A Six-Bottle Master Class to Sangiovese

Sangiovese tasting tips grapes on vine
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Sangiovese, the most planted red grape in Italy, is one of the country’s most noble native varieties. Ubiquitous in central Italy, it’s also one of the most misunderstood and demanding grapes in the world.

Known for its naturally high acidity, Sangiovese is a chameleon. It can yield light-bodied, early drinking wines offering bright red berry and floral sensations. Under the right conditions, however, Sangiovese can yield firmly structured, world-class, long-lived wines boasting dark cherry, spice and earthy notes that with age show more complex notes of tobacco, flint and leather. It can also make savory rosatos and crisp sparklers.

First mentioned in historical documents in 1590, most experts believe Sangiovese originated in Tuscany. The grape, whose name supposedly derives from the Latin sanguis and Jovis meaning “the blood of Jove,” is stubborn, temperamental and difficult to tame in both the vineyard and the cellar.

Like Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir, Sangiovese is extremely site-sensitive and needs very specific growing conditions in order to excel. It boasts a dizzying diversity known as intravarietal variability, meaning it exhibits marked differences from clone to clone and even plant to plant. For this reason, what we now know are Sangiovese vines were once considered to be different grape varieties. It’s still often called Prugnolo Gentile in Montepulciano and Sangiovese Grosso in Montalcino.

To understand multifaceted Sangiovese, taste through these three categories: Chianti Classico versus Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany versus Romagna and young versus old.

Your local wine retailer should be able to help you with selections.

Chianti Classico vs. Brunello di Montalcino

Sangiovese plays the starring role in Tuscany’s flagship denominations. Although an increasing number of Chianti Classico producers use 100% Sangiovese, under the production code the mandatory minimum is only 80%. Brunello di Montalcino, on the other hand, must be made with 100% Sangiovese.

Chianti Classico comes in three versions. Aged for 12 months before release, Annata versions are immediately accessible. Riserva and Gran Selezione have minimum aging periods of 24 and 30 months, respectively. They are often oak-driven and have more structure and aging potential than Annata.

Spanning eight municipalities between Florence and Siena, Chianti Classico was the original Chianti growing area but is now an independent appellation. Generally considered to have a continental climate, numerous microclimates and growing conditions exist throughout the large appellation. To highlight these differences, in 2021 the local consorzio delimited 11 Unità Geografiche Aggiuntive (Additional Geographical Units) for Gran Selezione.

Located 25 miles south of Siena and 25 miles from the Tyrrhenian Sea, Montalcino has a more Mediterranean climate, with warmer summer temperatures and drier weather. The large township has several distinct microclimates and an array of diverse soils, while vineyard altitudes range from 320 to 2,165 feet above sea level.

Brunello must be aged at least five years after the harvest year before release, while Brunello Riserva is aged six years. Both must spend a minimum of two years in oak. Although some producers age in new French oak, most now use larger, more neutral casks.

When compared to Chianti Classico, Brunello generally has more tannic structure and shows greater longevity.

Chianti Classico vs. Brunello di Montalcino

Wine 1: Chianti Classico Riserva

Wine 2: Brunello di Montalcino

Italy, Tuscany, Montalcino, vineyards of Sangiovese grapes
Sangiovese vineyards in Tuscany / Getty

Romagna vs. Tuscany

Straddling northern and central Italy, the Emilia-Romagna region is most associated with Lambrusco, but Romagna, the southeastern portion of the region, is a historic Sangiovese stronghold.

Documents from 1671 attest to the grape’s presence in the area, while a publication dated 1773 praised the wines made solely from Sangiovese.

Tuscan reds are almost synonymous with Sangiovese, and the region’s numerous wines made with the star grape are named after specific growing zones and townships (think Chianti, Scansano, Montepulciano, Montalcino, etc.). With the exception of Brunello di Montalcino, which must be made exclusively with Sangiovese, all other Sangiovese-based wines from Tuscany can be blends of other grapes.

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The Sangiovese di Romagna denomination, on the other hand, highlights the important connection between the grape and the entire region. It must be made with at least 85% Sangiovese or Sanzves, as the locals say. Wines bearing the names of 12 recently delimited subzones, however, must be a minimum of 95% Sangiovese, although as in Tuscany, many Romagna producers now use 100% Sangiovese.

Thanks to a myriad of microclimates and soils that exist in both regions, as well as the winemaking styles adopted by individual producers, it’s difficult to generalize, but overall Tuscan Sangiovese has more pronounced acidity and is more tannic than its northern neighbor. Sangiovese di Romagna, on the other hand, has chewy fruit, less acidity and rounder tannins than their Tuscan counterparts.

Romagna vs. Tuscany

Wine 1: Sangiovese di Romagna

Wine 2: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Young vs. Old

Sangiovese can produce vibrant wines made to be enjoyed young, like Chianti, Rosso di Montalcino and Rosso di Montepulciano. Made with younger vines and vinified entirely in steel or aged for short periods in neutral casks, they charm with violet aromas, savory herbal notes and juicy red berry flavors. Thanks to bright, tangy acidity, they are incredibly food friendly.

Aged Sangiovese is more complex. Much more expensive than their younger siblings, these wines are released later. Think Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, for example. Wines destined for lengthy cellaring undergo years of aging in wood. How long depends on the denomination and producer choice.

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In the past, these long-lived wines were extremely austere in their youth and needed many years to fully integrate Sangiovese’s nervous acidity and tannic backbone. These days, due to climate change but also better vineyard management, most cellar-worthy Sangioveses are ready five to 10 years after their release or sooner, but the best will still evolve beautifully for decades, depending on the vintage.

Well-made Sangiovese at the 15–25-year mark show truffle, leather and pipe tobacco aromas. Flavors include dried cherry, spice and flinty mineral, while tannins and acidity have mellowed with age, leaving a smooth texture.

If possible, open aged Sangiovese a few hours before serving to let them slowly open. But don’t decant. This is like opening a novel at page 50: You’ll lose the intro and never get the plot line.

Young vs. Old

Wine 1: Find a newly released Chianti or Chianti Colli Senesi.

Wine 2: Seek out a Brunello di Montalcino Riserva or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva aged at least five years past its release date.

Published on May 6, 2022
Topics: Master Class