Sangiovese is the most widely planted grape variety in Italy. It is the key grape in most of the best red wines of Tuscany.
Currently the most searched-for varietal wine on the Wine-Searcher database is Fontondi's Flaccianello della Pieve Toscana IGT. The even more famous Tignanello also features some Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
?Antonio Truzzi / www.shutterstock.com
Sangiovese has been grown in central Italy for generations, though recent grapevine research suggests the variety is not as ancient as once thought. The quality of Sangiovese wine can be notoriously variable. But, in the 1980s, drastically improved winemaking techniques saw a significant shift toward more quality-oriented releases.
Sangiovese wine regions
At the dawn of the 21st Century, Sangiovese equated to roughly one in every ten vines on the Italian peninsula.
Sangiovese in Tuscany
In Tuscany, Sangiovese is the sole grape variety permitted in the prestigious Brunello di Montalcino DOCG and provides the backbone to Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and the popular wines of Chianti where it must account for 80 percent of the blend.
Led by the so-called "Super Tuscans", the Toscana IGT category allows winemakers more freedom to blend indigenous Italian grapes (principally Sangiovese) with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. See Cabernet – Merlot – Sangiovese for more information on these wines, and the section below on winemaking and blending with other varieties.
Other Italian regions
Sangiovese is widely planted in Lazio, Umbria, Marche (all of which border Tuscany) and Corsica. On the latter, the variety is known as Nielluccio and has a distinctive maquis characteristic, which distinguishes it somewhat from other Sangiovese. (Maquis is the shrubland that covers the island and includes shrubs such as sage, juniper, heath trees, oak and myrtle.)
It is also very prominent in Romagna whose wines have often been described as inferior, due to clonal differences from Tuscan Sangiovese. However, the R10 clone, previously maligned, is now (due to the number of old vines) considered to produce elegant wines. Moreover, current research (in Tuscany) has revealed that two of the most favored clones (R24 and T19) in fact originate from Romagna.
Recent attempts to map the vineyards of Romagna more thoroughly, creating subzones, have further demonstrated the range of styles here. They will also hopefully help produce a rise in reputation for Sangiovese here.
The grape has difficulty ripening in the far north so is rarely seen in those regions.
Sangiovese outside Italy
The variety has not gained a major foothold anywhere outside its homeland. This seems mainly to be due to lack of consumer awareness, rather than particular production considerations.
It may also be that the variety expresses terroir more than any innate character, meaning differences in style muddy the waters when attempting to approach the quality of Tuscan wines. However Sangiovese offers acidity in warmer growing conditions, and is well placed to meet trends towards less overtly full-bodied wines.
The variety is not as common in California as proponents would hope. One might also expect a higher level of popularity given the Italian heritage of many Americans, but there is a relatively compact selection of consistently high-quality examples. The Montalcino clone seems most common here.
In Australia, the Beechworth region of Victoria is something of a hotspot for the variety. Until the 1990s only one Sangiovese clone was available in the country. However Paolo de Marchi of Isole e Olena's offer of two new clones, lower yielding with looser clusters producing better quality results, signalled an increase in interest in the first decade of the millenium. The Brunello clone with its thicker skin is probably best suited here, due to the botrytis risk from tropical rains. Showing its versatility, he variety has also done well in the much hotter McLaren Vale.
In New Zealand there are a few hectares in Hawke's Bay, with Osawa Wines making a single variety wine. Heron's Flight, in the Matakana region north of Auckland, trialled Sangiovese in the early 1990s, before replanting two-thirds of the vineyard with the variety, and now produces a trio of wines including a super-premium version aged in terracotta amphorae.
All clones of Sangiovese are relatively slow ripening, which results in an extended growing season and richer, stronger and longer-lived wines than those made from early-ripening varieties.
In Chianti, the variety was previously encouraged to produce higher yields, accentuating its naturally high acidity is accentuated and diluting its characteristic color. Nowadays yields are much reduced and color and flavor are concentrated.
Further difficulties are experienced because of the grape's thin skin, which makes it susceptible to rot in damp conditions. Hence the desirability of planting the thicker-skinned Brunello clone in damper climates.
Beyond those generalities. Sangiovese is prone to clonal variation to a degree approaching that of Pinot Noir. Taken as one variety it appears adaptable to different soils, though different clones have particular affinities.
Even within the Chianti Classico zone soils might feature calcareous tufa, limestone, sandstone, clay, or combinations thereof. This suggests clonal selection when planting a new vineyard with a dominant soil type would need to be quite specific.
Standard single or double Guyot training seems to work fine for the variety. In Chianti Classico a density of 4500 to 6000 plants per hectare (1800 to 2400 per acre) seems to work well.
Sangiovese winemaking and blending with other varieties
Traditionally Sangiovese was aged in old Slavonian casks, losing color and body. Tignanello was one of the first wines to demonstrate that Sangiovese could cope with newer barrels. Today many producers use French oak barriques (225 liter) or hogsheads (in this guise holding 300 liters).
Due at least partly to the subtlety of the grape's own characteristics, heavy oaking has not been uncommon. In contrast, we are now seeing more examples vinified in aged in alternate vessels, such as ceramic Clayver eggs with the intention of making the variety speak for itself.
In places such as Australia, traditional methodologies of crushing and fermenting berries tends to produce a fuller-bodied wine than in Tuscany. Accordingly, examples using carbonic maceration have been successful.
Various varieties have traditionally been combined with Sangiovese in Tuscany. In the mid 20th century white grapes - led by Trebbiano - were used to lighten some reds (which then tended to brown prematurely). This practise was banned in 2006 in Chianti. Others were fattened by red wine from southern Italy and the islands. In the 1970s the trend for adding Merlot and Cabernet developed.
Nevertheless, from this time onwards, winemakers were also beginning to get more of a grip on the variety itself. More recently, 100 percent Sangiovese bottlings have become more common (being permitted in Chianti since 1995) and lower quality varieties have been phased out of many of the major central Italian wines.
Many winemakers feel that the best, most characterful wines can be made by keeping the percentage of other grapes to a minimum - definitely under 10 percent and ideally under five, and embracing the grapes character. Often, where a dash of another variety is added, it is to deepen the color of the wine.
History, DNA and parentage
Sangiovese is first documented in 1590, albeit as Sangiogheto. The name said to have been coined much earlier by monks in the Rimini province in what is now Emilia-Romagna. Its prominence in Chianti dates back to the 1700s. before this, Trebbiano was more common there.
It has been supposed that the grape was ancient. However a 2004 study by Jose Vouillamoz showed the grape to be the offspring of Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montenuovo now known only in Campania. It is not certain whether this crossing occured in Tuscany, southern Italy or elsewhere.
A subsequent study in 2007 suggested the reverse parent-offspring relation with Ciliegiolo, though this is less widely accepted. However a further 2008 work suggests that Sangiovese is likely to be a parent of a number of ten or more southern grape varieties including Gaglioppo, Frappato, Nerello Mascalese and Susumaniello. It is also closely linked to Aleatico, though the precise relationship is not fully understood.
Partly due to clonal variation Sangiovese has many synonyms in its native Italy. Tuscan names include:
- Brunello (little brown one) in Montalcino. In past centuries this regions vineyards were largely isolated from others in Tuscany. The variant of Sangiovese here is more fleshy and thicker skinned than the Chianti clones.
- Morellino - in Morellino di Scansano
- Prugnolo Gentile - for Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
- Sangioveto - in Tuscany, though there seems to be dipute whether it most closely applies to Montalcino or Chianti. Confusingly, iti is also a synonym for the rare Bonamico variety grown around Pisa
- Nielluccio or Niellucciu (Corsica)
Sangiovese flavors in detail
Good-quality Sangiovese is prized for its high acid, firm tannins and balanced nature. Savory flavors of dark cherries and black stonefruit are characteristic, and may be backed by secondary notes of tomato leaf and dried herbs.
The judicious use of oak coaxes richer flavors from the grapes, tending toward plum and wild raspberry.
Sangiovese food pairings
Various meat dishes can work well. Because of its acidity, the grape can match well with fattier meats such as slow-cooked belly pork or duck breasts.
Mushrooms have a particular affinity with Sangiovese. A mushroom risotto (alone or as a side dish to a steak) is a suitably Italian partner.
Because of the prominent acidity and tannins, care should be taken with sweet or spicy sauces. Barbeque features these, and a degree of char which doubles up on the more astringent aspects of the grape.
High-salt dishes or foods can be a problem; for example, Parmesan cheese is not ideal. In general, Sangiovese is not the most obvious wine for cheese, though it could work well with raclette of fondues.