That's amore

The word "wine" can conjure up innumerable associations. For me, the deepest and most plangent form a sensory constellation: candlelight, red-checked tablecloths, first love, and Chianti. Given the drinkers' poverty and ignorance, the wine in those straw-covered bottles is almost certain to have been lousy. And lousy is not too strong a word for much of the Chianti I've encountered since, unsoftened by the nimbus of romance. "Tangy" and "vibrant" are words often used to describe Chianti: "Sour" is less polite but often more descriptive. Maybe that's why sangiovese, the quintessential Chianti-region grape, is hardly grown outside Tuscany. If they can't make good wine out of it at home, why bother even to try elsewhere? Fortunately, winemakers have an experimental itch. One such is Californian Robert Pepi, who planted some sangiovese cuttings in 1983—not just any sangiovese, but the clone used in the legendary Brunello di Montalcino, one of the most honored (and expensive) of Italian wines. Ten years later Pepi graciously passed cuttings to another restless perfectionist, Gary Figgins of Washington's Leonetti Cellar in Walla Walla. After a few seasons of tweaking, Figgins found a way to get the temperamental varietal to yield its best under local conditions—by ruthless "green harvesting" of unripe clusters, reducing yield but thereby forcing the vines to concentrate their energy on the remaining bunches. Such sacrifice in the field has an impact on production: Figgins makes only about 700 cases of sangiovese, but such is his reputation that he has no difficulty selling it all at $50 per bottle. Fortunately for those unable to pay so much (or unwilling to wait 10 years or so for the wine to reach its prime), other Washington winemakers are experimenting with sangiovese. One at least is doing so at a price point attractive to noncollectors. Tim Sampson's 1999 sangiovese from Yellow Hawk Cellar is $16. Sampson's wine is crafted for current consumption: on the picnic table, with hearty grilled foods, soups, even chili. It's got the acidity of a Chianti, but it's also got fruit and freshness, color and crispiness. Wine like this doesn't need romance to go down smoothly. Sangioveses still amount to a drop in Washington's wine bucket: Probably fewer than 2000 cases altogether were made last year. As with syrah, though, which barely registered in acreage inventories a decade ago, sangiovese's successful transplantation shows that the world's newest premium wine region still has agreeable surprises in store. Seduced by wine? E-mail

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