Amador Foothill Winery puts sangiovese in the pink
The black Italian grape sangiovese, the backbone of the remarkably agile wines of Chianti Classico, is having a difficult time getting a firm grip in California's soils.
Sure, some fine interpretations of the grape are being released as varietals in California, but they are few and far between. Pick up a bottle of California wine labeled sangiovese and regardless of price you're never quite sure whether you will find in your glass something sharp, zesty and refreshing not Chianti Classico but also not far removed in overall impact or just another rather ordinary dry table wine without much defining character.
Up in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, Ben Zeitman and Katie Quinn of Amador Foothill Winery long have been committed to sangiovese, drawing their inspiration from the traditions of Chianti Classico. They've painstakingly worked their sangiovese vineyard, and just as diligently massaged the resulting juice through their cellar. Each vintage, they release a solid take on sangiovese, and in exceptional years a reserve sangiovese of somewhat more power and complexity.
But more often than not, the most impressive of their sangioveses is their rosé, or as they put it, in keeping with Italian custom, rosato.
Not long ago, I tasted their Amador Foothill Winery 2010 Amador County Rosato of Sangiovese and found it a blush wine of unusual substance and authority. Its fruit, initially suggestive of wild strawberries, seemed to deepen and lengthen with each subsequent sip. Floral notes bloomed, then touches of spice. It was unusually rich and long for a rosé, but nonetheless measured up to the defining standard of the genre it was refreshing.
Rosés often top the list of recommended picnic wines. When made right, they have the aromas to withstand breezes across a hillside and the versatility and spine to accommodate the wide range of foods generally crammed into the picnic basket. This rosato not only meets those expectations, it's got enough heft and layers to justify being the only lunchtime provision to be put on the blanket.
Two years ago, also on the eve of Labor Day, which on the calendar if not in real time marks the end of the picnic season, I wrote of an earlier version of Amador Foothill Winery's rosato of sangiovese, the 2008.
That wine had been made using the old French winemaking technique of "saignée." That practice involves drawing from a fermentation tank a portion of freshly squeezed juice before it picks up much color, flavor and tannin from the dark skins of the macerated grapes.
The method has the twofold advantage of intensifying the ratio of color and flavor compounds in the skins to the juice remaining in the tank, thereby heightening those attributes in the eventual wine, while providing the winemaker with a bunch of lightly colored juice for a second wine, specifically a rosé.
The 2010 rendition of the rosato, however, has no saignée juice, simply because the timing of that year's harvest staggered the picking of the sangiovese so Zeitman and Quinn couldn't take advantage of the method. As a consequence, the 2010 rosato is somewhat lighter, brighter and fruitier than the 2008, yet as pink wines go it's still gutsy, with a depth and length unusual for the genre.
In short, the command of both vintages, regardless of technique, suggests that sangiovese inherently has both the structure and the vivaciousness to make it potentially more appealing as a rosé than as a red table wine.
Though I've seen no substantial increase in the number of rosés made with sangiovese, at least a few other producers see merit in the variety as a blush and have released impressive interpretations, including Robert Oatley Vineyards in Australia, Lange Twins Winery and Vineyards at Lodi, and Barnard Griffin Winery in Washington state. Pink, therefore, just may be sangiovese's future outside Italy.