California Parmesan: Three Cal-Ital standouts
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The sheer number of different grapes planted and used to make wine in Italy is absolutely mind numbing. Just when I think I have a handle on it, some obscure varietal hits my radar and seems to deserve attention. Some of the better-known (and a few lesser-known) examples are planted in other parts of the world. In California, Cal-Ital is the term often used for growing and making wine from grapes of Italian origin or pedigree. The success rate, not surprisingly, varies greatly. There are some excellent examples out there, and I’ll take a look at three of them.
Caparone Winery in Paso Robles has been around for 30 years, a long time in that region. Year after year they make six varietal wines: Sangiovese, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Aglianico. Their history with Aglianico dates back to 1988 when they established the first American planting of this southern Italian grape. Caparone is pretty amazing in that all their wines are sold for $14. Don’t let the price fool you -- they make complex wines built to be able to age well over 20 years.
The 2005 Caparone Aglianico, like the rest of their portfolio, is 100 percent varietal. Caparone ages their wine in barrel for an average of two years, followed by a year of bottle aging prior to release. Their wines are unfined and unfiltered.
Cherry, leather and cigar box elements fill the nose of this Aglianico. This wine has a full, rich, weighty mouth feel, and the palate is loaded with fruit and spice notes to spare. There is a sense of purity and natural winemaking in this wine that syncs up with the Caparone style and credo. Continued cherry is joined by a tremendous amount of earth and espresso, along with touches of pencil lead. These kick in at mid-palate, and carry right through the finish -- very impressive in length and persistence. This wine has excellent acidity and will pair well with roasted meats and other hearty fare.
The Caparone wines continually blow me away, and the 2005 Aglianico is no exception. This is a selection that I’d seriously consider for a case purchase. It’s delicious now and will continue to evolve for years; it will easily and gracefully age for a couple of decades. Not an easy feat to pull off at a $14 price-point. You can read more about Aglianico and Caparone’s history with this grape in an excellent essay by founder Dave Caparone, posted on their Web site.
Swanson Vineyards is one of my favorite Napa Valley producers. In fact, it’s the only winery I visit every single time I’m in Napa. Many of the wines they produce are small lots aimed at their wine club. However, a handful of selections representing the bulk of their case production are out in the market and widely distributed. One of those is their Pinot Grigio.
The Swanson Vineyards 2008 Pinot Grigio is produced from Napa Valley fruit. This wine is 100 percent Pinot Grigio and fermented in stainless steel. The suggested retail price for this wine is $21, but is often available for around $18.
Lychee fruit and kiwi aromas present immediately in the nose of this wine. Lemon ice is one of the standout characteristics throughout the rich and full palate, and Bartlett pear notes accompany it. This wine is bigger and more mouth-filling than you’d expect from a California Pinot Grigio. Tremendous spice notes are a standout on the lengthy, unctuous, somewhat creamy finish.
What I love about this wine is that the fruit is just bright enough to be tremendously fresh and incredibly pleasing. The bottom line for me is if there is a better California Pinot Grigio out there, I have yet to run across it. Year after year the Swanson Pinot Grigio delivers in spades. An excellent match for a lot of lighter foods, this offering is also delicious and complex enough on its own.
Ferrari-Carano is one of the largest producers in Dry Creek Valley. Several of their wines are ubiquitous and available seemingly everywhere. In addition, they also make some tiny production offerings that are available only at the winery. Today I’ll look at a selection from the middle of that range. It’s not necessarily on every store shelf, but it’s also not particularly hard to find.
The 2007 Ferrari-Carano Siena is a blend of fruit from three of the winery’s vineyards. In addition to Dry Creek Valley, fruit also comes from Alexander Valley and Russian River. Siena is a blend of Sangiovese (78 percent) and Malbec (22 percent). Oak aging was accomplished over 12 months in a combination of new Hungarian puncheons (20 percent) and older French barrels (80 percent). This release saw an additional six months of bottle aging prior to release. The suggested retail price for this blend is $24.
I’m surprised Sangiovese hasn’t made more of a foothold in California. The number of well-made examples has increased, to be sure, but I really thought it would be a bigger player by now. This offering from Ferrari-Carano is officially a blend, but with more than three-quarters Sangiovese, it could legally have had a varietal label.
Baked berry aromas fill the nose, along with hints of baker’s spice. Cherry dominates the palate but it’s joined by a host of other darker berry fruits to form a juicy, rich and full-flavored core. Black raspberry notes are a standout along with excellent spice elements such as white pepper, cinnamon and hints of nutmeg. Sour cherry characteristics emerge on the finish along with earth notes that emerge as Siena opens up and evolves. This wine has excellent acidity and will pair tremendously well with food. Just about anything with red sauce on it will work nicely, as will hard cheeses.
With all the varietals grown in Italy, Sangiovese is the workhorse. It’s responsible for a great percentage of the everyday wines, as well as some of the very best wines. In this Sonoma County blend it works well in partnership. The Malbec brings some brighter fruit characteristics that really help the mid-palate of the 2007 Siena pop with juicy flavor. While the retail on this wine is $24, it’s often available for closer to $18, making it a very nice value. The fact that it’ll pair with a wide variety of foods makes it an excellent choice to have on hand for a multitude of occasions.
What connects these three wines together is that they show the true varietal character of Aglianico, Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio respectively while also imparting their California upbringing. Another connector for me is consistent and reliable quality of these particular offerings year after year. These are offerings I gladly drink with great regularity and hope you’ll check them out and see what excellent wines they are.