For the few Washington State vintners who are making wine from Italian varietals, passion is the reason they give for taking on the challenges that come with making super-Tuscan wines.
As part of a grower-winemaker panel exploring Italian varietals at a recent statewide wine convention, four winemakers shared the ups and downs of producing Italian wines.
“There are not a lot of winemakers clambering to make Sangiovese,” said Chris Figgins of Walla Walla’s Leonetti Cellars. “But the ones who do are passionate about it.”
He admits that the variety is challenging to vinify and challenging to grow. “One of the reasons that I like the wine is because it’s different than Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It’s food friendly and goes well with a lot of food, has bright acidity, and is long-lived.”
Figgins and his father, Gary, “almost always” blend Sangiovese into Syrah to fill out the color palate of Syrah without taking away from the brightness of color. Their Sangiovese wine is comprised of about one-quarter Cabernet and three-quarters Sangiovese.
Peter Dow, owner and winemaker at Cavatappi Winery in Seattle, has struggled with the winemaking challenges associated with Italian varietals for 20 years.
“I had a fetish for Nebbiolo for many years and talked Mike Sauer at Red Willow Vineyards into growing one acre,” he said. “The first harvest yielded 6.5 tons per acre, with clusters weighing 2 pounds each. The berries were square.”
Color is the biggest issue he contends with during harvest. “It seems that the fruit isn’t ripe until it reaches 25.5° or 26° Brix, with 3.2 pH and 8.5 acidity.”
To alleviate sunburn problems, Sauer has set up an overhead mister to use when temperatures get hot.
Dow notes that Nebbiolo, which can produce strong, long-aging wines with depth and character, is extremely vigorous. Sauer has planted 770 vines to the acre.
Columbia Winery, located in Woodinville, makes Sangiovese wines from some of Sauer’s grapes that were planted in the early 1990s. Robert Takahashi, assistant winemaker, said that they have noticed a difference between the two Sangiovese clones planted by Sauer—Grosso and Piccolo. Grosso produces bigger berries and clusters than Piccolo and also is slower to ripen.
“We fight the issues of alcohol, Brix and acidity,” Takahashi said, adding that they pick the grapes at 26° to 27° Brix, with cropping levels around four tons to the acre.
Columbia Crest Winery’s involvement with Italian wines started out as an experiment, said Marcus Notaro, red winemaker at the Paterson winery. Though they have bottled small amounts of Dolcetto, Barbera, and Primitivo, the wines are “getting a lot of attention.”
Notaro is passionate about making the Italian wines, and noted that Washington’s climate is suitable for getting ripe grapes in both cooler and warmer regions.
“In the cellar, the wines are extremely versatile,” he said, adding that he uses a variety of yeasts and oaks. “They are fun wines to make.”
Acidity of the wines makes them a challenge, he concedes. Acidity must be managed in the cellar, and the grapes must be picked fairly ripe. But the higher Brix can lead to fermentation issues.
With Dolcetto, he strives to pick them at 23° to 25° Brix. Acid is a consideration during harvest with Barbera, which he picks higher, from 25° to 28° Brix.