Welcome to Italian-American Week, when we’re taking a bit of a break from our usual stories to focus on the important stuff: red sauce, stuffed pasta, porchetta and the chefs and home cooks making it all happen.
The magic of traveling throughout many parts of California is that over the course of a relatively short drive you can experience entirely different climates — it can be 10 degrees warmer or colder and go from foggy to clear within a couple of miles. Such microclimates would not be unfamiliar to an Italian winemaker. Perhaps this little patch might be just right for Nebbiolo, while down in this valley over here the Sangiovese might be perfect. As winemakers in the U.S. realize that it’s possible to work with (and sell) wine varieties that aren’t the usual French Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, Italian-American wines are positioned for a major resurgence.
Here are some current releases from U.S. producers using Italian grapes that might be fun to pair with your next plate of chicken parm:
- Cana’s Feast Bricco 2010 ~ Columbia Valley, Washington
This is a Sangiovese-based blend that includes Barbera and Nebbiolo—mostly Sangiovese, which has a lot of potential in the valleys of Washington state because of the intense diurnal variation. The best answer to Chianti Classico (based on value) that I’ve tasted in this country.
- Red Tail Ridge Teroldego 2010 ~ Finger Lakes, New York
Yeah, it’s true: The best wines being made in upstate New York are being made from Riesling. I am proud to serve Keuka Lake and Boundary Breaks to German or Austrian winemakers. Perhaps, though, when it comes to reds, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc aren’t the varieties most perfectly suited to the region. It’s not hard to imagine that varieties from the Alps, like Teroldego, which hails from northeastern Italy (where there are no shortage of lakes), might be better. Year after year, Red Tail Ridge has proven to be one of the best reds made in the region.
- Brassfield Pinot Gris High Serenity Ranch 2013 ~ Lake County, California
So Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio? Same grape, different languages, the use of which in this country has little association with what style of wine is going to end up in your glass. There are some beautiful Alsatian-esque examples, with a touch of residual sugar, being made in the U.S., but this isn’t one of them. Famed Napa producer David Ramey is going for a style of the variety that has more in common with Collio: whole-cluster pressing, natural fermentation to dryness, and some stirring of the lees, all of which contribute to the unmistakably serious texture. If you think you like Pinot Grigio (and not just innocuous white wines), you will know for sure after a bottle of this.
- Idlewild Cortese Fox Hill Vineyard 2013 ~ Mendocino, California
Sam Bilbro comes from a winemaking family (his father started Marietta Cellars, which his brothers make, as well as Limerick Lane), and I’ve already pointed to him as someone to watch in American wine. His pursuit is mostly limited to Piedmontese varieties, which, if you tool around Mendocino and Sonoma for a while, seems like a pretty rational choice. Cortese, which makes Gavi, or Gavi di Gavi, from the Fox Hill Vineyard, which in Sam’s hands gets a bit of skin contact (a quarter of the grapes were fermented on their skins, like a red wine), produces a distinctly medium-bodied wine with salinity and a seemingly thick sort of acidity.
- Forlorn Hope Barbera San Hercumer Delle Frecce 2013 ~ Amador County, California
Shake Ridge Ranch might be one of the most exciting vineyards in California: 46 acres planted with a mix of varieties, farmed organically by former Napa vineyard manager Ann Kraemer. Matthew Rorick, who makes wine from all sorts of varieties across California, makes terrific Barbera from the site, which has all of the qualities of the Piedmontese original, fresh red fruit (that doesn’t get too candied like some North American examples) and a zippy acidity that would be great with everything from pizza to braciole.
- Seghesio Sangiovese 2011 ~ Alexander Valley, California
Edoardo Seghesio began planting vines in Sonoma around 1910, at a property he named Chianti Station. Although the winery might be better known now for its standout Zinfandel, its Italian plantings are more interesting to me. This is the Brunello to the Bricco’s Chianti, and the low-yielding vines of their home vineyard in Alexander Valley produce exactly the kind of dusty, structured Sangiovese one expects from much better known parts of Tuscany.
- Gargiulo Aprile 2011 ~ Oakville, California
Although I am not convinced by the idea of “Super Oakville,” this Napa estate has taken the right page out of the Antinori playbook by blending their Sangiovese with just a splash of their Money Road Ranch Merlot. Jeff and Valerie named this cuvee after their daughter, Aprile, so you can be sure that its Napa suaveness is intentional.
- Uvaggio Vermentino 2012 ~ Lodi, California
Although it may not have the coastal complexity of Ligurian examples, Uvaggio is managing to turn out drinkable, interesting wines at a price point that should make the big guys blush. Lodi is part of the story. East of Napa and Sonoma, it is a prolific producer of bulk wine, but if you can find interesting fruit, it might be possible to get it into the bottle at a price that one might feel comfortable opening for no good reason at all. The Vermentino is fresh and highly quaffable, but their Barbera and Sangiovese show promise as well.
- Ryme Cellars Aglianico 2009 ~ Paso Robles, California
After stints at Peay, Sine Qua Non and Marcassin, husband-and-wife team Ryan and Megan Glaab decided to begin making wine together using Ryan’s day job at Pax Mahle’s Wind Gap winery as a home base. Like their friend Sam Bilbro, they’re interested in pre-Prohibition history, especially the weird Italian stuff: Ribolla Gialla, two Vermentinos (His and Hers) and Fiano included. The Aglianico they made from the Luna Matta Vineyard on the west side of Paso Robles, though, may be their best; it drinks like great Taurasi, with its rustic balance of almost volatile acid and mosh-pit tannin.
- Palmina Nebbiolo Rocca 2008 ~ Santa Barbara, California
Talking about Italian-American wine without mentioning Steve Clifton would be a serious oversight. He might be better known as the Robert Plant to Greg Brewer’s Jimmy Page for their perennially high-scoring Brewer-Clifton label of fancy Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (or vice versa, maybe—they’re both rock stars either way). Palmina was actually Clifton’s first effort, though, and with the help of his wife, Chrystal, it has become the standard-bearer of Italian winemaking in the United States. Unlike many, the Cliftons have invested in really large barrels, the hallmark of traditional Italian winemaking, and aren’t afraid to leave wine in them for years before bottling. This cuvee is named after their son and represents a barrel selection of their best parcels of Nebbiolo. Taste it blind and you will be hard-pressed to identify anything other than Barolo or Barbaresco.
- Clendenen Family Vineyards Nebbiolo Punta Exclamativa 2005 ~ Santa Maria Valley, California
The only person in Santa Barbara that can hold wine back from the market longer than Steve Clifton is Jim Clendenen, the living legend and “Mind Behind” Au Bon Climat, who has an incredibly beautiful habit of “forgetting” wines he could be selling. He bottles his clones of Nebbiolo separately, and the “Exclamation Point” is the Michet clone, which can be a bit less reliable than the more widely planted Lampia. Although Michet might produce lighter wines, in the case of Clendenen’s experiment, they seem extra expressive.
- Foris Moscato 2013 ~ Rogue Valley, Oregon
Although not strictly an Italian variety, Moscato has a long history, and some version of it can be found in almost every European wine-growing nation. Brian Wilson, who started making wine at Foris in 2007, saw the potential of the 30-plus-year-old Muscat vines to produce something comparable to the popular fizzy style of Piedmont, Moscato d’Asti. Rather than using a secondary fermentation, like in champagne, to produce the fizz, Wilson borrows the Piedmontese technique of trapping the gas from the later stages of fermentation in the bottle. Floral and peachy, it’s perfect with a picnic, as an aperitif, or with fruity desserts.
More wine talk on Food Republic: