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An Italophile Finds Satisfaction in California
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Apr 17, 2012
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Frank Family Vineyards, Napa Valley- Rutherford (California) Sangiovese Reserve 2009 ($60):  I can count on one hand the number of good Sangiovese wines that I have tasted from countries other than Italy.  “Good Sangiovese” is, of course, a subjective judgment and, being an Italian wine specialist, I probably judge non-Italian Sangiovese a bit more harshly than the next critic.  All the more credit, therefore, goes to Frank Family Vineyards for its splendid 2009 Sangiovese Reserve. 

The context in which I encountered this wine was a blind tasting of California reds, mainly Cabernets and Merlots.  In the midst of the rich, dark-fruit, ripe and oaky powerhouses was this sassy, spirited red.  I didn’t peg it for Sangiovese at first because that’s not one of California’s go-to grape varieties, but I loved the wine -- and admired it all the more when I realized just what it was.

Ultimately, the wine’s tannin was a tip-off:  Assertive tannin woven all through the wine as if from the grapes rather than add-on oak tannin of the sort that envelops the wine from the rear palate forward.  And the wine’s acidity: acid high enough to make my mouth salivate profusely in the interim between sips.  Together the tannin and acid bring a linear structure to the wine and a bit of toughness -- but only until the fruit enters the picture.  Flavors of fresh, tart red cherries and cranberries, with notes of dried herbs and spice, are intense enough to distract you from the lean structure.  The flavors complement the structure and vice versa.

Like many a Chianti Classico (also made from Sangiovese), this is a wine that gains momentum as it moves across your mouth, so that the final impression becomes more energetic and interesting than the initial impression in the front of the mouth.  This is an anomaly for California reds, and for most New World wines, that tend to be about the up-front impression.  But compared to a traditional Chianti, this wine is fruitier in flavor.  (And yet compared to many Chiantis today made from recently isolated clones of Sangiovese, it is perhaps leaner and less fleshy.)

The grapes for this wine come from the family-owned Winston Hill Vineyard, situated on the east side of Napa Valley in Rutherford, along the Vaca Mountain range. up to 600 feet altitude.  The wine is 80 percent Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon (11 percent), Cabernet Franc (6 percent) and Petite Sirah (3 percent).  It aged for 16 months in French oak barrels, 35 percent of which were new.

This wine is sold mainly in select restaurants, limited retails stores, and at the winery, like the other reserve wines of Frank Family Vineyards.  Finding it might take some effort, but would be worth that effort.

I would drink this wine with a veal or chicken paillard dressed with lemon and sprigs of rosemary and thyme, or simple grilled vegetables.

91 Points