Sangiovese Exceptionalism

With the 2007 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino, the quintessential Italian variety flaunts its best face. But the philosophy behind the qualitative supremacy of Sangiovese is often flawed.


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I vividly remember my first “wow” moment with Sangiovese. It was awarded to me by way of a 1990 Brunello di Montalcino. That has since become the benchmark for a complex series of sensations and emotions that I have only encountered in wines made from Sangiovese farmed in some of the most idyllic pockets of central Italy.

Italian wine lovers use a term to define the uniqueness of the bouquet I experienced, and it doesn’t surprise me that a direct translation into English does not exist. They call these aromas note balsamiche, which refer to the ethereal, almost menthol-like sensations of cola, ginger, licorice root, eucalyptus, sage, rosemary or anise seed. They recall distant elements of a medicinal heat rub, but without the nose freeze.

I recently tasted through the newly released 2007 Brunello di Montalcinos and was delighted to discover that the wines are packed tight with bright cherry, spice and outstanding note balsamiche, formed thanks in part to a growing season characterized by cooler temperature and dry conditions.

The intensity and purity of these aromas make 2007 a five-star vintage, according to the local vintners’ association. I gave it an outstanding 95 points on the Wine Enthusiast 100-point scale.

It’s a happy fact that Sangiovese from a top vintage like 2007 and an excellent territory like Montalcino can express itself in near-magical terms. It’s also a fact, however, that Sangiovese grown under less-than-ideal conditions can taste downright nasty.

For this reason, I am increasingly critical of a growing sentiment in Tuscany that preaches the philosophy of Sangiovese exceptionalism. A group of vintners and wine pundits has elevated Sangiovese to sacred status, beyond reproach, and has lobbied wine regulators to resist changes that would undermine the sacrosanct status of this indigenous variety.

Members of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino recently proposed such changes. They considered allowing a small percentage of other grapes in Rosso di Montalcino, a wine made with 100% Sangiovese, to improve the competitiveness of the commercially challenged wine. Following a secret ballot, the proposal was rejected.

For the record, I believe an opportunity was lost. Brunello di Montalcino, which commands high prices and prestige, should definitely be 100% Sangiovese in my opinion, just as the name of the wine promises. But allowing Rosso di Montalcino (or, perhaps, Montalcino Rosso) to include other varieties would have given winemakers another creative tool to use when dealing with subpar vintages. This change would bring the narrative back to territory (Montalcino) instead of ill-defined catch-all denominations like Sant’Antimo or IGT Toscana.

Allowing this flexibility within the Rosso category would also remove Rosso di Montalcino from its current “baby Brunello” status. Why not breathe new life into Brunello’s often overlooked little sister? Why not give it its own unique and distinctive identity?

Does that make me a Sangiovesista sell-out? I don’t think so. If you are going to promise a 100% varietal wine, then do it right. Burgundy—and its celebration of Pinot Noir—is a measuring stick that shows how varietal exceptionalism can work.

Adhering to Sangiovese exceptionalism means sticking to the grape, even if significant segments of the market prefer soft, extracted, international-styled wines. It means showing confidence in the grape in both good and bad vintages.

By Montalcino’s own evaluation criteria, only 15 vintages in 65 years earned the maximum five stars. You’d expect producers to sell their Brunello at discounted rates when the one- or two-star vintages are released, but a quick look in Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide database shows that this rarely occurs.

Indeed, any recent downward price adjustments appear more linked to market conditions (like the start of global financial troubles in 2008) and not the overall quality of the wine. On those rare occasions when all the stars fall into perfect alignment, Sangiovese does prove exceptional. But does it only boil down to the grape? I don’t think so.

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