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Touring Italy, by Way of California

With nearly a thousand different types of indigenous grapes recognized in Italy, the country’s wine traditions are both impressive and daunting. If you’re not quite ready for Pecorino and Pignolo, you can start with some of the more commonly recognized Italian grapes – many of which are increasingly grown in the U.S., too. While our domestic wine industry has focused more on traditional French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, our grape-growing options have expanded along with the American public’s appetite for new and “different” grapes. Enter the era of “Cal-Ital,” a term that some love and others loathe.

Take Pinot Grigio, for example. This classic, high-acid, white wine grape thrives in cool climates such as Italy’s Friuli and Alto Adige regions in the northeast. (It’s also grown and known as Pinot Gris in areas such as France’s Alsace.) While Pinot Grigio is now ubiquitous in the American consumer’s mind, for years it faced an uphill battle against Chardonnay. With runaway branding success stories like big-volume Santa Margherita and Bolla imports, the stage has been set for domestic production of as well. For now, the U.S. success story for Pinot Grigio / Gris has been Oregon, although successful wines are also being made along the Central Coast of California. The “next big thing” for Cal-Ital whites is definitely Moscato, as planting and production of this classic floral white is increasing astronomically.

Red Italian grapes have been slower to take root in the U.S., somewhat due to the challenge in matching microclimate to grape. Chianti’s classic grape, Sangiovese, is one of the most promising although inexpensive imports from Tuscany are slowing it down; it has also struggled with an image problem based on cheap, straw basket versions popular in the ’70s. I wish more California grape growers would experiment with Sangiovese, but for now, it’s a marketing risk no matter how delicious the wines might be.

The other great red grape of Italy is Nebbiolo, the king of Piedmont, where it is made into legendary Barolos and Barbarescos. The trouble with Nebbiolo is that it’s finicky. In my experience, I have rarely found Nebbiolos that are grown outside of Piedmont to come close to the same quality – the grape likes its hometown. A few bold producers committed to Nebbiolo, such as Palmina’s Steve Clifton, are working to change that by encouraging literal and figurative cross-pollination between Italy and California (Steve got married in Italy and actively participates in international Nebbiolo competitions, too.)

Below are some recommended domestic wines based on traditional Italian grapes. While these wines may not be on your usual tasting rotation, they’re each well worth seeking out.

Uvaggio Barbera on Lot18

Benessere Pinot Grigio (Napa Valley – 2010) SRP $22

Palmina Tocai Friulano, “Honea Vineyard” (Santa Ynez – 2010) SRP $18

Martin & Weyrich Moscato, “Allegro” (California, 2010) SRP $11

Stolpman Sangiovese (Santa Ynez – 2008) SRP $36

Palmina Nebbiolo, “Sisquoc Vineyard” (Santa Maria – 2006) SRP $50