The only Italian variety that Italian-surnamed and wildly popular Leonetti Cellar in Walla Walla works with is Sangiovese, which they both grow and bottle as a stand-alone variety.
Chris Figgins said, "The main reason we began to pursue Sangiovese was to sort of give homage to our Italian roots, and the fact that we'd had some tremendous Sangioveses and blends, particularly Super Tuscans. We wanted high quality clonal material so we were able to obtain cuttings from Pepi winery in Napa, whose budwood came from Biondi-Santi in Brunello di Montalcino; it's the Grosso clone. We began planting in 1993 at various sites, including our Estate and Pepper Bridge Vineyards, because we had no experience with the variety. We've since planted it at Seven Hills (which we co-own with other producers) and our Mill Creek Upland Vineyard. It performs well at all four sites, but naturally yields different wines."
Growing the grape isn't easy. The primary challenges with Sangiovese from a viticultural perspective, Figgins said, is controlling vine growth.
"Sangiovese is quite vigorous, and we keep yields down, as it loves to hang big tonnage. We do this through deficit irrigation and careful soil moisture monitoring. We've found that we actually had to lower our water deficit thresholds for Sangiovese, from, say, Cab and Merlot, because it can tolerate dry soils to the point that would make a cactus grower nervous. This is critical however to keep berry size small and produce a concentrated wine."
From a yield perspective, Leonetti prunes moderately (30-35 buds per vine on five foot spacing), according to Figgins, "To have the vines hang a little extra fruit that holds the vines back by creating a sink. We then thin (green harvest) to within a half ton of our final yield goal at pre-veraison. We make a final thinning pass at 90 percent veraison to eliminate any green berries, thus increasing evenness and reaching our final yield goal of three-to-three and-a-half tons per acre. Sangiovese at yields in excess of four tons per acre we've found to seriously diminish the quality of the wine."
Figgins and his father Gary (who founded the winery more than 20 years ago) have been thrilled with their Sangiovese program.
Chris Figgins said, "It's a totally different experience from Cab and Merlot and also presents a whole new set of challenges. The wines are quite fruit driven--but usually more in the cherry/strawberry spectrum than the big black fruits. Combined with the excellent natural acidity and precise mouthfeel of Sangiovese makes it so good with food. We only make about 700 cases each year. I don't think Sangiovese will ever have the popularity growth that Syrah is now experiencing, but certainly can be grown as well in Washington as anywhere else in the new world given good site selection and viticulture. The main caveat with it would be that if you fail with Sangiovese--either in terms of site selection, viticulture, winemaking, etc.--it's going to hurt you bad. It's very unforgiving, much like Pinot Noir."
Other Efforts on This New Frontier
Abacela, the best producer in Southern Oregon, is known for its high quality Tempranillo and Syrah. And as Tempranillo is not a classic variety for Oregon, owner Earl Jones (pictured at left with the first release of his Tempranillo Reserve) is no stranger to the concept that Oregon is still searching for the best varieties in the best places. Based in the warmer Umpqua Valley, Jones planted Dolcetto in 1995 and Sangiovese and Fresia in 1997. The Dolcetto and Sangiovese sell very well, but the Fresia has yet to hit the market.
Dolcetto is his favorite of the three, and Jones plans to keep it in his permanent line up of varietals. But both the Sangiovese and Fresia are headed for grafting over.
Jones said, "Fresia buds fairly early, sends out long spindly shoots with long internodes that break easily. Wind breakage is a problem. Its hard to keep the shoots within the foliage wires on a VSP, or if within the wires it doesn't hold its position falling to the left or right, tangling and needing positioning once again, and again. Without the laterals (and their leaves) that cross link the shoots to form a web and stabilize the primary shoots within the VSP the complete vine would lack sufficient leaf area to ripen its fruit load. Hedging is always necessary."
As you can see, Jones was not a fan of the vine. But he kept it for a while as its fairly loose clusters could survive botrytis and mildew and he thought it deserved a try in Oregon. He said "my test will be over this spring when we graft it over to Petit Verdot. Yeah!"
He is not grafting over the Sangiovese because it doesn't work. Jones said its fun to grow, fruits nicely, ripens and makes a very good wine. He claims, "some have said its the best Sangiovese they have had that was produced in the USA. I just can't expand to more varietals; instead I need to contract with focus on Tempranillo, Syrah, Dolcetto and Merlot." Jones said his thin, poor soil helped control Sangiovese's vigor, which could be a nightmare in deeper soils. But he wants to keep his focus where it is. Dolcetto is his favorite Italian vine/wine at his site. If he didn't have Tempranillo and Syrah then perhaps Sangiovese would be an interesting production possibility. But he could not be talked into producing Fresia, claiming that it is a pain to farm and the wine is just "okay."
But Dolcetto fits and complements Abacela's program and wine portfolio. According to Jones, "It makes a very interesting wine that I bottle after 10 to 15 months in barrel, is ready to drink shortly and goes nicely with a wide spectrum of foods or by its self. After seven vintages (barrel and/or bottle), it looks like my Dolcetto will age about like the Italian wines, that is, it peaks in its first two to three years and by four to five years begins to lose its fruit and pizzazz. Like the Piedmontese, I will never get rich producing Dolcetto but it's a very satisfying thing to do."