Tuscany Comes to California

For some reason I’ve never been able to figure out, Sangiovese, the primary grape of Chianti, seems to have a lot of trouble prospering outside its native Tuscany.

Even that most temperamental varietal, Pinot Noir, can achieve at least a modest respectability in California, New Zealand, and Oregon, but Sangiovese throws a sulk when removed more than a few hundred kilometers from Siena.

But this week’s Wine of the Week highlights an exception. One California winemaking family, the Seghessios, have cracked the conundrum, and their Seghesio Sangiovese 2008, Alexander Valley ($28), is a delight. Yes, it has a marked New World personality, that succulent dark-berry fruit one expects from California, but it still manages to maintain Sangiovese’s lively freshness along with a rustic Tuscan authenticity.

TALE OF THE GRAPES

To find out how they pulled off this uncommon feat, I queried Pete Seghesio, the chief executive and winegrower of Seghesio Family Vineyards and a third-generation winemaker. (His grandfather Edoardo Segehsio, who emigrated from Piedmont, Italy, started making wine on this land in 1895.) Pete’s explanation proved instructive.

“I think there are two main components to that story. First, the clones are ones that nobody else has. They came over from Italy in the late 1800s, and they tend to give a smaller berry. And the site’s got very poor soil, very shallow soil. The fruit’s all benchland or hillside, very well drained so it devigorizes the vines. We find that Sangiovese grows like a weed, so it needs a very tough site to calm it down, and we’ve got a certain amount of serpentine rock that’s very poor nutritionally, so the vines don’t set a large crop.”

This is all what one might expect from this sort of wine—poor, hillside vineyards producing low yields of small, intensely flavored grapes. But there is more to this story. First, the vines are 20 to 25 years old, probably the oldest in the state, which means deeper roots and more flavor. “Then my cousin Ted, the winemaker, definitely has a European style to him. He likes grip, he likes good acidity. He’s not the typical sweet, fat California style that you see with red wines. Recently he has backed off on the amount of new wood that goes into the Sangiovese.”

According to Pete, recent years have seen an increase in Sangiovese plantings in the state, but given their unique set of advantages, these newcomers are going to be hard-pressed to match Seghessio’s excellent Tuscan transplant.

To find this wine near you, try Wine Searcher
When to Drink: Now
Breathing/Decanting: Half-an-hour helps
Food Pairing: Pasta, pizza, steak
Grapes: 100% Sangiovese
Appellation: Alexander Valley
Region: California
Country: USA
Price: $28
Availability: Limited
Web Site: www.seghesio.com

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