THE WORLD'S FIRST international Sangiovese conference will be held in Napa Valley on Friday, July 25, to address the future of this ever-popular grape and the wine made from it. . . .
Appropriately, the host is Piero Antinori, the great Tuscan vintner who also owns Atlas Peak Vineyards in Napa, where the largest amount of Sangiovese in California is grown. . . .
This meeting of the minds brings many of the leading Tuscan vintners, who've been making wine from Sangiovese for centuries, together with upstarts from California, who view this grape with increasing enthusiasm. . . .
For purposes of discussion, Sangiovese begins and ends in Italy and California, quite literallythe grape is not widely planted beyond either locale. . . .
IN ITALY, and in particular central Italy's Tuscany, Sangiovese rivals Barbera as the most widely planted grape. . . .
In California, recent estimates put Sangiovese plantings at between 500 and 1,000 acres, but it's well behind the big reds, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which exceed 30,000 acres and those numbers are growing. . . .
Sangiovese is the workhorse for many Italian wines, ranging from the most basic Chianti Classicos to the noble Brunello di Montalcino. . . .
The traditional blend for Chianti Classico included four grapes: two reds (Sangiovese and Canaiolo) and two whites (Malvasia and Trebbiano). The result was a quaffable, medium-weight, spicy and mildly tannic red table wine that matches up well with many dishes, from pasta to rabbit. . . .
IN THE 1970s, Antinori decided he could make a better wine by ignoring the rules, and produced the first "super" Tuscan red. . . .
He blended a small portion of Cabernet into his Sangiovese and aged the result in small oak barrels, while ignoring the white grapes altogether. . . .
A wine called Tignanello established super Tuscan as a category; "super" stands for "superior to other Tuscan reds". . . .
The success of Tignanello started a new wave of super Tuscan wines, with many vintners following Antinori's lead. . . .
Tuscan vintners are still wrestling with the future of Sangiovese, Chianti Classico and super Tuscan wines. . . .
On one hand, they have a centuries-old tradition with the grape and very strict governmental rules and regulations about it's planted, how it's grown and how it's vinified. . . .
FOR EXAMPLE, because of new European laws that govern grape plantings throughout the Continent, if a vintner wants to plant a dozen Cabernet vines in his vineyard he must remove that many other vines so his exact vine count remains the same. . . .
Chianti Classico also has a very loyal following, not only in this country, but throughout Europe, where it is akin to Beaujolais or Rioja as a synonym for steady, dependable red table wines, to be counted on appearing every year at affordable prices. . . .
In Tuscany, many vintners would just as soon focus on 100 percent Sangiovese, and in fact that's a major trend. . . .
Newly passed laws allow Tuscan vintners to skip the blendthey can produce 100 percent Sangiovese and still call it Chianti Classico. . . .
Because Antinori's Tignanello caused such a stir, many producers moved full steam ahead and added Cabernet to their blends, all the while ignoring Sangiovese and the question of which were the superior clones that would lead to even better wines. . . .
ONE OF THE Sangiovese conference's key speakers is Paolo de Marchi, owner of Isole e Olena, another maverick who in addition to his fine Chianti Classico produces a pure Sangiovese called Cepparello. . . .
For De Marchi, the past decade has been devoted to focusing on finding the best Sangiovese clones for Tuscany. Historically there have been dozens of different ones, with many only suited for thin, bland wines. . . .
Because the super Tuscans so dramatically altered winemaking thinking, many vintners rushed to plant Cabernet and fine-tune that grape rather than explore other options for Sangiovese. . . .
De Marchi's Cepparello is one of the richest, smoothest and most complex Sangioveses I've tried. . . .
He also has Cabernet, was the first to plant Syrah in Tuscany and has tried Chardonnay, although he's pulling the latter vine out, deciding the local weather's is too warm, and the wine's quality is too variable to pursue it any longer. . . .
THROUGHOUT TUSCANY, Sangiovese is best rooted on rocky hillside locales with plenty of sun, but even then the grape can be tricky to grow, because the berry size varies greatly and the crop can ripen unevenly. . . .
In California, it will be years before the best sites are developed. . . .
At one time, Atlas Peak Vineyards, with more than 120 acres of Sangiovese, was far and away the largest producer of that grape. . . .
Now each year the number of acres rises, with new styles of wines, too. There are now several dozen Sangiovese and Sangiovese blends being made in California. . . .
I doubt California will ever produce anything quite like Chianti Classico, the table wine with its blend of grapes and lighter style. . . .
More likely the focus will remain on higher-end blends and pure Sangioveses that are richer and more concentrated than their Chianti Classico counterparts. . . .
THE CALIFORNIA WINES will also be more expensive. . . .
There are many topics to be debatedfrom soils to climates to fermentation temperatures to barrel aging- but the big upside for wine lovers is simple. . . .
Better wines from both Tuscany and California will emerge as ideas are exchanged. The bottom line for all winemakers is keeping their customers satisfied. . . .
James Laube, a senior editor of Wine Spectator magazine, has written three books on California wine. Check this space every Monday for his views on the latest in the wine world. And if you missed a week, or want to reread a piece, back editions are available in the Column Archive.
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