Thursday, July 1, 2021

Sangiovese gets its day in the Okanagan sun

Photo: Sandhill's Sandy Leier
When the 174-acre Sandhill Estate Vineyard was planted in 1997 on the Black Sage Bench, the varietals included two Italian reds – Sangiovese and Barbera. Both varietals, especially Barbera, have gained foothold in the Okanagan very slowly. Italian grape varietals are notorious for not “travelling well”. That may be changing with Sangiovese, even though the terroir here is quite different from Tuscany. In addition to the Sandhill block, there are modest plantings of the grape in the Ferreira Vineyard near Oliver; and in the Okanagan Falls vineyards of Bonamici Cellars and Echo Bay Vineyard.
The Ferreira grapes showed up in a recent release of a wine made by Mt. Boucherie Vineyards for its experimental label, Modest wines. The wine is Modest by jove 2019 ($29.99). It is a Sangiovese with five percent of Merlot and Cabernet Franc in the blend. That would be classic for a Super-Tuscan blend. “We do have a tiny bit of Sangiovese,” confirms Kelsey Rufiange, the wine grower at Echo Bay. “It makes us a barrel of wine each year and so, about 25 cases, which goes exclusively to our wine club members. We call it Nella, after my grandma who bought the property back in the 1960s, and gathered all us grandkids to move out and live together each summer.”
“We have planted Sangiovese in 2018 and we were able to get a small harvest in 2020,” says Philip Soo, the winemaking partner at Bonamici. “We have two barrels worth and we plan on blending that into our Belviaggio (Super-Tuscan blend) which has gone over very well! We plan to release our 2020 Belviaggio in 2021.” Bonamici expects a larger harvest this year of both Sangiovese and Barbera, which is also growing in the vineyard. “Depending on how much we get, we may look at doing a single varietal Sangiovese from our 2021 harvest,” Philip says. “Our vineyard is doing really great and our first harvest from last year was a good indicator of the high quality of fruit we are able to produce off our site.”
Ian D’Agata, in his masterful book, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, observes that Sangiovese is Italy’s “most abundant red grape variety, and probably its most important ….” He adds that: “Sangiovese is anything but easy … as the variety is one of the more finicky to work with; producing truly great (not just very good), world class wines seems possible only for a lucky or gifted few. … As Sangiovese does not grow well just anywhere … poor sites have long contributed to limiting expression of Sangiovese’s considerable winemaking potential.” Whether the Okanagan comes close to being good Sangiovese terroir is still to be determined. However, Sandhill, along with the others growing it, is doing its level best to deliver excellent fruit for its winemakers.
The 3.69-acre Sangiovese block in the Sandhill vineyard was planted in 1999. The legendary winemaker, Howard Soon, who retired in 2017, made just red tables wines with the grapes. Sandy Leier, who took over from Howard at Sandhill, took advantage of the great 2020 vintage to make Sandhill’s first Sangiovese rosé.
I am including reviews of two wines from Red Rooster. Like Sandhill, it is also owned by Andrew Peller Ltd. and also has an excellent female winemaker – Elaine Vickers (above). Her rosé is made with Malbec, another varietal not often used for rosé, even if it is very good for that purpose. Here are notes on the wines.
Red Rooster Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($17.90 for 1,100 cases). Bright and vibrant, the wine was fermented and aged in stainless steel. It begins with aromas of lime leading to flavours of gooseberry accented by bright acidity. The finish is dry. 90.
Red Rooster Rosé 2020 ($24.99 for 465 cases). This is made with Malbec grapes which were crushed by foot and cold-soaked for two to four hours. The hue is fashionably pale. The restrained aromas led to flavours of strawberry and papaya. The finish is crisp and dry. 89.
Sandhill Sangiovese Rosé 2020 ($30 for 288 cases). This dry, light-hued rosé had minimal skin contact to achieve the delicate colour. The wine was fermented in stainless steel and aged three months in neutral French oak barrels. The delicate aromas recall wild strawberry and spring flowers. The barrel aging has given the wine a generous texture and lifted the flavours of apple and peach. 90.
Sandhill Small Lots Sangiovese 2016 ($35 for 36 barrels). This wine is an excellent example of Sandy Leier putting her stamp on Sandhill as she succeeded. Howard Soon. The wine has been aged 20 months in French oak barrels. Rich, toasty spice on the nose frames the flavours of cherry, plum, vanilla and mocha. The finish is long and elegant. 92.

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