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Switch from Sangiovese grapes in Napa Valley appears to be winner for Antinori

Piero Antorini has planted Napa Valley stalwart grapes Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley, slowly removing the unruly Sangiovese grapevines.
Piero Antorini has planted Napa Valley stalwart grapes Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley, slowly removing the unruly Sangiovese grapevines. File photo

Editor’s note: This is the second of two posts about Tuscans in Napa.

Twenty-six generations of winemaking experience and the famed Tuscan family Antinori didn’t quite get it right when they went into Napa Valley. They bet almost everything on the Sangiovese grape, the remarkable grape that gives us delicious and tangy Chianti, as well as noble and long-lived Brunello di Montalcino — and a number of other delightful Italian iterations.

Antinori patriarch Piero Antinori picked a cool and elevated place in eastern Napa, Atlas Peak, and it took two decades for others to follow along and plant vineyards there as well. Few of them planted Sangiovese. Antinori seemingly tossed in the towel as well, deciding to focus upon Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay for his brand there, now called Antica.

Yet if a winemaking history that stretches back to 1385 suggests anything, it is commitment and longevity. Antinori has retooled his Atlas Peak vineyards and his current crop of wines is ample evidence that he has something for his efforts.

The Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 shows the cooler climate side of Cabernet in its nose, particularly showing Cabernet’s herbal elements, rather than the big, over-ripe and super-fruity side. But the mouth isn’t at all unripe in the style of cooler site Cabernet. The tannins are round, the wine looks to retain its character and fruit as it ages. There is something very intriguing about it.

Antica Chardonnay 2012 too has elements that are different enough to command our attention: yellow apples with hidden notes of dried tropical fruits, all of it finishing with a lemony tanginess and something that feels almost waxy. This is not like other Napa Chardonnays, and while I like other Napa Chardonnays, I am always excited when someone offers a new look at this very familiar grape from well-known Napa County.

Why didn’t Sangiovese work? That’s anyone’s guess. It’s a grape that has stubbornly refused to perform at its same dandy level anywhere outside of central Italy, though I have found a few delightful versions in America’s Pacific Northwest. The grape seems to require a significant shift between daytime and nighttime temperatures and, though Napa boasts of its cooling fogs, it’s not the same as in Tuscany.

Beyond that, it’s hard to say. Antinori has great successes under its belt like Solaia and Tignanello. No one can question their understanding and experience with Sangiovese. But as one who spent the first 20 years of the Antinori project in Napa doubting their work there, I think they are on to something now.

Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant who for decades has happily educated the public about all things drink. He is one of only three people in the world to have earned the coveted titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a monthly wine column to The Star’s Food section.

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