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IMPORTERS WORLD... .. A report from VINITALY 1998
Copyright, Leo B. Fox


I just returned from VINITALY 32, the annual Verona wine fair, which every year attracts over 80,000 visitors with a least 10,000 from foreign countries. This is "The Wine Trade Fair" for Italian wines although other countries have wines represented. With over 2500 producers showing their wares, it's quite easy to reach palate burnout during the five days of the fair. In addition to tastings at individual wine producers, there are a number of organized tastings held by various groups. Distilled spirits are also shown at the fair, with Italian Grappa available in abundance, and there is also a separate exhibit for olive oils. Attendance is limited to professionals in the trade and members of the press.

Amarcord In 1973, in the film "AMARCORD", Fellini made his famous statement to the world of wine drinkers, "What a great Sangiovese!" Of course he was referring to "Sangiovese di Romagna" made not far from his beloved Rimini. Today, the Sangiovese continues to be an important grape in Italy and more recently in California. As a fan of Sangiovese, I was delighted to find a tasting of California Sangiovese at Vinitaly conducted by Terry Robards of The Wine Enthusiast Magazine. It was difficult to find a seat at the tasting which quickly filled with journalists from around the world, and there were a number of winery people on the panel who were prepared to talk about the wines and the history of the Sangiovese grape in California.

I will report on the wines in the order tasted with my personal comments. It was not my intention to rate the wines on the ubiquitous 100 point scale. I have used a system of plus(+) and minus(-) to give some idea as to the merit of the wines for restaurant sale. Also included are estimated retail store prices or winery tasting room prices where available. I do not sell or have any vested interest in these wines, and some of the wines might not be available outside of California. Note that many of the wines were shipped by air from California before the tasting except for those distributed in Italy, such as Atlas Peak.

Friday 17, April -- "Italian Grape Varieties Produced in California"
Conducted by: Terry Robards, The Wine Enthusiast Magazine

Atlas Peak, the giant of Sangiovese in California, is owned by the Antinori family and planted with clones brought from Antinori vineyards in Italy. About 10% of the 500 hectares (x2.47=Acres) of Sangiovese vineyards in the state is owned by Atlas Peak. Glen Salva, President of the winery, discussed the wine. The vineyards are situated at 500 to 600 meters above sea level in Napa Valley. This wine comes from a single Cru on a 5 hectare site of volcanic soil on Atlas Peak.

"A big, deeply colored, high extract wine with soft tannins, and red berry fruit... very California in style. Will appeal to hardened California wine drinkers. Seductive." (+++) $24.00

This wine was presented by Celia Masyczek, wife of the winemaker of BV on the Sangiovese project. Celia is the winemaker at STAGLIN vineyards in NAPA and formerly of Robert Pepi. Unfortunately, her own wine did not arrive in time for the tasting. The grapes for the BV Sangiovese came from the Atlas Peak area, Pope Valley and Calistoga.

"I personally liked this wine because it was more Tuscan in style. Elegant, complex, and long in the finish. Firm tannins…classic. I would put this in a blind tasting of Chianti Classico.... Excellent" (+++) $25.00

This is one of a series of Italian varietals produced by Robert Mondavi under the La Famiglia label. Heather Pyle, the winemaker for La Famiglia, made a nice presentation of the wine, which carries a California appellation since some of the grapes were sourced outside of the Napa Valley. In the future, Mondavi plans to have a Napa appellation using their own grapes. Sangiovese Reserva spends 14 months in wood and is not filtered. There is a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon (3%) in the blend. Do not confuse the reserva with another La Famiglia Sangiovese since the reserva is only available at the winery. The package is a wedged shaped, Italianate bottle which I believe was 500ML. In the early stages of development, it will no doubt improve in future vintages when estate grapes are used.

"Toasted oak, elegant, lighter in style and not very long on the palate. On the higher priced side of the market." (++-) $35.00 at the winery only.

California wineries seem to copy names of origin from Europe to express what their wines are all about. I am totally surprised that this and other such geographically oriented names have been approved by the BATF since there is a region in ITALY already called Friuli-Venezia-Guilia. If the wine was made by a guy called Joe Venezia, I could appreciate the name. Actually Venezia is made under the supervision of Daryl Groom, the Australian chief winemaker of the Geyser Peak empire. The grapes come from the Van Noy Vineyard in the Russian River. One of three Sangiovese wines made under the Venezia Label.

"Has color, lots of red fruit, a clean, well made forward style for current drinking. Needs more tannin and extract for aging." (++) $24.00 at the winery.

No technical information was available for this wine. Probably sold only in California since it's not in East Coast distribution (NJ/NY/CT/MA). If this is a harbinger for the future, the winery is going in the right direction.

"Nice color, full in mouth, a big style. An excellent effort which is not exceedingly complex but a solid, square built wine. Has merit." (+++) $??

ROBERT PEPI SANGIOVESE "Colline di Sassi" 1995
Robert Pepi has been the modern day proponent of the Sangiovese grape in California. He brought cuttings from Biondi-Santi in Brunello and gladly supplied bud stock to a number of other wineries and growers of Sangiovese. This is the "Pepi" clone now being used to produce many California Sangiovese wines.

Celia Masyczek, a former winemaker for the winery, recounted this thumbnail history at the seminar. Robert Pepi is now in his 70's and has sold out to Kendall Jackson although he continues to serve as a consultant. The name "Colline di Sassi" means hill of stones, aptly describing the vineyard site. Since his family origin is Lucca, it is not surprising that Robert Pepi wanted to produce wine from the Sangiovese grape, and his love of the variety shows in his wine. The Colline de Sassi vineyard was planted on a chalky, rocky slope in the Oakville in 1983 and in 1988 Pepi produced the first new Sangiovese wine in California since prohibition. With 15% Cabernet in the blend, this is more of a Super Tuscan than a traditional Chianti. The winery also produces another wine which is 100% Sangiovese.

"This was one of the most serious California wines at the tasting. A massive wine, Italian in style, having nicely developed wood and tobacco on the nose. Needs more time...a wine to cellar....outstanding. Hopefully, KJ will maintain this level of quality." (++++) $25.00


Made by the traditional Martini & Prati Winery of Sonoma County, founded in 1902. Rafael Martini actually planted vineyards in 1881 in the Russian River Valley. This is the last of the wineries, which use redwood tanks for aging and storage. A straight California appellation, this release is 90% Sangiovese and 10 % Barbera. There is some aging in oak.

"A wine which you will love or hate. Made in the Old World style, well matured, light in color, browning with some oak notes. Reminiscent of an old style Rioja or Portuguese Garrafiera without a lot of tannin. Has merit if you like this type of wine." (++--) $10.00 - $12.00 Retail

Allegra Antinori presented the Tenute Marchese ANTINORI 1995. This is a blend of selected grapes from the Antinori Chianti Classico estates. Aged in oak barriques (225L) and large botte (50HL) with additional bottle aging. Represents the "new wave" of Chianti Classico after recent changes in the legislation.

"Lots of color and extract, a big wine with backbone having supple tannins. Complex fruit with notes of tobacco and spices. One of the best wines of the tasting." (++++) $24.00 - $32.00

Grapes With a little over 1300 acres of Sangiovese grapes in California, the variety will not be a major factor in the short term. However, there is a great interest in the grape with 85 wineries claiming to produce Sangiovese based wines. This demand pushes up grape prices and makes California Sangiovese more expensive than some of the other grapes of Italian origin like Barbera, and I would not be surprised to see more Sangiovese being planted. For Sangiovese, the selection of the correct vineyard site is important, so the danger is that we will see greater quantities of more indifferent Sangiovese based wines produced if the variety is widely planted by growers.

In Italy, it is another matter. Sangiovese is a grape widely planted, reminding me of the Grenache in France and the Periquita in Portugal. There is the potential to make the best and the worst wines. The final result depends upon clonal selection, vineyard sites and microclimates (Terreno) while not forgetting about other grapes in the blend and the vinification techniques used. It is not surprising that Cicero, the Roman Orator and Statesman once said: OMNIA PRAECLARA RARA "All splendid things are rare."

He was probably speaking about wines made by the Estruscans, the tribe which inhabited Tuscany who were finally conquered by the Romans. Actually, it is not known if the Sangiovese variety existed during Roman times. Today, it is the dominant grape of Tuscany and is planted in 15 of the 20 main wine regions in Italy.

There are three well known Tuscan wines; Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile, and outside of Tuscany, the Sangiovese di Romagana has gained some reputation. The grapes planted are variants of the Sangiovese Grosso except for Chianti which is the Sangioveto (Sangiovese Piccolo). Each grape or clone has adherents. I believe it's a question of matching the correct grape to the specific soils and climates.

The DOC law for Chianti started with the 1967 vintage and additional DOCG's were granted in 1984. These laws specify the percentage of Sangiovese used in the blend plus other grape varieties permitted or required such as Canaiolo Nero, Colorino, Trebbiano and Malvasia. Because of these restrictions, some producers started to make Vino da Tavola, wines which were not under strict controls. Thus, the birth of Sassacaia and Tignanello, barrique aged wines which included a percentage of non-Tuscan origin varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. These have now been joined by hundreds of other so called "Super Tuscan" wines from various producers. The April 1998 Wine Enthusiast, has an article and tasting of 130 different examples ranging in price from $10.00 to $100 per bottle. Some are exciting wines while others are weak efforts. Maybe Cicero was right.

In 1995, the laws were again changed in favor of the more traditional DOC and DOCG wines. The revised laws are now more flexible, with a high percentage of Sangiovese allowed (100% for Classico), the possibility of barrique aging, and no requirement for white grapes in the blend. Thus, we are now seeing serious improvement in the quality of many estate bottled wines. In addition to the established Chianti zones, there are some new sub regions being put on the map, Montespertoli being one which will be upgraded. There is a new designation, I.G.T or "Indicazioni Geografiche Tipche" which can apply to Vino da Tavola wines as well as common wines made in the region. This designation is similar to the "Vin de Pays" of France since it names specific geographical regions of production and permits varietal labeling.

These changes have a price as yields have been reduced for the DOC and DOCG wines and prices have increased. We hope that prices mirror quality but this is not always the case. Thankfully, there are still excellent wines available at $10.00 per bottle with Reservas going for $15.00 to $25.00. The recent vintages of 1995 and 1996 have been excellent with 1997 outstanding, but higher priced due to the low yields.

In any event, the future is clear. Sangiovese will continue to be the most important grape in Tuscany in terms of quantity and quality of production. It now has a worldwide reputation, as evidenced by the interest in California and Australia. While French varietals have gained a foothold, these wines are more popular in Italy as a novelty than in the world of Eurowine or in the New World. There is a return to experimentation with the forgotten varieties such as Canaiolo Nero and others. One producer I know is making a blend of 50% Canaiolo and 50% Sangiovese aged in barriques and has gone to 100% Sangiovese for his Super Tuscan wine. Some Chianti producers are again using the Governo process to make an earlier drinking wine. The producers in Brunello are making Rosso di Montalcino and Vino di Tavola to present some other styles of Sangiovese wine to the marketplace. Twenty five years later, the words of Fellini still ring true;


Leo B. Fox, is the founder and Managing Director of World Shippers & Importers Co, of Philadelphia. The firm specializes in importing limited production wines from Italy, France, Portugal and Spain. Mr. Fox may be contacted at

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