For the past few centuries, winemakers in California have mainly looked upon the Barbera Grape to provide Americans with a good quality Italian-styled Californian wine. Unfortunately for the winemakers, the American consumers never really took to it. Not until the rush to terroir movement in the 80s did the vineyard owners begin to seriously explore more suitable sites for these grapes.
More agreeable sites were found in the Central Coast regions and the Sierra Foothills. But the wines, though they had improved considerably, were still unable to attract more consumers. In the early 90s, the Cal-Ital wines took a new turn.
Firstly, the winemakers and representatives of the wine industry conducted a subtle, educational based campaign to inform the consumers that the great red grapes of Italy were definitely not Barbera. But Nebbiolo and Sangiovese grapes, which only a handful of Californians had heard about. One of the foremost efforts to spread more publicity was by Piero Antinori when he purchased Atlas Peak Winery in Napa Valley.
He replanted most of the vineyard estate to Sangiovese, and endeavored to inform the American wine consumers that it was the principal grape used in every Chianti Classico and Chianti blend. These early efforts to produce good quality Sangiovese at attractive prices proved to be very promising, but did not do very well in the market. The reasons were plenty: Was it because of the terroir? Or inexperience on the part of the winemakers? Or maybe the nature of the grape itself? Were these the reasons why the Californian Sangiovese was stuck in the 90-100 bracket for such a long time? Traditionally, the Italian Sangiovese is blended with small quantities of other wine varieties to allow the wine to acquire balance, complexity and body.
By the early 90s, Sangiovese finally made it into the outstanding category of wine ratings and one year later Altamura, which is an example of a Sangiovese winery, received 94 from the B.T.I. Unlike the Barbera, which found some degree of popularity in the Central Coast and Sierra Foothills, the most spectacular Sangioveses were largely concentrated in the Sonoma County and Napa Valley wineries like Altamura, Benziger, Swanson, Consentino, Beaulieu Vineyards and Coturri, to name a few.
For instance, Santa Cruz, Santa Ynez, Monterey, the Sierra Foothills, and Paso Robles received rave reviews from some critics, while undermined or ignored by others. Perhaps these critics were looking for the same depth and richness of the great Cabernets, or the magnificence of the Pinots, or a similar high alcohol and fruit concentration as the Renwood and Eberle Barberas. One thing that most European winemakers have always considered as essential to fine wine, but always takes second place in most reviews, is balance. There are many American reviewers who sometimes describe a particular wine as elegant, giving us an image of light style, which is not particularly favored by the American wine drinkers. However, few of us have grown out of the the bigger the better pattern of our youth.
We tend to favor explosive flavors, concentrated fruit, and high alcohol contents, the very elements that cover up the fragile balance of flavors in painstakingly prepared foods. If there is something commendable about Italian wines, it is that they are crafted to pair with the various foods that they were intended to accompany, not to subdue them.
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