Sangiovese is the only Italian red wine grape most Americans know, and even then we don’t know it by its name. Instead, we know it as Chianti, which is the region where the best-known sangiovese is produced. (And those of us of a certain age will always remember Chianti for the wicker basket on the bottle, which meant hip and trendy way back when.)
So it’s probably not surprising to find out that American sangiovese has, over the years, been mostly ordinary. There were a couple of producers whose wine was OK, but the grape never caught on here.
That has changed dramatically over the past decade, and it’s not because American winemakers are trying to knock off sangiovese like a badly-made dress. Rather, it’s because they understand the grape and its relationship with terroir in a way they hadn’t before. We don’t have to make sangiovese that tastes like Chianti. We can make it to taste like sangivoese from California -- or even Texas or Arizona.
What’s going on and why it’s good news for wine drinkers, after the jump:
I’ve always thought one of the problems with American sangiovese is that our weather and our soil were too good. Sangiovese, as a grape, likes hot weather and lousy, clay-like soil. California has the some of the former, but almost none of the latter, and its sangiovese always seemed too nice to me -- like the new kid in school who wants everyone to be their best friend. The best sangiovese is more like the kid who doesn’t care if you like him or not. If you do, great; if not, it’s your loss.
On the other hand, we have beastly hot weather and crappy soil in the U.S. Southwest, and those conditions seem to be paying off in high-quality sangiovese. These wines have the characteristics of the grape but reflect the weather, soil and traditions of the wineries. The best U.S. sangioveses offer New World-style fruitiness as well as some of that Old World style. This has been one of the keys to the improvement in U.S. regional wine, in which wineries are matching grapes to the conditions instead of growing grapes because they want to.
In Texas, McPherson Cellars, Flat Creek Estate, Llano Estacado and Kiepersol Estates all produce quality sangiovese and sangivoese blends for $15 to $25 (and I’m probably leaving someone out because I can’t keep track of all the well-made wine). At the Southwest Wine Competition in Taos this year, an Arizona sangiovese, from Sonoita Vineyards, won a silver medal. I have also tasted other promising wines from Arizona and New Mexico. They aren’t there yet, but as their winemakers work with the grape and learn how to handle it, they should get better.
Perhaps the most impressive U.S. sangiovese I have had comes from California and the legendary Randall Grahm. His 2006 Bonny Doon Vineyard Sangiovese Cá del Solo is stunning, even for someone whose wines are as well-made as Grahm’s usually are. The Cá del Solo has Italian roots – acid, minerality and that tell-tale cherry fruit – but there is no mistaking it comes from the New World. It’s a steal at $18.
The photo is from Pichunter of Canada, via stockxpert, using a Creative Commons license.