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  • Pietro & Prima Materia

Sangiovese: A Couple of Attempts

Updated: Jul 6



Sangiovese podcast graphic

Version 2.0 of the original, which is below.

When asked to jot a few words down that define Prima Materia’s philosophy regarding Sangiovese, I am struck by how simple and complex the question is. Let us start with some aspirational descriptors culled from my personal Chianti taste memory that could be considered a vertical axis or our Sangiovese profile wishlist:


· Pine (with age)

· Blood or iodine (again, guided by age and vine age – one vineyard in Shenandoah Valley planted with various Cepparello clones achieves it without oak, so it is possible)

· Nervous fine yet ample tannin that imparts energy and should not become “smooth or melted” as with Bordeaux grapes

· Tobacco-ish, slightly vegetal notes, like musty rubbed herbs

· Fore-palate acidity that sometimes feels granular as if malic acid is present

· Delicate floral notes if possible, often age mediated-again

· The gamut of cherry flavors, though our Emilia Romagna clone introduces blue fruit notes to the mix, which feels necessary for earth tonality

· Electric minerality contingent upon soil type, vine age, vineyard practices etc.

· Little to no interest in fruit notes for me in our fruit-heavy warm climate

Note - many of these are exactly why people hate Sangiovese


When recently asked what my goal is with each cultivar, I responded that at one extreme is pure slavishness to recreating an Old-World model, and on the other side the complete and utter focus on our own vineyard site with absolutely no interest in history or benchmarks. Pure terroir, ignorant and solipsistic. Somewhere between these two poles lies truth, we just don’t know where yet.


I am also reminded of Randall Grahm’s compelling elucidation between wines of effort and wines of terroir, to anglicize the issue bluntly. An interpretation might be that wines of effort are willed into existence with constant control and irrigation, mysterious winemaking “additions,” gleaming high-tech steel and vulgar oak. Wines of terroir (which, of course, magically craft themselves and spring forth fully-formed from Zeus’ head) elegantly assemble themselves, full of clear voice, place, elegance, minerality, and vision. More simply, wines of terroir have a delicate sense of somewhereness (for soils think Priorat llicorella, Burgundian limestone, granitic minerality) that is fragile and must be uncluttered by winemaking interventions such as adding acid, water, tannins or picking overripe fruit for consumer-friendly “soft” wines. Wines of effort necessarily come from grapes planted in the wrong places which require additions or manipulation in the cellar to produce a drinkable product, and are by definition are “constructed” by a winemaker.


Considering Grahm’s dischotomy above, our Sangiovese is a wine of effort. Clearly. But, one day it hopes to be a wine of terroir.


I planted 5 blocks (small blocks mind you) as a way to hedge against a climate that is a little too warm on paper, a little too sunny, a little too Sangiovese by way of Puglia rather than Tuscany. This can be the difference between a spiritual home and a production zone. But what our Sangiovese aspires to: delicate acid and tannin balance, a nervous texture, the subtle complexity of clearly delineated layers of the Pinot Noir type rather than Bordeaux.


So what does this “effort” look like in practice? One unifying feature is that all our vines were grafted onto drought tolerant rootstocks, though this is not the best option in the short term. These roots create excess vigor in young vines, requiring more “effort” to keep the already notoriously vigorous vine canopies under control. Sangiovese produces notoriously long canes generally, like Nebbiolo for some Sangio clones, and in addition to clearing all suckers while retaining adequate fruit shading, the crop must be balanced to the cane so that tannin (and particularly gritty seed tannin) ripens optimally while retaining as much acidity as possible. The goal will be to one day apply no water having cultured dry-farmed vines, allowing the dry-farmed water stress to parsimoniously control crop load. Thus vines of effort will hopefully move toward autonomous vines of terroir. Until then we wait to apply water as long as possible, and try to subtly stretch the drip irrigation intervals a bit further every year.


Note - in youth, clone can obscure terroir. With age, site always overrides clone.


Our Brunello clone 06 was planted east-west on a gentle slope specifically hoping to get a sun-kissed southern canopy exposure (on California sprawl trellising which is the old school two-wire system mind you, NEVER VSP) where the thicker skins get that macerated ripe red-red cherry fruit on the sun side while the shaded north side holds gently shaded flavors that speak of warmth but not direct sunlight – hopefully that tobacco note mentioned above. This particular clone is the most planted in California, and as such it has an undeniably middle-of-the-road Sangioveseness with ample red fruits, thicker skins and good sun tolerance. It also is hollow for us, being an expression of pure fruit without mystery or clear layers of complexity. It is fleshy and forward, robust but a giant compressed ball of redness. In other places it will probably react differently, and I yearn for a second cooler-climate vineyard location.


Then there are two blocks of Romagnolo Sangiovese clone 23. Two Italian viticulturists (separately) told me that this is actually one of the best clones in Italy for general production. Spicy, with blue fruit tones, moderate tannin and moderate acid (again, moderated by the high potassium of our acidic volcanic soils that tones down Sangiovese sometimes piercing tartness) this clone was envisioned as the general core upon which the other bits build. We are going to have plenty of fruit here, trying to deny it would move us from a respectful wine of effort to an ideological monstrosity, so with the eight-foot canes we will leave two bunches, which the water stress at fruit stress keeps quite small, holding acidity but small enough to achieve ripe tannins as referenced above. Weak canes go to one bunch, but the crop generally holds at 3-tons per acre naturally – a bonus not achieved in the Old World that I attribute to very different soils. One block is east-west like above with the same goal (and I have found it quite good for direct press rosé) while the north-south block with full sun rollover requires an extra cane or two for shading on the afternoon sun side. It is important to minimize direct sunlight during the hotter portions of the day – a little 6pm direct sun is ok, but 11am-4pm is a no no in our climate. This clone provides a different fleshy core than the clone above, and a nice feeling of spice and warmth, but is insufficient for more nuanced dreams.


The Prugnolo’s growth looks absolutely anemic compared to the Romagnolo or Brunello. Canes less than half as long, the leaves are thinner, and the length between them more gangly, letting a lot of sun through. Sometimes aggressive fruit thinning is done here as many canes are only 2-feet in length, and reducing the modest-sized bunches to one per cane still runs the risk of too little leaf surface area for adequate tannin ripeness. But, what this clone adds is angelic, with lilting floral aromatics, delicate tones and lift, a peculiar spiciness that I rarely see in the Vino Nobile wines, and a sense of mystery and grace that seems on the edge of evaporating in the barrel. This where aspirational elements like floral lift and decompressed layers live.


Next to the Prugnolo is the Biondi-Santi clone. Slow growing, and again with dangerously long spacing between the leaves (the internodal length) that can allow too much UV exposure in our hot, rainless summer sun, but with larger leaves that seem to just barely filter out enough direct sunlight and keep the dreaded California jam monster at bay. But, my god is it robust and haunting. Almost Sagrantino-level tannin, black fruits, thick skins, tobacco notes, herbal notes, Lysol+pine+iodine mystery, and earth-driven complexity that speak to age, to wisdom, to time itself.


Now, in smoke-free years we use some stems to also contain and diffuse the warm-climate forward fruit. Some fresh stem, some dried for several days then pitched back into the fermentation (which I am particularly fond of with Sangiovese) and a few other spontaneous maneuvers dependent upon the feel of the vintage. We like long fermentations, edging more toward earthy extractions, but only punching down or pumping over once per day. Some fermentations get ripping hot, but some we also keep super cool, like that delicate Prugnolo. No racking is used. Sangiovese in our climate is not particularly reductive, and we want the wine to ingest as much of the fermentation lees as possible.


We have a plan, informed by that one Old-World side of the spectrum above, but we also must let intuition respond to it and shape it, listening to the voice of terroir that becomes clearer with each passing year.


But, to circle back to Grahm, the Sangiovese is indeed a constructed wine of effort, though we hope one day it will become a wine of terroir as we and the vines slowly find our way. Through these puzzle pieces we can slightly alter the whole by picking some blocks a little earlier for lower alcohol or higher acidity, more tannin ripeness here to offset picking a little too early there, etc. It assembles the malleable puzzle pieces into a picture mirroring one person’s caricature of a Platonic form, which is to say I have a picture in my mind – probably that Castell’in Villa Chianti Classico Riserva I had a sip of four years ago, that became my mystical ur-vision for Sangiovese. Truly we do not understand our terroir yet, and our vines may not be able to express it yet. On the non-Sangiovese level, we don’t even know what goes best there, or where, or how. How could we know? Sure, some things are obvious – Lake County needs more Grenache and more Mourvedre. Maybe Listan Negro is truly the best fit? Bobal? Will we ever know what grows best where? In Barolo do they really remember that actually Pelaverga really was superior? Do they know that Roter Veltliner is actually the perfect terroir match? Of course, not Randall. We need to feed ourselves stories of the best thing to grow in the best place so that we can sleep at night, to feel part of the general arc of vinous history, muttering mantras to quiet the gaping void within as we spin marketingverbiage to keep ourselves afloat.


We all must start somewhere, and if the yoke of history and the weight of tradition are not constraining in your place or time, and in the new frontier of California we are blessed and cursed by a lack of historical and cultural obligation, then wines of effort we must make. It might not always be this way. We hope that after 20 years or so the picture of terroir and the romantic alignment of vine and biome and human hand may align. Wines of terroir have their own existential baggage as well, and somewhere between the constraints of time and the burden of exploration we must find a middle ground in which to exist today, hoping to move in some clearer direction tomorrow.



Sangiovese bottle picture

Version 1.0

Randall Grahm, that grand old man of effusive vision and broken businesses, was fond of delineating the old epistemological and existential divide between wines of effort and wines of terroir, to anglicize the issue bluntly. An interpretation might be that wines of effort are willed into existence with flexing muscle, a cloud of chemicals and gleaming high-tech steel, while wines of terroir (which, of course, magically craft themselves and spring forth from Zeus’ head) elegantly assemble themselves, full of clear voice, place, elegance, minerality, and vision. More simply, wines of terroir have a delicate sense of somewhereness (for soils think Priorat llicorella, Burgundian limestone, granitic minerality) that is fragile and must be uncluttered by winemaking interventions such as adding acid, water, tannins or picking overripe fruit for consumer-friendly “soft” wines. Wines of effort necessarily come from grapes planted in the wrong places which require additions or manipulation in the cellar to produce a drinkable product, and are by definition are “constructed” by a winemaker.


Yes, it is obnoxiously romantic. No, most of us can’t afford a grand terroir, let alone find it, let alone develop it. Yes, we should aspire to terroir because, why not? No, could finding new terroirs for old grapes may be cultural appropriation, or at least ideological servitude? We should tread lightly.


Case in point: Sangiovese. Our Sangiovese is a wine of effort. Clearly. I planted 5 blocks (small blocks mind you) as a way to hedge against a climate that is a little too warm on paper, a little too sunny, a little too Sangiovese by way of Puglia rather than Tuscany. This can be the difference between a spiritual home and a production zone. But what our Sangiovese aspires to: delicate acid and tannin balance, a nervous texture,


The Brunello FPS06 was planted east-west on a gentle slope specifically hoping to get a sun-drenched southern canopy exposure (on sprawl mind you, NEVER VSP) where the thicker skins get that macerated ripe ripe ripe cherry fruit on the sun side while the shaded north side holds gently shaded flavors that speak of warmth but not sunlight. This clone overlays the flesh of Romagnolo, providing a general sense of muscle, sinewy-yet curvaceous form, incomplete in itself, but providing the cosmetic shape that isn’t deep enough to be called soul. This clone has a grand sense of body and weight, but without the veins and imperfections that yield a true individual – at least in our terroir with our current farming method.


There are two blocks of Romagnolo 23, and two Italian viticulturists (separately) told me that this is actually one of the best clones in Italy for general production. Spicy, with blue fruit tones, moderate tannin and moderate acid (again, moderated by the high potassium of our acidic volcanic soils) this clone was envisioned as the framework, the spine or beams on which the other bits build. We are going to have plenty of fruit here, trying to deny it would move us from a respectful wine of effort to an ideological monstrosity, so with the eight-foot canes we will leave two bunches, which the water stress at fruit stress keeps quite small, holding acidity but small enough to achieve ripe tannins. Weak canes go to one bunch, but the crop generally holds at 3-tons per acre naturally – a bonus not achieved in the Old World that I attribute to very different soils. One block is east-west like above with the same goal (and I have found it quite good for direct press rosé) while the north-south block with full sub rollover requires an extra cane or two for shading on the afternoon sun side. It is important to minimize direct sunlight during the hotter portions of the day – a little 6pm direct sun is ok, but 10am-5pm is a no no in our climate. Think fleshy core, the feeling of structure (though the other components will flesh it out into layers and verticality) and hold there.


The Prugnolo’s growth looks absolutely anemic compared to the Romagnolo. Canes less than half as long, internodal length is gangly, letting too much sun through. Lots of fruit thinning is done here as many canes are only 2-feet in length, and reducing the modest-sized bunches to one per cane still runs the risk of too little leaf surface area for adequate phenolic ripeness. But, what this clone adds is angelic, with lilting floral aromatics, delicate tones and lift, a peculiar spiciness that I rarely see in the Vino Nobile wines, and a sense of mystery and grace that seems on the edge of collapsing on the vine, in the barrel, and eventually as part of the unspeakable-ness that can leave wine lovers silent.


Next to the Prugnolo is the Biondi-Santi. Slow growing, and again here the cane’s spacing between the leaves (the internodal length) is too long for our hot, rainless summer sun, but with larger leaves that seem to just barely filter out enough direct sunlight and keep the dreaded California jam monster at bay. But my god is it robust and haunting. Almost Sagrantino-level tannin, black fruits, thick skins, tobacco notes, herbal notes, Lysol+pine, and bass-driven complexity that speak to age, to wisdom, to time itself. Think of it as the lips, the eyebrows, the talons, the forward element that is also the deepest, running in cyclical time as all old things do, reshaping the past while moving into the future. It should help corral all of the fruit and contain it.


Now, in smoke-free years we use some stems to also contain and diffuse the warm-climate fruit. Some fresh stem, some dried then pitched back into the fermentation (which I am particularly fond of with Sangiovese). Long fermentations. Get some ripping hot, but keep that delicate Prugnolo super cool. No racking! Have a plan, but let intuition shape it.


The Sangiovese is indeed a constructed wine of effort. Through these puzzle pieces we can slightly alter the whole by picking some blocks a little earlier for lower alcohol or higher acidity, more tannin ripeness here to offset picking a little too early there. It assembles malleable puzzle pieces into a picture mirroring one person’s caricature of a Platonic form, which is to say I have a picture in my mind – probably that Castell’in Villa Chianti Classico Riserva I had a sip of four years ago, that became my mystical ur-vision for Sangiovese. Truly we do not understand our terroir yet, or what goes best there, or where, or how. How could we know already? Sure, some things are obvious – Lake County needs more Grenache and more Mourvedre. Maybe Listan Negro? Bobal? Will we ever know what grows best where? In Barolo do they really remember that actually Pelaverga really was superior? Do they know that Roter Veltliner is actually the perfect terroir match? Of course, not Randall. We need to feed ourselves stories of the best thing to grow in the best place so that we can sleep at night, to feel part of the general arc of vinous history, muttering mantras to quiet the gaping void of empty truth within.


We all must start somewhere, and if the yoke of history and the brutal weight of tradition are not constraining in your place or time, and in the new frontier of California we are blessed and cursed by a lack of historical and cultural obligation, then wines of effort we must make. It might not always be this way. After 20 years the picture of terroir and the romantic alignment of vine and biome may align, like marrying for life after your first date. Sure, it could be amazing, but what else might have been? Wines of terroir have their own existential baggage as well, and they will necessarily be for the next generation, if, IF we are all bridges to the terroir-ian Ubermensch.

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