How a Lake County Sangiovese Producer Captures the Essence of Italy | Wine Enthusiast
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How a Lake County Sangiovese Producer Captures the Essence of Italy

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Even if it never quite garnered the same attention as other so-called Old World varieties, Sangiovese in California isn’t exactly news. The “Cal-Ital” movement of the 1980s and its later proponents reminded everyone that, while Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay might get all the press, many Italian grapes have been grown uninterruptedly in America’s most famous wine-growing state and with significant success. But most people don’t think of California as producing great wine from Italian varieties or that these grapes are able to provide a sophisticated expression of their adopted terroir. This is true particularly of Sangiovese—the grape most familiar to American consumers in its imported Tuscan iterations.

Sangiovese Clones
Images Courtesy of Prima Materia
A man standing next to barrels of wine
Images Courtesy of Prima Materia

Small, sensitive producers have, however, been helping Sangiovese show its stuff on the best coast, and the results are exciting not only for what ends up in the bottle, but also for what the future promises if Sangiovese gets its due.

Working in Lake County at his extremely limited production property, Prima Materia, winemaker Pietro Buttitta makes single varietal Italian bottlings from several grapes, but Sangiovese has become a particular passion for him. Buttitta has five blocks planted to multiple different clones of Sangiovese, and the variety has given him a lot to experiment with. An almost maniacal attention to clonal variation has long been a critical part of making quality wine from Sangiovese in Italy, best witnessed by Brunello di Montalcino, the flagship expression of the grape, called Brunello after the clone from which it is made. Following the Italian example, Buttitta has been closely tracking how his clones of Sangiovese behave, from his two Emilia Romagna clones (19 and 23), that give him what he calls “Goldilocks” productions, to his Biondi Santi 05 (that gains its name from the famed Tuscan estate), that is “its own beast” thanks to monster tannins.

As he discusses his Lake County Sangiovese, it becomes clear that what makes his expressions sing is a very subtle understanding of how the grape is and isn’t a natural fit for the region—and the winemaking styles currently in place. Buttitta points out, “Sangiovese is a lot like Pinot Noir, in that it shows very big differences among clones.” Conversely, he adds, it is definitely not like Cabernet Sauvignon, and that can lead winemakers astray: “Cab makers making Sangiovese doesn’t work, because, even if the market doesn’t prompt it, Sangiovese has to have that Old World effect, that midpalate lightness—something Lake County can, in fact, lend itself to.” Lake County does tend to be hotter than central Italy, but with its intense diurnals and very limited water it does have the ability to mimic some of the complex and ultimately beneficial growing conditions of Sangiovese’s home turf.

Capturing more of that original Italian essence is where he sees the most potential for Sangiovese in the future. As vines mature to the 20-year mark or beyond, larger format oak and longer aging will help tease out Sangiovese’s unique, ephemeral texture. “I’m looking forward to Colorino and Mammolo coming to California for the historical partnering,” Buttitta says, “because I’m wondering if it will be something that only works in Italy or if Sangiovese here will play well with those two classic blending grapes.” In the meantime, though, he hasn’t been afraid to test possibilities that don’t conform to any specific tradition, as in his Lake County Sangiovese-Cabernet Franc—it’s neither Italian nor Californian, but just the best of both wine worlds.

A Taste of Italy: Wines to Try

Prima Materia 2019 Sangiovese (Kelsey Bench)

Roasted plums and cherries, light herbs and leather give this full-bodied wine plenty to appreciate. Moderate tannins support relatively rich fruit flavors, delivering good balance. The wine used 20% whole clusters in the fermentation and aged for 22 months in neutral barrels. 91 Points — Jim Gordon

32 Prima Materia

Prima Materia 2021 Carbonic Nebbiolo (Kelsey Bench)

An alternative look to rustic Nebbiolo, this carbonic expression celebrates the vivacity of fruits oft overlooked in the variety. Vivacious aromas of red cherry, raspberry, pomegranate, wild strawberry, fresh basil and roses fill the nose. The palate produces that red-fruited pop that only carbonic really can. Course tannins add structural integrity, balanced by a solid dose of acidity that further enhances the lively fruits. 91 Points — J.G.

$40 Prima Materia

Prima Materia 2019 Aglianico (Kelsey Bench)

Give this wine at least an hour to unwind for best enjoyment and then be rewarded with vibrant notes of black cherry, black plum, black currant and and violets, alongside well-integrated oak tones of nutmeg, anise, clove and toast. With the high concentration of fruit comes with it a mouthful of tannins—fully mature, soft and adding structural balance and integrity. 91 Points, Hidden Gem — J.G.

$ Varies Wine-Searcher

Prima Materia 2019 Barbera (Kelsey Bench)

A funky, reduced aroma at first whiff evolves into complex meaty, fruity and leathery flavors in this full-bodied and moderately tannic wine. Tangy acidity backs up red and black fruit for good balance. 90 Points — J.G.

$32 Prima Materia

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!


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