Paying tribute to his family and making his own mark, Chris Figgins is experimenting with Italian grape varieties at Serra Pedace. He expects to make wine from the 2017 harvest.

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CHRIS FIGGINS’ great-grandfather, Francesco Leonetti, came to Walla Walla more than a century ago from Serra Pedace, a small town in the instep of the boot that is Italy’s southern peninsula.

Chris’ dad, Gary Figgins, started Leonetti Cellar in 1977, paying tribute to the Italian side of his heritage.

Now Chris is paying a deeper tribute to his ancestry, exploring heritage southern Italian grape varieties in his youngest vineyard, south of Walla Walla. He has even named the vineyard Serra Pedace as a nod to family history.

Italy is home to more than 1,000 wine grape varieties. The varieties Chris Figgins has planted have been around for centuries, including aglianico, a red grape written about by Pliny the Elder nearly two millennia ago. It’s a big, rustic grape that makes a rich, full-bodied wine. Chris made his first batch in a clay vessel from the 2013 vintage. He plans to bottle it this summer and release it as early as this fall.

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He also has planted a bit of sagrantino, Nero d’Avola and montepulciano. Sagrantino is a very tannic grape, and only 1,600 acres are planted in Umbria. Nero d’Avola is an important grape in its native Sicily. Montepulciano is a widely planted grape that should not be confused with the Tuscan town of the same name or its collectible wines, which are made from sangiovese. At least two small Washington producers bottle montepulciano.

Because Chris planted only a couple of rows of each of these grapes, he hasn’t explored them beyond seeing whether they’ll actually grow in the Walla Walla Valley. He expects to dive into winemaking with the 2017 harvest.

This is not Leonetti’s first foray into Italian varieties. Gary Figgins started producing sangiovese in the 1990s and is releasing the 2014 vintage during an event May 5-7 known officially as Spring Release Weekend, but referred to by many wine lovers as Leonetti Weekend.

Serra Pedace vineyard is about more than Italian heritage varieties. Chris also has planted cabernet sauvignon and other classic Bordeaux varieties there — and it’s proving to be a superb location, as the Serra Pedace wines are making the cut for Leonetti Reserve, a red blend that at $150 a bottle is one of Washington’s most expensive and revered bottlings.

This new direction is inspired in part by Chris stretching his winemaking muscles and exploring his Italian heritage. And part of it is him finding his own way, making his own mark. He perfectly understands the winery his parents built has an amazing legacy. It’s one thing to continue the tradition his father started, making Washington’s most collectible wines. For Chris, it’s much more satisfying to explore new directions, push himself to succeed in new ways and build his own legacy.

Introducing his customers and Washington winemaking to these fascinating Italian red varieties is enriching for all of us.