Italy in California: from Aglianico to Zinfandel #ItalianFWT

Italian wines A-Z

We all know and love wines from France that now grow all over the world. But why is it that Italian wines are not so well known and widely grown?

Why is it that there are so many immigrants from Italy in the US and California yet there are so few Italian wines grown and known save Zinfandel aka Primitivo? 

In the US, after Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese may be the most well known grape from Italy — well after zinfandel aka Primitivo which most people think of as a California grape and in part because most people don’t know that glera is the grape in Prosecco. And even with that said, many people don’t know that Chianti is actually made with Sangiovese grapes. 

While grapes from Italy are found around the world, they just aren’t as well known as their French siblings, cousins, and far flung relatives. As Sue and I love Italian wines, we keep an eye out for them wheresoever they are from! And last year we took a deep dive into sangiovese and a few other Italian based grapes

because in 2020 we needed some comfort food and wine

and for us, comfort food and wine means ITALIAN! 

Last year we wrote about comforting food and Italian grapes from biodynamic Montinore where they are growing Teroldego and Lagrein which we paired with an instant pot stew..

We also did: Sangiovese from Paso Robles? Certo! A Ranchita Canyon Vineyard Vertical Paired with Spiced Lamb Stew

Very close to home, there’s Dolcetto from Pacific view growing high above Ojai.

If you don’t know the El Dorado appellation in the Sierra Foothills, and you’re a fan of Italian grapes, it’s time! We’ve written about a number of wines from this region in the previous six months, we appreciate their quality, their range, and their affordability. In the fall, we focused on Rhône blends (here and here) and then Primitivo and Zinfandel here  and here.

Just last month, we shared a Fiano and a red blend with Italian grapes grown in Temecula at biodynamic Tranquil Heart: 50% Barbera, 30% Aglianico, 20% Teroldego

This month we’ll be looking at Italian grapes grown in other places AND French grapes grown in other places. Today the Italian Food Wine Travel group of wine writers is sharing their finds — Italian wines grown outside of Italy with host Linda Whipple. To see who wrote about what, scroll down. And you’re invited to our twitter chat tomorrow Saturday March 6 at 8am Pacific; discussion questions follow. 

grapes from Italy grown in California

Italian Wine Grapes Grown in California 

  • 2018 Sunce Aglianico, Herringer Vineyard, Clarksburg
  • 2016 The Ojai Vineyard Sangiovese, White Hawk Vineyard, Santa Barbara County 
  • 2016 Madrona Zinfandel, El Dorado County
  • Italian grapes are grown all over California, from north to south.
  • Stay tuned for part 2– NEBBIOLO from Terragena in Humbolt and Silver Wines from Santa Barbara!

All of the wines worked so well with the menu we developed for this evening. If you aren’t into meat, it was not necessary to make these wines shine. They all loved the rich creamy goodness of our cheesy sauces over rich pasta.


  • cheese plate
  • tossed green salad with a garlic balsamic vinegarette
  • gnocchi with a gorgonzola cream sauce
  • mushroom ravioli with a telagio cream sauce
  • grilled sweet Italian sausage from Watkins Ranch
  • grilled Watkins Ranch bone in rib eye steaks– one with blue cheese, one salt and pepper only

2018 Sunce Aglianico, Herringer Vineyard, Clarksburg

ABV 13.6% 
SRP $36
14 cases
purchased on sale at Grocery Outlet 

Sunce is pronounced soon-say as in 

“Soon you will say the wines at Sunce are delectably fine.”

If you say “sunce” in Croatia, it means “sun” — and Croatia is where winemaker Frane Franicevic comes from. He grew up in a small fishing village of Sucuraj (meaning Saint George) on the eastern tip of the island of Hvar in the Adriatic Sea on the Dalmatian Coast making wine and olive oil with his family. Now he’s settled in Sonoma County, where he’s celebrating his 30 vintage. He sources fruit from estate vineyards and other places like Clarksburg in the Central Valley near Sacramento which is where they get their Aglianico. Many of their wines come from small sources and they make 200 cases or less of these special wines– 43 different ones in all! They make a number of other wines from Italian grapes as well as unusual Rhone ones: I recently fell in love with the Viognier; it’s fantastic with florals, mouthfeel, AND acidity!

And if you visit and say “Sunce” loudly at Sunce winery, the winemaker’s daughter just might come running because that’s her name too. 

In Italy, Aglianico is often found growing on volcanic soils in the Campania and Basilicata regions near the southern toe of the boot. While aglianico is famous for producing full bodied  highly acid, highly tannic wines that are practically undeniable when young, this New World aglianico defies those typical Italian expressions. We found this 2018 medium bodied and highly enjoyable and accessible!

Color: Raspberry red, with a pale pink rim

Nose: Raspberry and plum, fresh and fruity, light baking spices, ginger, turmeric, cardomon, cinnamon, clove, as it warms up there is cigar box, sandalwood, and amber. 

Palate: The acidity in the wine makes your mouth water, racey acidity this is not a sweet wine, but the essence of fresh,  fruit is there Raspberry, and red vine licorice. For such a light wine, there are big bold tannins, lots of sweet fruit without being a sweet wine. Subtle oak, a bit of toast especially on the finish. 

Pairing: This might be a fun wine with salmon. The acidity would tackle the fatty fish, and the raspberry cherry fruit would be a complimentary companion to the dish. I loved the wine with our prosciutto making me think of ham. I want pork with this wine. The salami wasn’t that great. Sue really liked the wine with our truffle brie; they go so well together. The truffle cream brings out the fruit and the florals and everything in the wine that we found so attractive. It enhances the wine so nicely. Great with the gnocchi, and the ravoli with the cheesy creamy sauces. 

2016 The Ojai Vineyard Sangiovese, White Hawk Vineyard, Santa Barbara County 
ABV 14.0%
SRP $35
229 cases
purchased with my wine club member discount 

The Ojai Vineyard Sangiovese grows in an ancient sand dune in northern Santa Barbara County not far from the coast and Highway 101. The poor sandy soils and southeast exposure provides fruit with personality — whether it’s Chardonnay, Syrah or in this case, Sangiovese which Adam Tolmach has been making since 2011. After 2013-2015’s drought, the 2016 vintage enjoyed more moisture and thus a more plush, California style sangio.

Color: Crayola crayon maroon, with a crayon red rim

Nose: Spicy rose, rose petals, cherry tobacco, earthen soil, forest floor, faint hint of violets, there is a ripeness to this fruit that says California all over it to me. To me it does not necessarily say Italian Chianti, or Sangiovese, cloves and ginger, and a bit of black pepper. 

Palate: Ripe tart fruit, bright acidity, rich tannins, big tannins, tart cherry fruit, black and red licorice, this is a mouthwatering wine that makes you yearn for food. 

Pairing: So great with the prosciutto and provolone, the wine becomes nicely fruity, and the provolone becomes creamy, and brings out nice fruit in the wine. The fruit retains its vitality due the acidity in the wine. It works alright with the blue cheese, making us think that it would be wonderful with gnocchi covered with gorgonzola cream sauce. The acidity in the wine cuts through this rich creamy meal so nicely. There are so many Italian dishes that include rich creamy cheesy wonderfulness. This wine is a perfect mate for any rich creamy Pasta dish. I liked the Sangio with the steak, but really wanted a Bolognese or stewed ragu, even a creamy tomato sauce would be great. 

2016 Madrona “Signature” Zinfandel El Dorado County
ABV 14.5% 
SRP $26

Madroña Vineyards is located 45 miles East of Sacramento on U.S. Highway 50 in the heart of Apple Hill and the California Gold Country. From Highway 50, take the Carson Road exit (5 miles east of Placerville), go west on Carson Road 1/4 mile, turn right through High Hill Ranch. From the winery, it is only a 55-mile drive to South Lake Tahoe and the mountain resorts.

By blending two 3,000′ high elevations, Sumu Kaw Vineyards and Madrona Vineyard Estate Vineyards, this Zinfandel offers more cool-climate tannins and balanced fruit, spice and acidity. They have three vineyard sites planted with over 26 varietals including Nebbiolo.

Color: Ruby red, medium density, light pink rim

Nose: Spicy nose, black pepper and white pepper, fennel, menthol, chaparral hillsides. Nice herbal components in addition the the fruit and the baking spices. Butterscotch and Vanilla, honeycomb, most probably from oak. The wine is very expressive. This is not like a one note zin, more like a 10 trick pony

Palate: Bold fruit followed by lovely florals mid palate with a long lingering salivating finish. This is not your everyday run of the mill zin. There is a very nice texture from the beginning, through the middle, and continuing till the end. Violet, Iris, roses, cherry, cherry cola, licorice

Pairing: Salami and mozzarella bring out ripe fruit in the wine. Great with cured Italian meats, give me a classic Italian pizza,  just like a zin should be. All I have to say about it is so yummy. Great with a creamy blue cheese making Sue long for a BBQ blue cheese burger to go along with the wine. The two are like candy together. Fantastic with the mushroom ravioli with the telagio cream sauce. It really brings out nice earthy characteristics in the wine. Yummy with the rib eye– even better with an instant pot corned beef made with “Fin du Monde” beer! Corned beef recipe here. 



 Here’s who is writing about what this month:


On Saturday, join our twitter chat at 8am Pacific!

  • Q1 Welcome to the #ItalianFWT “Italian grapes outside of Italy” chat. Where are you tweeting from? Introduce yourself, share a link to your blog. Visitors too!
  • Q2 What’s your favorite Italian #wine grape? Are you able to name only one? Do you look specifically for wines made from this grape? #ItalianFWT
  • Q3 What was your first Italian #wine grape love? How did you meet? #ItalianFWT
  • Q4 What’s the most unusual Italian grape you’ve uncovered outside of Italy? Was this grape new to you? Did you find it online or in person? #ItalianFWT
  • Q5 Tell us about the Italian grape you uncovered for this chat. Where is it grown? Were you surprised to find it in this location? #ItalianFWT
  • Q6 What can you share about the producer of this Italian grape grown outside of Italy? #ItalianF
  • Q7 How does your wine compare to one produced in its Italian place of origin? Similarities? Differences? #ItalianFWT
  • Q8 I’m getting hungry. How about you? If your find involved food and wine, please share some details! Did you go with Italian food or opt for something closer to where the grape was actually grown? #ItalianFWT
  • Q9 Where else do you plan to look for Italian grapes outside of Italy? What else would you like to taste? Any recommended wine regions? #ItalianFWT
  • Q10 Is there any downside to growing native grapes outside of their homeland? Does it alter the integrity (sense of place) of the wine? #ItalianFWT
  • Q11 Do you have any final thoughts or new questions for the group? #ItalianFWT 
  • Q12 Any comments/questions from visitors? Share a thought, comment, question! #ItalianFWT 
  • Thanks to all the #ItalianFWT bloggers and guests for joining this exploration of Italian grapes outside of Italy. Next month we travel to Lazio with Katarina @ricasoli99.

14 thoughts on “Italy in California: from Aglianico to Zinfandel #ItalianFWT

  1. What a great feast! I have really enjoyed Aglianco but don’t see it much. It sounds like Frane Franicevic is doing some really interesting things! Does he work with Zinfandel as well? Because that would be a kick.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, zin and primitivo are some of the 2 dozen varietals as well as Barbera and Nebbiolo. There’s not a lot of Aglianico grown in CA! And yes Sue is quite the Iron Chef sometimes putting meals and ideas together with the ingredients at hand.


  2. Thanks for sharing. I knew that we had a lot of Italian grapes in California, but it wasn’t till Martin and Nicole’s articles this month that I had heard the term ‘Cal-Ital.’ I guess we’re lucky in that regard. Time to do more wine shopping, I suppose.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Would it blow your mind that the Primitivo grape has been traced back to a Croatia varietal?! Crljenak Kaštelanski Is the root of all the crazy popular Zinfandel wines!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great spread and selection of wines. I always enjoy the Ojai Vineyard, but have never had their Sangio. Lots of new things here for me to keep an eye out for!

    Liked by 1 person

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