Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Classic Italian Grapes: Sangiovese

Today we continue exploring the most important grapes from Italy. And this one is one of my favorites: Sangiovese.

What to say about Sangiovese? All of us at one time or another have drank Chianti wines, or other Tuscany wines, and of course have read about how quality improved considerably in Chianti in the last 30 years or so. Mostly, at the beginning and for many decades, Chianti was a simple wine, an uninteresting quaff served at Italian trattorias, usually enclosed in a straw flask. It was made from a blend of Sangiovese and other grapes that included Colorino, Canaiolo, Malvasia Nera (reds) and whites, such as Malvasia and or Trebbiano. This formula was invented by the Baron Ricasoli, who thought that adding a bit of white grapes will improve the blend, the rest of the other varieties were used either to add color or to soften the natural high acidity of Sangiovese. The truth is that blending didn’t help much, and eventually this affected the sales of this wine, which decreased. Thankfully around the 1980s, Chianti producers led by Marchese Piero Antinori, started to work very hard to improve quality, not only by blending Sangiovese with French varieties (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon) and creating the Super Tuscans category, but also by adding less white grapes, and improving both vineyard and winery practices. 

Nowadays, there’s plenty of good quality Sangiovese to be found but I must warn you since we are in Europe/ Old World, it’s likely that instead of Sangiovese in the label, you will find the name of the region instead. In the case of this grape,  the most important Italian regions are: Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Though Sangiovese is also used in  Basic Chianti and other Chianti subzones, Carmignano, Morellino di Scansano, Umbria, etc.

Originally from Italy, Sangiovese is the child of two italian varieties: Calabrese di Montenuovo and Ciliegiolo. There are several theories about its origins within Italy, some say that Sangiovese originated in the Southern part of the peninsula and from there it moved to Tuscany. Others claim Emilia Romagna to be its home. Like Pinot Noir, Sangiovese has mutated a lot, there are over 200 identified clones of this grape and it changed names according to the appellation: Brunello, Morellino, Prugnolo Gentile, all are Sangiovese clones. Like Pinot Noir, it can be quite temperamental, in the sense that it can’t grow anywhere, success depends very much on the clone used, the yields (that need to be kept low), the soils and microclimates (favoring warm weather for ripeness and cool nights to keep acidity in check).

Ampelographer Girolamo Molon divided the clones into two larger groups: Sangiovese Grosso (that includes Brunello, Prugnolo Gentile and Sangiovese di Lamole (Chianti) and Sangiovese Piccolo (clones of lesser quality). Sangiovese is by far, the most planted red grape variety in Italy and it does best in Tuscany, where 68 % of the land is conformed by hills and small mountains.  This area covers from Florence in the north to Siena in the Center and Montalcino in the south. Though, soils in Tuscany vary from sand, clay and limestone. “Galestro”soils, which is a crumbly stony marl,  give the best structured wines. Sangiovese is an early ripening variety and late budding and can be quite vigorous, high density planting has been used to mitigate this, but it also needs open canopies to mature properly, good vineyard expositions usually facing south and south west  and low yields to obtain the best results. 

The most available Sangiovese, come from the DOCG Chianti Classico appellation, which is considered the heart of the region. Even though is not a large area, it has many vineyards planted at altitudes that go from 800 to 2000 feet,  these differences in soils and altitudes will create a huge variety of wines. In 1984 Chianti Classico was upgraded to DOCG status, the highest in the Italian classification, the first thing they did was to remove the mandatory white grapes from the traditional recipe, nowadays, the blend could be 80 to 100% Sangiovese, and up to 20 % of Canaiolo, Cabernet and Merlot (two grapes that were not allowed originally by law).  Balancing Cabernet or Merlot with Sangiovese can be a challenge,  since these two tend to overwhelm and mask Sangiovese’s flavors. Even 5% of Cabernet can be enough to create a big wine, so here again much depends on the winemaker’s intent, some may choose to go this route, while others will prefer to make varietals and let Sangiovese shine by itself. By law only in Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, the wine must be 100% Sangiovese, the rest of the appellations allowed other grapes but in tiny percentages.

Stylistically, Sangiovese wines will be dry and will have medium to medium plus bodies, usually balanced alcohol levels that may go between 12-14%, high acidity and firm tannins. Sangiovese is very light in color, another similarity it shares with Pinot Noir and a give away when tasting this wine blind. Young Sangiovese will taste of fresh cherry pie, plum, tomato leaf, oregano.  As it matures it will show other complex aromas and flavors of dried leaf, dried orange peel, tea, mocha, leather and minerals. 

Aging is quite important in Tuscany and it varies per appellation. By law, all Chianti Classico must be aged in oak, Riserva wines for 2 years in wood and 3 months in bottle (minimum). These days the favorite oak is French but also big Slovakian barrels and for the Gran Selezione (category created in 2014) the wine must spend 30 months of aging, including 3 months minimum in bottle. Gran Selezione wines are made with a selection of the winery’s best grapes or from grapes from a single vineyard. Basic Chianti wines which is a larger appellation than Classico, are made from grapes outside the Classico area and includes 6 different subzones: Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Rufina, Colli Aretini, Colli Senesi, Colli Pisane and Chianti Montalbano. The best wines come from Chianti Rufina.

Brunello di Montalcino is farther south that Chianti Classico, where it’s warmer, as you know, warm weather means more sun/ alcohol/body. So, Sangiovese here gets bigger and more concentrated. Personally I think the best Sangiovese come from this appellation. Producers say that their secret is a clone, actually 6 special clones that grow only in this area. It’s a small appellation with only 2100 HA of vineyards vs 15,400 HA in Chianti. The best vineyards are located at a high altitude of 1,800 feet looking south. There is more limestone in the soils here than in Chianti and of course Galestro (stony marl), schist and clay can also be found. Sangiovese is called here “Brunello”. It will yield a beefer wine that smells of black fruits, chocolate, violets, tar and spices. Brunello is by law, aged longer than any other Italian wines: 5 years for regular Brunello (2 of which will be in oak and 4 months minimum in bottle) and 6 for riservas (2 of which will be in oak and 6 months in bottle).
Rosso di Montalcino is Brunello’ younger brother, it is a fruitier wine that is made with grapes from non great vintages or from less than ideal vineyard locations. It is also aged less time than Brunellos only for 1 year. They are also cheaper than Brunellos and much lighter in style.

Like Brunello, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is also made from Sangiovese, here called “Prugnolo Gentile”, Canaiolo, Malvasia and Trebbiano are also allowed in the blend (but only in tiny percentages). Most vineyards are planted at 600 feet from sea level,@ lower altitudes than Brunello. Montepulciano is located nearby Colli Senesi’s Chianti subzone. Soils here are mostly sandy clay.  By law, Vino Nobile must be aged for 2 years, and Riservas for 3 years, similar to Chianti Classico but less than Brunello.The flavor profile of Vino Nobile will be softer than Chianti Classico with cream, plum flavors and toasty oak notes.
They are usually much cheaper than Brunello and Chianti Classico, though there are some single vineyards that could be expensive.

Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico and the Sangiovese based Super Tuscans* are the best expressions of Sangiovese and have the most aging potential, with best samples being able to age for up to 25 years. Lighter versions like Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montalcino are made to be consumed young, within 5 or less years from vintage.
Trying to emulate the wines of Tuscany was not an easy task for New World producers, though we can find some good attempts in California,  Argentina and Australia. As expected New World versions will be fruitier and rounder, vs the herb, bitter cherry and savory tomato flavors typical of all Italian wines.

Recommended Producers:
Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino: Biondi Santi,Poggio Antico, Le Chiuse, Fattoria dei Barbi, Banfi, Castiglion del Bosco, Caparzo, Il Poggione.
Chianti Classico: Felsina, Fontodi, Castello Di Ama, Antinori, Avignonesi, Marchesi de Frescobaldi, Ruffino.

These are some wines I tasted lately that I truly liked:
Il Bastardo Rosso di Toscana 2018, $9.99
Fattoria Dei Barbi Rosso di Montalcino 2018,$30
Ruffino Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Riserva Ducale Oro 2015, $35
Fontodi Chianti Classico 2015 $40
Castiglion del Bosco Brunello di Montalcino 2015, $60
Marchesi di Frescobaldi Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Rialzi 2015, $63
Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino Vigna La Casa 2015, $69.99
Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2015, $85
Fontodi Chianti Classico Selezione Vigna del Sorbo 2015, $90

Ciao! Silvina

* Not all Super Tuscans are made of Sangiovese, some are 100% made of French varieties, so do ask your sales clerk at the wine store before buying.

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A special thank you to all the importers that provided samples for me to taste.

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