Sangiovese: The Grape at the Heart of Italy

Sangiovese: The Grape at the Heart of Italy

In bad years, vintners vehemently dismiss it as una brutta bestia (“an ugly beast”). In good years, it is elevated to the enological equivalent of sainthood. One thing is clear: Sangiovese is the defining grape of Italy. Thickly skinned on the outside but delicate inside, slow to mature but hard to tame, tightly rooted in tradition but willing to travel, this ubiquitous grape variety is the leading protagonist of the ongoing drama known as vino Italiano.

From the Latin for sanguis Jovis, or “the blood of Jove,” mercurial Sangiovese has awarded Italy its best wine moments and dragged it down to its darkest hour. Thirty years ago, it became a major component of the super Tuscan revolution that brought Italy to the forefront of global wine. Three years ago, its perceived shortcomings spurred the embarrassing Brunellogate scandal that momentarily forced Italian wine to its knees. This finicky, territory- and vintage-driven variety treads an imaginary line between angel and demon.“No grape brings more joy or more pain,” says self-proclaimed “Sangiovesista” winemaker Carlo Ferrini, who works with numerous estates throughout Italy and is recognized for his signature Sangiovese style. “It demands the best man and nature can give and that’s what makes it so exceptional.”

The good, the bad and the versatile Sangiovese represents 10% of all vineyard plantings in Italy, concentrated mostly in Tuscany but also found in the extreme north and south. When the grape excels, it produces the country’s most distinguished, complex and ageworthy wines (think Brunello di Montalcino). But it also offers cheerful, easy-drinking wines like Morellino di Scansano that pair perfectly with a heaping plate of spaghetti and sauce. In fact, Sangiovese is a versatile grape that spans the entire length of the quality spectrum, from low-end Chianti to top-shelf Chianti Classico.

But this impressive versatility is also its Achilles’ heel. There is a tendency to want to “improve” (a loaded word) Sangiovese by adding small components of other grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, adds rich saturation and structure to Sangiovese’s thinner appearance in uneven years. Merlot can add lushness and softness to its sometimes acidic, thorny and “nervous” personality.
The problem is, winemakers are not always legally allowed to blend other grapes, depending on the rules set down by the local authorities. For example, in Chianti Classico it is legal to do so; its wines are defined as being minimum 80% Sangiovese. It is not allowed in Montalcino, however, where disciplinary rules for Brunello di Montalcino require 100% Sangiovese Grosso.

In 2008, an undisclosed number of Brunello di Montalcino producers were put under investigation for allegedly blending nonauthorized grapes. The so-called Brunellogate scandal led to declassified wines, guilty verdicts, fines, sentences and tarnished the reputation of Italy’s most celebrated wine zone—a region that relies on the U.S. for 25% of its sales.

Losing confidence or gaining momentum “Sangiovese can be too aggressive if planted in the wrong place and that’s why some were tempted to add softening elements,” says vintner Franco Biondi Santi, whose family is credited with bottling the first official Brunello di Montalcino in 1888. “The immediate outcome of Brunellogate was fear-fear-fear.”

“It really comes down to ideological differences,” says Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino President Ezio Rivella. “In traditional Tuscan winemaking, Sangiovese was always blended with other varieties such as Colorino or Mammolo. Sangiovese purity was not the standard because the grape can bring uneven results if planted in the wrong places. Only in Montalcino did 100% Sangiovese become the standard, because this territory is considered perfect for the variety.”

Enrico Viglierchio, managing director of Castello Banfi, says the problems related to Sangiovese have been largely resolved with modern winemaking technology, which help prevent oxidation, maintain color and preserve aromas. “Not only are we more confident with Sangiovese as winemakers,” says Viglierchio, “we’ve seen a positive evolution in style thanks to modern techniques and careful clone selection.”

“Most importantly,” Viglierchio adds, “we now understand how important the concept of territory is to Sangiovese.” This last point cannot be underestimated: Most vintners will tell you that quality Sangiovese can only be achieved in pinpoint locations scattered across Italy in defined spots such as Montalcino, Montepulciano, Chianti Classico, Scansano and Romagna. Many in Italy reject the idea that the variety can be exportedto foreign countries or continents.

In preparation for this article, I tasted nearly 400 wines consisting of 100% Sangiovese and wines comprised mostly of Sangiovese with smaller elements of outside grapes. Although Brunello di Montalcino nabbed the highest scores in my blind tastings, the blended wines also impressed me: The addition of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon (no more than 10 or 15%, otherwise the beauty of the Sangiovese bouquet is overwhelmed) was simply delicious.

But put Sangiovese in the right territory, give it an excellent vintage—and this sovereign grape of Italian viticulture reigns supreme.

The World According to Sangiovese

Brunello di Montalcino
The highest expression of Sangiovese, made exclusively from the dark Sangiovese Grosso clone, it shows beautiful richness, intensity and complexity, with aromas of forest fruit, cola and spice. Brunello is released five years after the harvest and the Riserva requires an extra year of cellar aging. Rosso di Montalcino is a less austere wine. The territory is characterized by an exceptional microclimate shielded by Monte Amiata.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Once the noblest of all Tuscan wines, Vino Nobile is made with the Prugnolo Gentile clone. The wine is minimum 70% Sangiovese, with components of Canaiolo Nero and Mammolo. This region also offers a lesser wine called Rosso di Montepulciano and a top-shelf Riserva. The wines show dark, earthy characteristics, often with subtle overtones of dried herbs or blue flowers.

Coastal Tuscany
With Sangiovese expressions in the Montecucco and the Maremma subzones, Coastal Tuscany offers rich, sun-drenched expressions of the grape. Jammy notes of blackberry and strawberry sometimes appear, andthe wines show loads of bright cherry flavors.

Morellino di Scansano
Quickly growing in popularity, this up-and-coming region is located around the picturesque village of Scansano in Maremma. Morellino is the local name for Sangiovese and rules governing wine production require that the variety comprise at least 85% of its wines. The wine does not need wood aging and this helps preserve its fresh fruit characteristics. It is an excellent food wine that also comes as a Riserva.

Chianti Classico
This landlocked wine region is the traditional home of Sangiovese and has had the biggest influence on its stylistic evolution. The wines must be at least 80% Sangiovese and vintners can add indigenous (Canaiolo and Colorino) or international (Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot) varieties to their blends. There is a growing movement to produce Chianti Classico (and the Riserva version) as 100% Sangiovese.

Neighboring Tuscany, Umbrian producers use Sangiovese in their Torgiano Rosso wines and as a blending element to tame the astringent tannins of Sagrantino in Rosso di Montefalco.

Sangiovese di Romagna
The most important of the Sangiovese-based zones outside Tuscany. In a move to highlight the importance of the grape, the proportion of other varieties permitted in the wine is being reduced from 15% to 5%. Expressions of the variety range from full bodied and tannic near the province of Forlì-Cesena to lighter, fruitier options closer to Bologna. One excellent way to become familiar with these unique wines is to visit the Web site of the Consorzio Convito di Romagna ( Detailed profiles of the main producers can be accessed there; producers of interest include Tre Monti, Fattoria Zerbina, Drei Donà, San Valentino and San Patrignano.

Pure expressions of Sangiovese do hail from the Marche, on the eastern flank of Italy, but the grape is most often used as a blending agent (up to 15%) with the tannic Montepulciano grape in Rosso Conero wines from near Ancona.

Although central Italy is its natural home, Sangiovese is present in 259 DOCs across the country, from Valpolicella in the north to the deep south.

Sangiovese According to the Experts

Marchese Piero Antinori: I believe that Brunello, even in terms of coherence with its name, must remain a wine that is made with Sangiovese. But this doesn’t mean that in the future, there can’t be a tiny level of elasticity (maybe 5 percent of other varieties?) that would not change the fundamental characteristics of the wine.

WE: What is the best territory for Sangiovese and why?
Tuscany. And inside this region, there are four specific denominations that need to be highlighted: Chianti and Chianti Classico, Montalcino, Montepulciano and the area of Scansano. Each one of these areas shows different characteristics, but has the potential to produce the highest qualities of Sangiovese.

WE: Are 100% Sangiovese wines the penultimate expression of Tuscany (as opposed to super Tuscans)?
Sangiovese is a variety that can benefit from contributions by other varieties, as has been demonstrated over the course of Chianti and Chianti Classico history. On the other hand, there are many examples of wines made with 100% Sangiovese that prove the variety is capable of standing on its own, and these examples are the highest expressions of the best of Tuscany.

Cristina Mariani-May: Today, no other Italian red commands greater worldwide recognition than Sangiovese, Tuscany’s signature red grape. In an increasingly competitive global wine market, Italy’s abundance of native grapes provides a welcome point of difference. And here in the U.S. as wine lovers become more sophisticated and adventurous, Italy is ideally poised to meet this growing demand.

WE: Has Italy lost confidence in Sangiovese, or are we experiencing a revival in Sangiovese pride?
CM: In my mind, there is no doubt that we’re experiencing a full-blown revival of Italian national pride in the Sangiovese grape. It’s the most widely planted red grape, and growers have a renewed emphasis on it. Consumers, too, have rewarded us with newfound appreciation for Italy’s heritage.

WE: What qualities distinguish the best Sangiovese?
What sets a classic Tuscan Sangiovese apart from the rest is its refined and wonderfully pronounced backbone of acidity. This quality makes Sangiovese an unrivaled choice for the dinner table. In addition, Tuscan Sangiovese is well-integrated, with soft tannins that allow the wine to mature and evolve over an extended period of time. It’s easy to understand and enjoyable in its youth, but it’s also rewarding with moderate to long aging.

WE: Tell me about BelnerO.
We believe that Montalcino represents the ultimate expression of 100% Sangiovese. At the same time, we also maintain that Montalcino is capable of producing outstanding Sangiovese-based blends. Our recent introduction of BelnerO, a Sangiovese-dominant blend, is an example, and is historically our first Montalcino “Super Tuscan” cuvée.

Riccardo Cotarella: There is no other variety in the world that is as linked to the habitat in which it grows. There are 70 biotypes and clones of Sangiovese, of which 57 are Tuscan and 13 are from Romagna, so it is difficult to say which is the best Sangiovese. This is the beauty of Sangiovese because it means growers are given the opportunity to match their commercial goals according to the specific characteristics of various territories.

WE: Are you in favor of or opposed to changing the Brunello disciplinary in the future (like with Rosso di Montalcino) to allow outside grapes?
I have no problem with the use of varieties that have demonstrated their adaptability to a territory. But I am convinced that for certain wines, including Brunello, Gaglioppo, Nerello Mascalese and Nebbiolo, which have very specific and identifying traits, that adding other grapes could compromise the integrity and virtues of those varietal characteristics.

WE: Describe the difference between Sangiovese di Romagna (like that made at San Patrignano, where you’re a consultant winemaker) and Tuscany.
Both expressions show that uniquely nervous Sangiovese quality. Sangiovese from Tuscany presents more freshness due to higher acidity and Sangiovese from Romagna shows more power and thickness. Both live up to the promise of balance and elegance that only a great grape like Sangiovese can offer.

Published on March 2, 2011
Topics: Wine NewsWine Trends