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Sangiovese Games and Power of Words

January 11, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

Okay, folks, this might be the scariest post I have ever written. This might lead to unsubscribes, unfollows, ostracism, and public shaming. Well, it is what it is.

Here it comes, my confession.

I don’t know how Sangiovese tastes like.

Here, I said it. You heard me right, and I can repeat. I do not know how Sangiovese tastes like.

Still here? Okay, then I would like to ask for a chance to explain.

I know how Cabernet Sauvignon tastes like. Whether it is produced in Bordeaux, California, Australia or Tuscany, I still expect to find cassis, maybe eucalyptus, maybe mint, maybe bell peppers.

I know how Pinot Noir tastes like. No matter whether it comes from Burgundy, South Africa, Oregon, New Zealand, or California, I still expect to find cherries, maybe plums, maybe violets, maybe some smoke.

I can continue – I know how Chardonnay tastes like (from anywhere), I know how Riesling tastes like (from anywhere), I know how Sauvignon Blanc tastes like (from anywhere). I still don’t know how Sangiovese tastes like.

While we are talking grapes, we are also talking about the power of words. As soon as we hear Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, we have an instant mental image, set our expectations, and the first sip of wine is judged against that mental image. Of course, we make regional adjustments – Pinot Noir from Oregon might offer dark chocolate, espresso, and mocha in addition to the cherries, but cherries will be there. Bordeaux (okay, it is usually a blend, so this might be a bad example) is expected to be leaner that’s California Cab, but it will still show that cassis core. And I still have no clue how Sangiovese should taste like.

I know how Brunello tastes. It is 100% Sangiovese, but it has its own unique taste profile with layers of tart cherries and cherry pits framed by oak notes and firm tannins. I know how Vino Nobile de Montepulciano tastes. It is also 100% Sangiovese, with tart cherries usually weaved around a core of acidity. I know how Chianti typically tastes. It has to be at least 80% Sangiovese, plus other grapes, and it will have the cherries usually surrounded by leather and tobacco.

Brunello, Vino Nobile, Chianti are renditions of Sangiovese, but they are references only to themselves. When I hear any of these names, I know what to expect. But I still don’t know how Sangiovese tastes like.

I don’t know if you ever had a chance to experience Shafer Firebreak. This wine used to be made from California Sangiovese (92%) with the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon (8%), the percentages are representative of the last vintage which was in 2003 (Sangiovese plantings were removed after that). This wine had nothing in common with any of the Italian Sangiovese renditions, but instead had a smoke, espresso, and powerful dark fruit. A very memorable rendition of Sangiovese – but not referenceable.

You might be annoyed at this point by me constantly repeating “I don’t know how Sangiovese tastes like” and wondering where I might be going with that. So this post was triggered by a few events. Last year, I got a few samples of Sangiovese from Castello di Amorosa. When I tasted them, they were reminiscent of Chianti, and I even had to open a bottle of Cecchi Chianti, which is an outstanding producer making Sangiovese wines with exemplary regional expressions, to compare. I also tasted a bottle of California Sangiovese which had only a name of Sangiovese, but really tasted more like a fruit compote mixed with a fruit cake. As the end result I realized that I have no idea how Sangiovese actually should taste like – and here I am, pondering at the subject with you, my dear reader (I hope someone is still reading this, eh?)

So let me take you a bit further with a few of the tasting notes and references.

First, I have to say that I probably found what can be considered a reference Sangiovese. Two years ago I had an opportunity to taste a range of wines from Cecchi, and one of the wines was called Sangiovese Toscana IGT. It was not Chianti of any kind, it was pretty much an unadulterated rendition of a pure Sangiovese from the motherland, from Tuscany, which was not even aged in oak, only 2 months in the bottle. Here are the notes:

2018 Cecchi Sangiovese Toscana IGP (13% ABV, $10)
Dark ruby
Cherries, coriander, sage
Light, bright, fresh cherries, crisp acidity, sweet basil, refreshing.
8+, can be perfect even on a summer day, but I can’t complain on a winter day either. Unique and different.

The wine was absolutely spectacular in its pristine beauty and an absolute steal for the money. Ever since I tasted this wine it became my reference for how pure Sangiovese might take like.

Now, the peculiar California Sangiovese I mentioned before was the 2017 Seghesio Venom. 100% Sangiovese from Rattlesnake Hill in Alexander Valley, 14.9% ABV, $55. Seghesio is a Zinfandel specialist, and they are good at that. If this wine would be called Zinfandel, I would have no issue with it. But under Sangiovese name, it makes me only wonder what possessed Seghesio to make a wine like that. A fruit compote with a bit of a structure doesn’t equate to Sangiovese in any shape and form. And at the price, if you just want to drink a California wine, it might be fine, but if you are looking for Sangiovese, just look elsewhere.

Well, you don’t need to look too far. Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley is really focusing on bringing their Italian heritage to wines they craft in California. Yesterday I talked about their range of Pinot Noir wines, which was excellent. Their California Sangiovese can probably be called a glorious success as I even had to open a bottle of classic Chianti to compare the notes.

I tasted two Sangiovese wines from Castello di Amorosa (for the history of the Castello, which is very fascinating, I would like to refer you to the link I included above).

2017 Castello di Amorosa Sangiovese Napa Valley (14.7% ABV, $36)
Dark garnet
Plums, cherries, baking spices
Plums, tart cherries, light tannins, medium body, good structure, a hint of leather.
8-/8, it is reminiscent of the Chianti, nicely approachable, but will improve with time, judging by the late tannins on the finish on the second day.

2018 Castello di Amorosa Voyager Vineyard Sangiovese Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $45, single vineyard)
Dark garnet
Smoke, granite, gunflint, tobacco, dark fruit, Very promising.
Tobacco, baking spices, cut through acidity, medium body. Very unusual. Needs a bit of time.
Tart cherries, a hint of vanilla, bright acidity. Reminiscent of Chianti, but not as earthy

And then I opened a bottle of Cecchi Chianti and was pleasantly surprised how successful Castello di Amorosa was with their Californian Sangiovese rendition.

2017 Cecchi Chianti DOCG (13% ABV, $14)
Dark garnet
Herbs with a hint of cherries
Tart cherries, good acidity, fresh berry profile, medium body. Was earthy upon opening, but mellowed out after a few hours in the open bottle.
8-, easy to drink, nice.

As you can tell, the wines are similar, and I would call it a very successful effort.

Well, I still don’t know how Sangiovese should taste like, because this is all in the words. Unless we taste blind, we are bound by the power of words, and therefore our excitement and disappointment are fully dependent on those words. Was the Venom a bad wine? No, but it is an utter disappointment when called a Sangiovese. Thanks to Castello di Amorosa successfully offering a saving grace. While I still don’t know how Sangiovese should taste like, I’m willing to continue the quest for the tastiest rendition.

If you are still with me – thank you for reading and cheers.

  1. January 12, 2022 at 9:55 am

    Hmmmm, let me see…$36, $45, or $14….oh, gee, I can’t make up my mind.

    • January 13, 2022 at 6:05 am

      Of course. When I make a personal choice in the store, I’m with you. When I write about wines, I don’t question their prices – the price is what someone is willing to pay for the product. Cecchi Chianti is produced in hundreds of thousands of bottles. Castello probably in thousands. Buyers make their choice…

  2. January 13, 2022 at 1:18 am

    The underlying topic of your article is the difference between terroir wines and varietal wines. Roughly speaking, the old world produces more terroir wines and the new world produces more varietal wines. In the old world many times the label only shows the appellation but not the variety. You being in the new world makes varietal wines your reference. You wrote that you know what a Chardonnay tastes like, but that is because Chardonnay is often produced in a certain way (i.e. with oak). In blind tastings, any oaked white is usually identified as a Chardonnay and that is often true, but it is the oak and not the varietal character that is recognized. Because Chardonnay doesn’t really have a lot of character by itself, it is rather “neutral”. Ik the new world, varietal wines are often produced in a very ripe fruity style, like the Sangiovese fruit compote you described. Personally I have a hard time recognizing (or even enjoying) many Pinot Noirs that are made in a warm climate (like California) because the varietal character seems to be lost. However, one could also state that is the expression of the varietal character in that climate.

    • January 13, 2022 at 4:56 am

      Interesting article, thanks. It’s good this point is made, because I often read descriptions of wines that talk about a typical this or typical that. A grape is only typical within its context, and then still it needs a wine maker who wants to let the grape express its character in that particular context. I agree with Stefan that this point can be made about other grapes too. Even Pinot Noir. I remember a Californian Pinot Noir of Fetzer Crimson that made me think of a Languedoc wine! Not bad, but had nothing to do with what we consider typical Pinot Noir.

      • January 13, 2022 at 6:02 am

        Thanks for reading and taking time to comment!
        There is no question about terroir and winemaker influence. However, I’m implying that in a case of certain grapes, which are typically used solo, with well made wines, when winemaker wants the grape to shine, those certain grapes can be well recognizable, no matter where the wine was made. There always will be corner cases, like your example of Fetzer, but I’m not talking about those situations.

    • January 13, 2022 at 6:17 am

      Thanks for the comment, Stefan. You make a lot of good points. I disagree with you regarding well made Chardonnay. Through the years, I tasted Chardonnays from all the regions, and well made Chardonnay from New Zealand, South Africa, Chablis, Burgundy, Italy, Oregon, California, especially with a little age, has a telltale sign of honey note which is my main identifier for a Chardonnay. Things are changing – majority of the well made Pinot Noir in the US (California, Oregon) don’t show much of that sweetness which is typically attributed to them, and would be well comparable with the old world wines.
      But what you make me realize is that unlike Pinot or Chardonnay, I have extremely little point of reference for the US made Sangiovese, simply because so little of it is made. I know what I need to do – a Sangiovese around the world blind tasting. It will not be easy to pull in the US, but I will try 😊🍷

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