I went out last weekend with an amazing winemaker from Boca in Piemonte and I was trying to explain to him why I spent a recent day in the Napa Valley tasting nothing but California Sangiovese. I was met with a blank stare as if I was from Mars. Yes, I like Brunello as much as the next guy, but there are times where I simply crave the lighter weight, scent and juicyness of Napa Sangiovese for simple drinking with food. Italian Sangiovese, I feel like I wait forever for. It's a sublime wine when it's perfect, but most young Italian Sangioveses leave me wanting to leave them alone for another 5 years. Napa Sangiovese brings me instant gratification.
The first thing I love is the body. Most vintners seem to have a pretty light touch with Sangiovese and don't try to push it to the heights ripeness and alcohold, and the body doesn't usually push past medium - rarely syrupy. With a simple pasta dish with a tomato-based sauce, the fruitiness in the wine balances the acid in the sauce. There is often a touch of the herbal which in some wines are considered flaws, but can also accentuate food.
This was kind of a last minute tour, so I could only visit Luna, Benessere, Flora Springs, and Silverado. I did manage, because it was a Monday, to hang out with Jonathan Emmerich, winemaker at Silverado for a nice tasting. Gino Camozzi at Flora Springs and Jo Dayoan at Benessere were also very helpful in my Sangio-quest.
It's at Benessere where my cravings begin. I was first turned on to their wines through the great Black Glass Zinfandel, grown in soil with obsidian popping out of it. Their Cal-Itals are now being made by Jack Stuart, who was the winemaker at Silverado for 20+ years. It has only been 2 since he took over, so I was unable to taste any of his finished wines, but I have high hopes, as I have always loved the Benessere Sangioveses and their Super Tuscan blend, Phenomenon. These wines once again did not disappoint, and I brought back several for my stash.
The best wine of the day undoubtedly went to the 1997 Luna Reserve Sangiovese which was graciously opened by the folks at Luna. They only had 8 left after the one we opened and they are available for $75 at the winery. This was the first vintage of reserve at Luna and is showing well with leather, cedar, and green olive overtones. I also really enjoyed the 2009 Reserve Sangiovese, with its white pepper, currant, and lavender scents. At $40 it's a treat that is worthwhile. Even the 2008 Sangiovese with 75% Sangiovese, 20% Merlot, and 5% Petite Sirah was tasty and this is a very affordable wine, easily available at Safeway. A great bargain. (As is their Pinot Grigio).
My visit with Jonathan at Silverado shed some light on how the techniques for making Sangiovese in Napa have evolved over the years, from the mid-80s when Jack Stuart and the Millers (owners of Silverado) first went to Tuscany and decided to plant Sangiovese back home in Napa. Back then, it was the normal Cabernet treatment all the way...extracted, fussy, lots of pump-overs and punch downs to bring out more body and color. Now, at least at Silverado (and I taste this in others as well) the treatment is much more gentle, with careful in-frequent pump-overs and super-light pressings. Oak treatment is in a combination of normal 60 gal. barrels and large 500 ltr. barrels to give gentle oakiness. The 2007 Sangiovese is estate grown and is delicious. Their Super-Tuscan-style wine is called Fantasia and is a great example Napa Cal-Ital blending. It's 60/40 Sangiovese/Cabernet and it does have a real Cab character to it, but don't hold that against it. It's a lovely wine and recommended if you're looking for something different than your average Cab.
Flora Springs has massive holdings, at 650 acres, but only makes about 400 cases of Sangiovese, mostly going to their wine-club members and tasting room visitors. It's 20090 is juicy, classic, light-bodied Sangiovese with a good hit of acid. Lots of cranberry flavors to it. Their Poggio Del Papa is their Super-Tuscan blend of 60/20/20 Sangiovese/Cab/Merlot. Another nice blend, and I brought one of those back for my collection as well.
Tonight I opened the Venge 2009 Sangiovese from the Penny Lane Vineyard in Oakville. This wine has a slightly bigger body than most of the other Sangioveses I tasted, and more than a small hint herbacousness. It was an excellent foil for a Hunter's Style Chicken. I found this and many of the producers below's wares at Dean and Deluca in St. Helena - right next door to Flora Springs, of course. Dean and Deluca has an excellent wine selection and the prices are just fine. When you run out of time, as I did, it's a quick stop to pick up some awesome wines you can't find near home.
An incomplete list of Sangiovese producers and thier links: