOUSE. Until recently, very limited quantities of these wines were available, sometimes for sale only at the wineries. You may still need to call to find out where you can buy the wines locally--or in limited instances, order them by mail. But lately, volumes are increasing and distribution is expanding for an interesting reason: California vineyards have been plagued with phylloxera, a root-infecting louse. "Phylloxera has sped up" the replanting of more Italian varietal grapes, says Glen Salva, vice-president at Atlas Peak. According to the Wine Institute, the volume of sangiovese grapes harvested grew from 1.7 tons in 1987 to more than 500 tons in 1992.

Some wineries are even experimenting with an old Italian technique called "field blending," in which different varieties of grapes are planted in a single vineyard, then harvested together to produce a table wine. Variety is one of the great joys of wine--and these rediscovered traditions are invigorating California producers while giving wine buffs something new to


Italian Grapes On California Labels

SANGIOVESE Lighter than cabernets, but spicy. Primary grape of Chianti.

NEBBIOLO Creates complex, smooth reds. In Italy, the foundation of Barolo wine.

BARBERA Until recently, used mainly in California to augment jug wines. Quality is improving with full-bodied reds.

PINOT GRIGIO Produces simple, clean white wines. Identical to the French Pinot Gris.

MALVASIA BIANCA Makes fragrant, low-acid white wines. They may be sweet or dry.

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