Benessere: Good Things Come in Twos

I’ve never been a big fan of Cal-Ital wines, but today I’m re-thinking that viewpoint after tasting a pinot grigio and sangiovese from Benessere Vineyards in Napa Valley.

Sangiovese Sensation

I have tasted few, if any, domestic sangiovese that could hold a candle to its better-made Italian counterparts, but Benessere showed me an example that truly measures up to the European ruler.

Benessere winemaker Jack Stuart points to the clonal variations in the estate vineyards as one factor behind the authentic flavor profile, but it doesn’t hurt that the grapes are babied with personal and gentle treatment from harvest to hand sorting of the harvest to manual punchdowns of the fermenting must.

This 2007 estate wine ($28) is neither fined nor filtered, allowing deeper colors and flavors to show up in the glass.

The taste is classic sangiovese, which is the prime component in Italy’s well-known Chianti — which is made as a blend of  several different  types of grapes. Sangiovese is also a powerful player in some of Italy’s well-regarded Super Tuscan wines.

The Benessere is all ruby-colored sangiovese. The grape, by the way, takes its name from the Latin sanguis Jovis, which means the “blood of Jove (Jupiter).”

Most domestic sangiovese that I have tasted has come up short on taste and flavor with tart, thin fruit and high acids. Benessere makes an assuredly better and deeper impression.

Sure, there is a tartness to the fruit, like sour cherry, but it’s balanced. The wine’s fuller mid-palate flavors pull your tastebuds to a higher dimension. There’s a little gamey taste and dash of leather on the palate, too, adding to the sophistication and giving the wine a firm leg to stand on against hearty food flavors.

At dinner, the sangiovese took off when paired with a plate of spaghetti. I topped the pasta with a lamb, tomato and crimini mushroom sauce spiked while it simmered with a generous splash of the Benessere wine.

Go-To Pinot Grigio

The 2009  Benessere Pinot Grigio ($22) is made from grapes grown in two vineyards — Mueller-McKenzie and Bartolucci. Both are in the Carneros region, where pinot noir and chardonnay are widely planted

This pale gold wine has a definite hint of citrus (lime blossoms?). The taste is somewhat tart, but not too acidic or sharp . I’d say it was more like a bite from a peach that’s just a bit under-ripe. There’s also a touch of minerality or wet stones on the edge.

Exceptional Experience

I’d never come across something this good in a pinot grigio from a U.S. producer.

Most of the California PG wines I’ve had were simple, tart and inexpensive quaffers. I have a much higher impression for the Benessere, which is good on its own and would be great matched against simply prepared seafood, grilled lemon chicken or fettuccine alfredo.

Visiting Benessere

The St. Helena winery, purchased by John and Ellen Benish in 1994, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. A tasting fee of $15 covers samples of six different wines.

In addition to the sangiovese and pinot grigio, Benessere makes some pretty good zinfandel, a rose’ that’s blended from sangiovese, zinfandel and merlot, plus a proprietary red blend called Phenomenon ($62, vintage 2006) that won a gold medal at last year’s San Francisco wine competition.

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