finding a happy home for the ‘blood of Jove’
BY SEAN P. SULLIVAN
It is said that wine is the ‘nectar of the gods.’ If so, no wine could be closer in name and spirit to the heavens than Sangiovese, a grape whose name derives from the Latin sanguis Jovis—the blood of Jove, king of the gods.
Sangiovese is unquestionably one of the world’s great wine grape varieties. It is the most planted variety in Italy, the grape’s homeland, where it goes into some of the country’s finest wines. Still, while Sangiovese has thrived in Italy, the variety has struggled to succeed elsewhere in the world, including here in Washington.
As of the last government survey in 2011, there were a mere 185 acres of Sangiovese planted in our state (for perspective, Washington has over 43,000 acres of grape vines). This is even less than there was ten years ago, shocking when you consider that Washington’s wine grape acreage has nearly doubled over the decade. With Sangiovese such an esteemed grape, why has Washington been so slow to embrace it?
Sangiovese’s challenges in Washington appear to start in the vineyard and continue right on through to the retail shelves. While Washington has decades of experience farming Bordeaux grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, its experience with Sangiovese is much more limited and doesn’t necessarily transfer.
“If you manage Sangiovese like you manage Bordeaux varieties or Syrah, it just bites you in the butt,” winemaker Chris Figgins of Leonetti Cellar said bluntly. “It’s going to be over-cropped, it’s going to be over-irrigated, and it’s going to be disappointing.” Indeed, the number of varietal bottlings of Sangiovese in the state are currently few and high quality bottlings are even fewer.
Sangiovese’s natural vigor in the vineyard is part of the issue. “It hangs enormous crops,” said Figgins, who notes that the grape is impervious to some of the climatic conditions that can affect other varieties. “2010 is a perfect example where we’ve got miserable weather at bloom time,” he said. “It can set every single berry in a driving rainstorm, I swear.”
Eastern Washington’s growing conditions, where irrigation is required to grow wine grapes, also creates challenges. “Sangiovese seems to have a flair for the dramatic,” said vineyard manager Ryan Johnson, who farms a variety of sites on Red Mountain. “When it’s hot and sunny, its leaves fold and droop as if to say,” – here he adds an Italian accent – “‘Mamma mia, help me! I’m dying of thirst!’ However, as soon as the vines get a sniff of water, the shoots spring to life and grow another ten inches!”
“It’s a very fine line how you are going to irrigate it,” agreed winemaker Gilles Nicault of Long Shadows in Walla Walla. “If you give the vines water so they don’t shut down, all the water goes straight to the cluster. Pretty soon you end up with big clusters with all these berries that keep growing and growing.” This can directly affect wine quality, diluting flavors and tannins.
Once in the winery, the challenges continue. Varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are fairly easy to work with. Not so for Sangiovese. “You have to treat it with kid gloves,” Chris Figgins said. “To me, Sangiovese is somewhat like a tannic Pinot Noir. You have to be very careful.”
Winemaker Gino Cuneo first made Sangiovese in 2000 before launching a winery, Tre Nova, dedicated to Italian varieties in 2008. He says Figgins’ comparison with Pinot Noir is apt. “When I started making Pinot Noir, I had to completely rethink how I was approaching winemaking,” he said. “Instead of imposing my will on the grapes, I had to listen. When I approached the Italian grapes, I needed the same sensibility. Sangiovese is a very sensitive variety.”
Gilles Nicault agrees. “You try to push the envelope a bit more with extraction but it doesn’t have as much to give,” he said. “If you push the envelope too far, you’ll make a wine that will be a bit too harsh or rough compared to what it wants to be. It wants to be a beautiful, delicate, wine.”
Even if growers and winemakers are able to thread the needle from vineyard to winery, Sangiovese still needs to fight for a place on the retail shelves. “It definitely is a harder sell,” Doug Charles of Compass Wines in Anacortes said of Washington Sangiovese. Charles attributes the variety’s struggles to difficulties finding a niche with consumers.
“The real hard core Sangiovese drinkers typically drink Italian,” he said. “And the real hard core Washington drinkers like big, juicy reds for the most part. So you’ve got this issue of trying to convince the hard core Italian drinkers to try Sangiovese from somewhere else, and then you’ve got the hard core Washington Cab, Syrah, Merlot drinkers. You have to convince them to try something that’s maybe not as heavy. So you’re kind of fighting an uphill battle in terms of sales from both directions.”
To some, it’s an open question whether America is ready for Sangiovese, which is truly best suited for the dinner table. “People always refer to Sangiovese as a food wine, and it is a food wine,” said Gordy Venneri of Walla Walla Vintners, who has made Sangiovese since 1999. “It is a little more acidic and has a little different flavor profile. All by itself, it sometimes turns people off.” Venneri believes that this doesn’t always fit with the way U.S. consumers drink wine, saying, “There are a lot of people who like to drink wine as a cocktail in America.”
Many winemakers—in Italy and elsewhere, including Washington—have worked to broaden Sangiovese’s appeal by blending it with other varieties, creating wines often referred to as Super Tuscans. “We blend a little bit of Cabernet Sauvignon for the structure and Syrah for the color and savoriness,” Gilles Nicault said of Long Shadows’ Saggi Red Wine. “It becomes a more complete wine.”
Still, Gino Cuneo thinks that blending Sangiovese to broaden its appeal can also create problems. “Sangiovese very quickly loses its identity,” he said. “You don’t get that sour cherry and the nice core of acidity running through it, the things that make it a great food wine.”
While it may be an uphill battle, Walla Walla Vintners’ Gordy Venneri believes that the way to get Sangiovese into consumers’ hearts is through their stomachs. “I think the way people will get more excited about Washington Sangiovese is if they try it with food,” he said. Venneri recommends trying Sangiovese with grilled food. “I think you’d be surprised if you were at a barbeque and you had it with grilled mushrooms or eggplant. That’s all Tuscan-style food.”
Still, even if more consumers embrace the grape, Chris Figgins believes that it’s going to take time to learn how to grow, produce, and sell Sangiovese successfully here in Washington. “I think we still need a lot of time to figure out the sweet spot,” he said. “We’re nowhere near as far along the curve as we are with the Bordeaux varieties or even Syrah at this point.” Ryan Johnson agreed. While noting that he has seen an uptick in requests for Sangiovese from his vineyards lately, he added drolly, “Cabernet Sauvignon has little to worry about when it comes to winning the popularity contest around here.”
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Sean P. Sullivan is the founder of Washington Wine Report, an online publication dedicated to the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest, as well as a contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine and the Northwest columnist for Vineyard & Winery Management magazine. He lives in Seattle.