New lady in the house: Sorelle’s Russo Red
Sorelle Winery – a boutique sized vineyard and winery recently established by the Scott family at the southern edge of the Lodi AVA – is poised to release a rare Lodi grown Super Tuscan style red wine: their 2010 Sorelle Russo Red ($34). The svelte yet sinewy Russo is crackling with affability – bright red currant, provocative black licorice, cute little Post-its of composted earth – embedded in a medium-full body underlain by moderate tannin, with subtle, smoky, cigar box-like oak embellishments.
What is Super Tuscan wine, and why should you care? First, because the Russo tastes so darned good — for something so substantial, yet not bruising or overweening.
Second, because a Super Tuscan style wine is something of a gutsy move: the reason why you don’t see zillions of other wineries in Lodi or anywhere else in California jumping on the bandwagon is because American wines of this ilk have not exactly been lighting up the market (for more on this, please see our June 2012 post, Sorelle’s Sangioves defies all odds).
“Super Tuscan” refers to a rather nebulous style of red wine, usually (but not always) involving Sangiovese – the traditional red wine grape of Italy’s Tuscany region – in combination with French grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Sorelle’s Russo is a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon (grown for Sorelle by the Mettler family’s Arbor Vineyards) and 25% Sangiovese (from Sorelle’s own vineyard).
Sorelle was founded by Mike Scott as a winery specializing in Italian varietals like Sangiovese, Barbera, and Primitivo (the latter, a clonal variation of Zinfandel brought into California by U.C. Davis from Sicily in Italy); but according to Mr. Scott, “Cabernet Sauvignon has been my favorite wine for a long time now, and so a twist on a Super Tuscan style wine was a must. The name ‘Russo’ pays homage to (Scott’s wife) Joanne’s mother and grandparents, who came over on a boat from Italy with their family name, ‘Caporusso.’”
Adds Chad Joseph, Sorelle’s consulting winemaker: “The Russo was aged in barrels for over two years, and was bottled unfined and unfiltered. There are many Cabernet Sauvignons and blends made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon out there, but not too many of them blending Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese. By doing this, we offer a great Lodi Cabernet with an Italian twist that I find intriguing, complex and unique.”
The idea of Super Tuscan style wines first popped up in Tuscany during the 1970s, and then went on to become, well, super-popular among discriminating wine lovers around the world in the 1980s and 1990s. It has never been an officially recognized or regulated style of wine: it’s sort of like a “wine of the people” – only, the kind of people who can afford $75, $150, or even more than $200 for a single bottle with a fanciful name like Tignanello, Solaia, Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Messorio or Fontalloro (they all ring romantico when pronounced with an Italian accent).
Long story short: Super Tuscans first came about in Tuscany’s sub-region of Chianti, where wine production is strictly regulated by the government’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata (i.e. DOC) laws. In the 1970s, for instance, if you wanted to produce and sell a “Chianti,” you could not use more than 70% Sangiovese in the wine, and you were also required to blend in at least 10% of one of the local white wine grapes (such as Trebbiano and Malvasia).
Many of the top Tuscan producers, like the Antinori family, decided to rebel, and for good reason: they felt that the idea of using white wine to “lighten” a Sangiovese based red was not only grossly antiquated, if anything the problem with Sangiovese was that it needed to be bolstered by grapes that could make the wine even darker, fuller, richer, fresher, and more complex. Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which were native to France, not Italy, but could be grown beautifully in the Mediterranean climate and rolling hills of Tuscany.
So these disgruntled Tuscan producers decided to strike out on their own, producing wines that they did not have the right to call Chianti because they contained no white wine in the blend, more than 70% Sangiovese, and blended with non-traditional grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Ironically, these new fangled wines proved to be even more popular among the connoisseurs than top-of-the-line Chianti Classico; and to a great extent, the commercial success of Super Tuscans was also the reason why plantings of Sangiovese increased in California – from less than 200 acres in 1989, to more than 3,000 acres by 2003.
Eventually, in 1996, DOC laws were loosened up, and Chianti producers were allowed to make red wines more at their discretion: utilizing larger percentages of Sangiovese (75% to 100% now allowed), 0% to 10% white wine, and up to 15% “other” red wine grapes. Italy’s still-unregulated Super Tuscan category, however, continues to proliferate; and today these wines are made in styles almost too numerous to count: 100% Sangiovese, 100% Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, and blends utilizing any number of grapes, from Italian varieties like Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia Nera, to French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Syrah, and even Pinot Noir. These wines have become like ladies of the night — they’ll be anything you ask them to be.
In Tuscany, and now also in Lodi, the attitude is “why not?” If it tastes great, then it’s worth your attention!