Wine drinkers of a certain age will remember Chianti as a thin, tart wine sold in a straw-skirted bottle that made an excellent candle holder after you dumped the battery acid down the sink. Made from Sangiovese vines cultivated for high yields and low cost, Chianti flooded the export market with plonk that satisfied the unsophisticated tastes of Americans in the 1970’s and 80’s, keeping the good stuff for themselves.
Times have changed.
Thanks to Italy’s wine-quality revolution, we now have access to the best wines the Sangiovese grape can produce– elegant Brunellos, earthy Chiantis, robust Super Tuscans, among the best wines in the world. The classic style of this grape is light to medium body, bright cherry flavors, good acidity, subtle, dusty tannins, fresh or dried flowers depending on age, and soft oak integrated into fragrant layers of earth, and with a tendency toward bitter herbal notes that makes it an ideal pairing for pasta or pizza.
Which brings me to this Sangiovese made from grapes grown in San Diego’s North County. With warmer summer temperatures and a much drier climate than Tuscany, it is to be expected that the Sangiovese grape would express itself differently in San Diego. But perhaps more importantly, San Diego is an upstart wine region with no traditions to cement expectations, and so winemakers are free to experiment.
And so we get this broad-shouldered beauty from winemaker Alysha Stehly—it is not your father’s Sangiovese. Concentrated dried cherries wrapped in wet leaves with some gentle sweet coconut aromas promise a big wine, and the palate delivers on the promise. Weighty and fruit-forward with nicely balanced cedar notes, a plush, velvet texture and a long finish propelled by refined tannins make me think Meritage; but the bitter notes that zing the palate at the end of the finish scream Italian varietal. If I were blind tasting this wine I would be confused (more so than usual)
All this ripeness and heft but with modest alcohol is an accomplishment. 20 months in oak, 30% new French oak.
I served it with steak pinwheels (thinly sliced steak wrapped around roasted poblanos and cheese), and elotes—the wine made the Cotija cheese pop.
Stehleon Vineyards is a small urban winery in Escondido sharing facilities with Vesper Vineyards. I highly recommend both.