Don't Call it Sangiovese

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Tasted an interesting wine the other night. A one-off from Londer Vineyards in California, called "Immigrante." The label said it was a mix of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and PInot Noir, which has to be one of the oddest combinations you can imagine. Cabernet and Pinot Noir rule New World wine right now (not to mention a large chunk of the Old World called France). But Sangiovese? It's big in Italy, but a total loser in California. I thought, "how'd that dog get in there with the aristocrats?"

I forgot the question when I tasted the wine. Real nice red, full of ftuit and spice, good body, and a texture made for savoring. It made me think of pasta for dinner, so we whipped something up and feasted on the food and the wine.

I ran into Shirlee Londer at a farmer's market a few weeks later and asked about the wine. Wasn't "Immigrante" kind of a modest, aw-shucks name for a something with Pinot and Cab in it? "It's mostly Sangiovese!" she exclaimed. She went on to explain that the Londers' New York distributor warned them against releasing a wine called "Sangiovese" because the grape already had a bad rap. So the Londers gave it a proprietary name and sold it handily.

So yesterday I'm in San Francisco, where Sonoma County is putting on a big show. I'm tasting at the Ferrari-Carano table manned -- er, womanned -- by winemaker Sarah Girder and publicitymaker Cheryl McMillan. They pour me some of their proprietary red wine called "Siena," and I start to write up my notes. The description starts reminding me of my notes on Immigrante: real nice wine, fruit/spice/body/texture etc. etc..

So I ask about the grapes in "Siena." Sure enough, it's mostly Sangiovese.

I have to confess that, as a lover of Italian wine, I wrote a lot about Sangiovese when it started going into the ground in California and people started making the wine. I also have to confess that I didn't hesitate to call the public's attention to how unsatisfying that wine turned out to be in many cases. It was fermented too hot with the wrong yeasts, it took up too much oak from the wrong barrels during aging, and it was just generally dried out, astringent, and awkward.

Of course winemakers are smart enough to figure out where they went wrong originally, and they are now making good Sangiovese up and down the state of California. But bad press dies hard, so there appears to be a hesitation to put "Sangiovese" on the front of the bottle.

If you know of other examples of good Sangiovese by some other name, send me a message at thom@winecountry.com so I can get the wine and taste it.

It may be time to start talking about California Sangiovese as a delicious change of pace, and bury its reputation as a major disappointment.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

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