Cal-Ital wines: the new trend with a long history

California wines made from Italian grapes, so-called Cal-Ital wines, are an on-again, off-again trend.

Sometimes they seem like the answer to Bordeaux and Burgundy varieties so overdone on the West Coast. They can offer a way for the winery to stand out by producing wines from sangiovese, barbera or nebbiolo. They never took off but never totally went away either. They may be ready for an upsurge as new wine drinkers look for wines their parents aren’t drinking.

Some Italian grapes are legacies in California but are not well known, such as barbera. The grape that hails from the Piedmont was used in California wines as a blender for generic wines. Clay Shannon, of Shannon Ridge Winery, a pioneer in Lake County, started selling grapes to other wineries. His customers used barbera to add mouth feel and aromatics to their blends. Now, he makes his own barbera with it.

“It’s one thing to have these grapes; it’s another thing to market them,” said Chris Baker of Shannon Ridge. “For most people, you are starting from scratch.”

The general public doesn’t know what to expect from a barbera. Mr. Baker has to work hard to convince Italian restaurants to try the flavorful, food-friendly wine. They often view a California barbera as inauthentic, which is strange, because no one views a Sonoma pinot noir or Napa cabernet as inauthentic interpretations of French wines.

Shannon Ridge had to reduce the quantity of barbera, putting more of it in some of the winery’s Wrangler Red and other blends. But barbera is fine all by itself.

More rustic than a Bordeaux, more stylish than a zinfandel, Shannon Ridge Terre Vermielle 2010 Barbera does offer a nice mouth feel, big plum and berry flavors, and a cherry and chocolate finish combined with food-friendly acids, a trait from Lake County’s high elevation and cooler nights. $15. HHHH

Other varieties such as nebbiolo, dolcetto, cortese and aglianico may yet have their day in California. I recently tried an outstanding 2006 Napa Valley sangiovese from Silverado Vineyards. Other Italian varieties seem to have never left; remember that moscato is made from the large family of muscat grapes, many of which have roots in Italy. Pinot grigio is connected to Italy, too.

If anyone knows their Italian roots, it’s moviemaker/vintner Francis Ford Coppola. The seemingly all-American zinfandel proved to be the same grape as Italy’s “primitivo,” most likely brought over by early Italian settlers. Made from fruit that is dry-farmed on benchlands and hillsides, Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cut 2010 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel smells of black tea and dried blueberry with a dusty cedar, earth and cherry finish for a unique expression of zinfandel. $22. HHHH

Depending how you look at it, Cal-Ital wines are poised to expand in California, although some can argue they long ago arrived.

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