Sangiovese: Italy's Most Ubiquitous Grape

In years where full ripening is possible, Sangiovese grapes tend to have red and black cherry aromas, with dried cherry, dried berry, spice and savory notes coming through on the palate.
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RJ, center, at a recent Italian-themed wine lunch

Italian wines are really hot today. Italy became the world's biggest wine producing country in 2010, surpassing longtime world leader France. Meanwhile, Italian wine imports to important markets like the U.S., Britain and China have risen dramatically in the last several years.

This is due in no small part to the fact that Italian wines from many regions are good values. It also reflects the popularity of Italian cuisine around the world, and of increasingly sophisticated palates looking for wines with sufficient acidity to pair with a wide variety of foods. I am therefore again spotlighting Italian wines this week, as I did last week with the hugely popular category of Italian sparkling wines.

The most widely grown grape in Italy, comprising about 10% of the vineyard area, is Sangiovese.

There are dozens of different clones of this grape. It requires a long growing season, as it's early to bud and late to ripen. In cooler years, these tendencies can lead to high acidities and harsh, unripe tannins. In years where full ripening is possible, the grapes tend to have red and black cherry aromas, with dried cherry, dried berry, spice and savory notes coming through on the palate.

As a result of its high acidity and high tannins, Sangiovese is commonly blended with other grapes, such as the sweeter and softer Canaiolo in Chianti, or with more plush, fruity, international varieties, like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, in Super Tuscans.

Chiantis vary a lot in quality, and are generally not for long aging. The better versions tend to come from the designated Chianti Classico region. I've had very good Chianti Classicos from Antinori, Badia a Caltibuono, Barone Ricasoli, Castello di Ama, Castello La Leccia, La Massa, and Querciabella.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a Sangiovese-dominated blend from the area around the town of Montepulciano. It must contain a minimum of 70% Sangiovese, a maximum of 20% Canaiolo, and up to 20% of other indigenous varieties.

These wines are even more variable in quality than Chianti Classicos, and the high prices for many wines from this area are hard to justify based on performance. The best I've tried have been from producers Avignonesi, Boscarelli and Salcheto.

Sangiovese also plays a major role in the huge category of wines known as Super Tuscans. These were the darlings of the wine world from the mid-'90s through the early 2000s, produced by some of Italy's most illustrious and historically significant wineries.

The term Super Tuscan is used to describe any red wine from the Tuscan region that does not conform to the region's DOC(G) blending requirements, such as the Chianti DOC rule that the dominant grape of the blend has to be Sangiovese.

Super Tuscans

Many Super Tuscans garnered very high scores from Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator, leading to much demand and increasingly high prices. By the middle of the first decade of 2000, however, many Italian producers were offering Super Tuscan blends, most of which were indistinguishable from red international varietal blends from elsewhere.

The market grew increasingly soft for these kinds of wines, and only the top, most well established names are still commanding prices well over $100 a bottle. For more on the history of Super Tuscans, and notes on a tasting of some of the top Super Tuscans, like Sassicaia, Tignanello and Ornellaia, see my blog post here.

The ultimate expression of Sangiovese for me is the 100% Sangiovese from the Montalcino area in Tuscany, known as Brunello di Montalcino. Montalcino is a relatively warm and dry micro climate where the Sangiovese grape can experience a longer growing period than virtually anywhere else in Italy.

Brunello is a rather late addition to the pantheon of Italy's greatest wines. Its origins date to the work of four generations of the Biondi-Santi family, starting with experimentation with different vines and methods of vinification by Clemente Santi at his Greppo estate in the early 1800s. His grandson Feruccio ultimately isolated a very special clone of Sangiovese Grosso, a version with thicker skins and producing darker colored wine, that got the name Brunello, or "little brown one," from its brownish color at harvest time.

The first vintage of Brunello was 1888. The Biondi-Santis made it only in great years, and sold it at very high prices, giving the wine a mystique that ultimately led other producers to the area. By 1967 there were a dozen producers; as of 2010 there were over 200.

mature Brunellos

Brunello DOCG regulations require that the wines be made exclusively from this Brunello clone, and that the wines be aged a minimum of two years in barrel (modernists tend to use more French barriques, while more traditional producers mainly use the old Slovinian botti), and four years in total before going to market.

These wines have the structure to age well, unlike most Sangiovese-based wines. They often have exquisite perfume -- with scents of dried berries, cherries and herbs like lavender and anise -- and are complex and rich on the palate. Some can be drunk earlier than later, but on average, 10 years after the vintage is a good time to enjoy them.

Members of the family that produces Capanna Brunello

Some of the best producers include Biondi-Santi, Canalicchio, Capanna, Casanuova, Ciacci Piccolomini, Il Poggione, Le Chiuse, Poggio Antico, Siro Pacenti and Uccelliera. For my recommendations on current vintages from 31 producers at a recent trade tasting, see my blog post here.

The Cal-Ital movement in California has also led to growing plantings of Sangiovese. By 2011, Sangiovese was the 17th most planted red variety in this state.

The California Sangioveses I've tasted bear little resemblance to their high-acid Italian cousins. The best I've had to date was the 2007 Random Ridge Fortunata, with fruit from Napa's Mt. Veeder. I've also had respectable Sangiovese blends from Silver Saviezza in Santa Barbara and Napa's Patland Estates.

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