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Odd Campanian

Legendary Aglianico is a rare find in California

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Aglianico—just the name is so lovely. Listen to it as pronounced by a native Italian speaker: Aglianico. The g is silent, not hard as in "Grenache," and the accent falls on the second a, but more like a woman's sigh—c'mon, this is Italian we're talking about—than an exclamation.

Sangiovese says, "Here I am!" But Aglianico laments, "Where are you?"

Where is Aglianico, indeed. Trailing even such Cal-Ital grapes of mixed success as Sangiovese and Barbera, Aglianico has a tenuous hold on just a few acres of soil in Sonoma and Napa counties. Grown in Campania, in the vicinity of Naples, Aglianico is "arguably Southern Italy's greatest dark-skinned grape," according to Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine. As the principal ingredient in legendary Falernian wine, Aglianico commanded such high prices in the early Roman Empire that some observers suspected more was sold than was produced.

In my search for Aglianico, I reached out to Healdsburg's DaVero Farms & Winery, where they are happy to point to a map to demonstrate the latitudinal sisterhood of Sonoma and Southern Italy—ergo, we should be growing the same grapes. Last year, they made 18 different Italian varietal wines, but, alas, no Aglianico even here.

Late-ripening Aglianico is said to produce finely on volcanic soils. Say, do we have any of those around here? That aren't already covered with Cabernet Sauvignon? Ah well, Aglianico.

In St. Helena Cab country, brave Benessere Vineyards makes a little 2014 Napa Valley Aglianico ($56), along with its other Italian varietals. In Healdsburg, a winery with even deeper Italian roots opts to hold its wine back a few years: the upcoming release from Seghesio Family Vineyards, the 2009 Alexander Valley Aglianico ($38), wears its 30 months in oak well. Sweet oak, blackberry and black cherry float over furry tannins, spicing the palate with Zinfandel-like accents. It's a challenge to get the extraction from the thick-skinned, late-ripening grapes just right, says winemaker Ted Seghesio. "It's not for the faint of heart."

The Jacuzzi Family Vineyards 2014 Tracy Hills Aglianico ($28) is evocative of some forgotten arbor of grapes overgrown with blackberries, and rhubarb chocolate cordial, if there is such a thing. Not awesomely tannic, this might be nice with something Cal-Ital, like pizza with figs and goat cheese, or just quiet contemplation of an ancient savor. The Tracy Hills AVA, by the way, is a fancy way of saying the Central Valley west of Modesto. But just listen to how it sounds in Italian.

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