By Frank Cipparone
Whether or not Italian food conquered the world, as claimed by the grandiose title of a book published 10 years ago, a case can be made for the diaspora of Italy’s native grapes. Familiar varieties such as Sangiovese, Barbera, Montepulciano and Nebbiolo have taken root in unexpected places as widespread as Uruguay, South Africa
and Israel. Winemakers in Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile are planting Dolcetto, Fiano and Lagrein alongside guaranteed breadwinners like Merlot and Syrah. Truly adventurous wineries are exploring the possibilities of Grignolino, Arneis, Verduzzo and Brachetto far from their homeland.
In America, Napa and Sonoma have historically been the standard bearers for wine production. Like the ancient Greeks who colonized Sicily and Campania and christened it “enotria” (land of vines), Italian immigrants who journeyed to California had a similar reaction to the unspoiled natural resources they found. It looked like home to those from agricultural backgrounds, a welcoming environment for their staples of grapes and olives.
Among the pioneers were names that would lead a “Who’s Who” of American winemaking – Seghesio, Mondavi, Gallo. What began as simple, farmhouse operations making wine for nearby communities grew over generations into a multibillion-dollar machine. Thanks to brothers Ernest and Julio, Gallo International has become the Amazon of international wine, the world’s largest producer and distributor.
Those forerunners and their paesani sowed the seeds for future California winemakers to reap. The names read like the casting call for a Scorcese film – Caparone, Macchia, Passalacqua, Gianelli, Castelli, Gugliamo. You can’t drive the main highways and dusty one-lane paths of the Golden State’s wine country and fail to be impressed by the obvious influence of Italians on the epicenter of America’s wine industry.
The roads weren’t without their share of potholes. California had made its name and staked its fortune on familiar French grapes and Zinfandel, which was actually Primitivo that southern Italians had brought cuttings of in so-called “suitcase vineyards.” Its commercial success led to the Sangiovese based Cal-Italia craze of the ’90s that turned into a fiasco – and not the kind used to wrap Chianti bottles.
In hindsight it was an experiment, more accurately an overreach, doomed to fail. The wine wasn’t up to par and certainly not worth the asking price. American consumers just getting into wine weren’t about to shell out for an unknown.
Too much Sangiovese had been planted, a lot of it in the wrong places. Grapes have no borders, but they do need a place in the sun, and the right soil, that will be a home away from home where they can grow and be productive. That was firsthand knowledge that centuries of Italian winemakers had learned and passed on but represented trial and error for America’s comparative newcomers.
They eventually figured out that the terrain and climate might resemble the old country but wasn’t necessarily hospitable for all Italian varieties. Northern California is more akin to central Italy than it is to Bordeaux, the home of California mainstays Cabernet and Merlot. According to some growers, Italian grapes don’t need much except what’s in their DNA, qualities like higher acidity and predictable tannins. That makes them adaptable to their surroundings, easier and less costly to grow and more suitable for organic and biodynamic winemaking.
Going forward it could be that whites will fare better than reds because the juice and skin of a white grape are more likely to produce wines that are close to what they would be in Italy. The skins of red grapes are more affected by the natural conditions, so wines from them are harder to replicate. Though Barbera is making headway on the West Coast, whites like Arneis, Fiano, Cortese Ribolla Gialla and Garganega (think Soave) may prove the better alternative. Their made in Italy cousins are selling well in the states.
Mediterranean grapes may never supplant established vineyard superstars, but there are reasons why their future is promising:
1. Tastes change. Americans are slowly shifting from high-alcohol wines to those that are more food-friendly. How many basically similar Merlots, Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays can the market bear?
2. Italian wine accounts for approximately one-third of our wine imports, a competitive force that American winemakers can’t ignore. Imitation has become business-savvy flattery.
3. What do travelers returning from Italy rave about? The food and wine. Have you ever heard anyone complain about their culinary experience?
In our area are wineries I’ve visited that bear the fruit of lessons being learned about Italian grapes. It’s summer, so gas up and go down to Cape May, where Sal, Sara and Luca Turdo are the only folks in the country using Grillo and Catarratto, two Sicilian whites. They also make a really good Nero d’Avola, Sicily’s premier red. Near Princeton, Hopewell Valley Vineyards bottles Sangiovese and Barbera. Owner Sal Neri comes from a Tuscan winemaking tradition. In conjunction with the Botti family of Piedmont he sources grapes from their estate for his refreshing spumante-style Brachetto. At VaLa Vineyards in Chester County, Anthony Vietri has taken a chance on blends you’d never see in Italy, like his stunning white concoction of Tocai, Malvasia, Fiano and Pinot Grigio and a cross-regional red mixture of Malvasia Nera, Barbera, Sagrantino, Lagrein and Teroldego.