Italian Varietals at Caparone Winery

By Dave Caparone
“Italy has three indigenous varieties capable of producing wines of breed and character. These noble varieties are Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Aglianico.” - Sheldon and Pauline Wasserman, Italy’s Noble Red Wines

When I discovered this book in 1990 we already had these varieties planted in our vineyard. Nebbiolo was planted in 1980, Sangiovese in 1982 and Aglianico in 1988. Our first Nebbiolo wine was produced in 1985, followed by Sangiovese in 1986 and Aglianico in 1992.

My initial exposure to some of the better Italian wines came about 1970. I soon developed a particular interest in Nebbiolo. Wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco had a direct appeal which encouraged me to collect them and to want to learn more about them. Nebbiolo wines are unique in flavor, aroma and color and are not for everyone. It is undoubtedly this fact which has prompted Italians to refer to their best Nebbiolo wines as “vino arrivo” (wine which is appreciated more with experience).

Montevina Winery in Amador County made a very small planting of Nebbiolo about 1972 and produced several vintages of Nebbiolo until about 1980. In an attempt to learn more about Nebbiolo I visited the winery in 1976 and later spent several days at UC Davis doing some research in their library. I found an Italian ampelography containing a full section on Nebbiolo as well as sections devoted to Sangiovese and Aglianico. I also found other material including a 1936 study on Nebbiolo done by UC Davis researchers which did not recommend it for California. We know that Nebbiolo has been in California for a long time, perhaps over 100 years. It is likely that it was brought here by Italian immigrants. A family by the name of Lanza was mentioned to me in that regard. Traditionally, Nebbiolo was to be found in the upper San Joaquin valley. That climate is not conducive to the production of quality Nebbiolo wines. It is perhaps the case that there were no commercial plantings of Nebbiolo in any of California’s coastal valleys before our planting here near Paso Robles, in 1980.

Nebbiolo is a variety with great genetic variability. Nebbiolo grape and wine producers have long associated quality with clonal selection. Until recently there have been only three types of Nebbiolo available to California growers. In the winter of 1979-80 I received two clones sent from the University of Turin to UC Davis in 1973 described as “Lampia” and &rlquo;Michet.” At that time there had been no systematic study of Nebbiolo sub-varieties in Italy and it was impossible to know how they related to types responsible for the great Italian Nebbiolo wines. Since that time a lengthy and thorough study has been completed by researchers at the University of Turin The results of this study were presented to the International Symposium on Clonal Selection in 1995 by University of Turin research scientist Franco Mannini. One of the most important findings of the study is that indeed different clones of the Nebbiolo cultivar produce wines with different sensory characteristics which relate to relative wine quality. As a result of this clonal selection and evaluation process several new clones have been registered and made available to growers. We were able to obtain one of the most promising selections in 1998 and it is now a part of our Nebbiolo planting.

Sangiovese has long been in California. Although it was planted in Sonoma County before 1910, Sangiovese was not marketed as a varietal until the 1980s. Sangiovese is the most widely planted red variety in Italy and has even more genetic variability than Nebbiolo. The Italian Ministry of Agriculture has defined two major types, Sangiovese Grosso and Sangiovese Piccolo. Recent studies have subdivided Sangiovese into 5 major biotypes, three Grosso and two Piccolo. About 30 Sangiovese clones have been registered, however there are many more. Ironically, the entire range of biotypes are to be found in single Italian production zones and even in individual vineyards. “Sangiovese in Tuscany” by Paoletti indicates for instance, that only 9% of the grapes grown at Montalcino, home of the prestigious “Brunello di Montalcino” appellation, are actually the “Brunello” clone of Sangiovese; in fact, all five biotypes of Sangiovese are found at Montalcino.

In the latter part of the 1970s about a dozen Sangiovese cuttings were brought to California by no less a personage than the Prince di Napoli-Rampolla. They were reportedly obtained from the Il Poggione Estate at Montalcino. I was able to obtain cuttings from the few resulting vines which were propagated for our Sangiovese planting.

Aglianico was our final Italian varietal project. This ancient variety was brought to Italy by the Greeks in pre-Roman times. It is not widely grown or well known in Italy. Taurasi and Aglianico del Vulture are the two Aglianico appellations most recognized for quality wines. The latter consisted of only about 600 acres in 1990 and Taurasi production averages only about 12,000 cases per year. Nevertheless, some of these wines reach America and I was able to obtain a few samples about 1985.

Aglianico was much more difficult to obtain than Nebbiolo or Sangiovese. I initially inquired at UC Davis but was told they didn’t have any. I was however, told of a vine collection owned by the Germplasm Repository, a Federal agency, which reputedly contained Aglianico. I was given permission to visit the collection and to obtain cuttings for propagation later on. In the early fall of 1986 I visited the vineyard. Doctor Harold Olmo of UC Davis was good enough to go with me to help identify the Aglianico vines, which were in several different locations. I obtained cuttings from these vines the following winter. I was told that the vines in the Germplasm Repository collection came originally from the collection at UC Davis. A subsequent inquiry about the availability of Aglianico from their collection proved successful. I obtained some cuttings from UC Davis in 1990 which were propagated and used in our vineyard. Dr Anna Schneider, of the University of Turin inspected the Aglianico at UC Davis in 1992 and found it to be true to variety.