Sangiovese Struggles to Gain a Foothold

Sangiovese is the backbone of Tuscany's wines, but it hasn't made much of an impression beyond that.
© Visit Tuscany | Sangiovese is the backbone of Tuscany's wines, but it hasn't made much of an impression beyond that.
It's a mainstay of Italy's wine industry, but can Sangiovese really thrive beyond its native vineyards?
By Vicki Denig | Posted Monday, 30-Aug-2021

When you make it big in the domestic market, it's only natural to want to test your strength a little farther afield, but success in one sphere doesn't always translate to a wider audience.

Sangiovese has long been the sweetheart of Italian red wine, accounting for 10 percent of all vineyards nationwide. Known for its bright acid, savory flavors, and serious ability to age (in the hands of the right producers), it's no surprise that growers worldwide would be attracted to work with such a variety. However, its plantings outside of the country remain relatively scarce – and the future of it beyond Italy is questionable.

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Mark Walpole, viticulturist and winemaker at Fighting Gully Road in Beechworth, Victoria, first started working with Sangiovese in the 1990s. At that time, there was only one clone of Sangiovese in Australia, though a chance meeting with Paolo de Marchi of Isole e Olena offered local vignerons, Walpole included, two new clones. "These clones have been the single biggest change in Sangiovese production here – lower yielding and looser clusters, which allow for much better grape quality, and in turn, wine quality," says Walpole, who grafted said clones at Fighting Gully Road in 2008, going on to produce his first wine from them in 2010.

Over in New Zealand, David Hoskins of Heron's Flight  obtained two clones of Sangiovese from the University of Bologna in 1993.  After a few years of struggling with French varieties in the 1980s, Hoskins planted two trial blocks to Sangiovese while simultaneously cultivating Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Merlot. "Throughout the mid-'90's, one clone performed well, even in marginal summers," he recalls. In 1997, Hoskins ultimately decided to replant two-thirds of his vineyard holdings to said clone, releasing his first commercial Sangiovese in 1998.

Global temperament

So how does Sangiovese fare in the Land Down Under? Walpole notes that his vineyards lie on the north side of the Australian Alps, which experiences a continental climate and lots of tropical rain, which can create a big risk of botrytis. However, his Brunello clones thrive, as they are thicker-skinned than the Chianti clones, despite their tighter bunches, and are later ripening, which pose the usual risks.

In California, Peter Stolpman's father first planted 10 acres of Sangiovese in 1994 with his vineyard manager Ruben Solorzanoas, a direct result of their "obsession" with Italian wine. "Sangiovese is a rugged vine and it generally does well in the harsh conditions of Ballard Canyon," explains Stolpman, who now runs the show at the family's eponymous vineyard. He highlights the area's limestone soils, strong winds, and large diurnal shifts as some of the marking traits in which the grape can survive. "It's a fighter and it likes the struggle, much like Syrah," he says. Stolpman Vineyards released their first bottle of Sangiovese in 1999 and have been going strong for 22 vintages.

Elsewhere in California, Noah and Kelly Dorrance began working with Sangiovese in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. "Looking around at the land and climate here, I wondered why there wasn't much great Sangiovese produced. It seemed like a crazy oversight," recalls Dorrance, dubbing Sangiovese "underappreciated among the great wine grapes of the world". Serendipitously, one of the first wines Dorrance ever made was a Sangiovese-based cuvée down in Ballard Canyon – at none other than Stolpman Vineyards.

However, contrary to simple growing conditions in Santa Barbara, Dorrance finds that the lack of local cultural knowledge around the variety to be a largely overlooked factor. "There are millions of variables to consider with Pinot, Chardonnay, and Cabernet, and we have lots of cultural knowledge," he explains. "However, the Sangiovese circle however is infinitely smaller, with a lot less data points to reference." Further north, Chris Figgins of Leonetti reveals that Sangiovese thrives in the soils of Walla Walla, particularly due to the area's low disease pressure.

Sangio style

To emulate the greats or to forge one's own path, that is the question. With regards to Tuscan similarities, Reeve states that he enjoys the act of comparing and contrasting non-Italian Sangiovese with those of central Italy. "Obviously, they shouldn't taste alike, but it's a great learning process to think deeply about how they are alike and how they are different," he says. Reeve's goal is to make a "reference point example of Sangiovese, not just from a California lens, but a global one".

Sangiovese thrives in Leonetti's Walla Walla vineyards in Washington.
© Leonetti | Sangiovese thrives in Leonetti's Walla Walla vineyards in Washington.

Stolpman explains that his traditionally crushed and fermented (non-carbonic) Sangiovese cuvées possess much more richness, fruit concentration, and intensity than those from Italy. "The lack of rainfall and intense sunshine play its role and additionally, because of the variety's naturally high tannin, we must wait to harvest until the skins soften, which leaves us with an alcohol of 14-14.5% – significantly higher (and therefore, both riper and more full-bodied), than most Tuscan reds." Stoplman also creates a carbonic Sangiovese called Love You Bunches; it is the estate's top-selling wine worldwide.

Figgins notes that his expression at Leonetti also errs on the dark and extracted side of the Italian spectrum, "much more in line with Brunello Riserva than Chianti Classico/Vino Nobile". Walpole likens his Sangiovese to a "modern style of Chianti", due to the fruit's vinification regimen (a combination of oak and steel), 12 months of aging in large oak barrels, and smattering of Colorino (about 5 percent) thrown in. "By comparison, the Australian examples of Sangiovese always have more fruit sweetness than Italian wines – I'm not sure why, maybe more sunshine," he says, adding that the wines are always viewed favorably by tasters.

Market opinion

Hoskins notes that the biggest challenge of working with Sangiovese in New Zealand is that most consumers simply don't know what it is. Over the years, Hoskins has worked to combat this by developing different styles of Sangiovese – a lighter style with little oak, a robust style with one month of skin contact, and an amphora-aged cuvée – mostly for marketing purposes. "Each of these styles has its own market and price point," he says, noting that visitors that come and taste tend to buy all three.

Jeff Porter, founder of New York-based distributor Volcanic Selections (and US brand ambassador of Chianti Classico) admits to not being a huge fan of non-Italian Sangiovese, noting that some producers have nailed down a similar tension, though not many. Porter also notes that many non-Italian Sangioveses are much pricier than Italian expressions.

However, at Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud, head sommelier Ian Smedley finds that consumer responses to non-Italian Sangiovese are generally positive. "I find that the wines are certainly unexpected compared to their typical expectations of the grape, yet with proper introduction, it's easy to showcase the similarity of fruit on the palate," he says. "It becomes a good tool for teaching the soul of a grape versus the place it comes from."

Smedley notes that when made with care and intention, New World Sangiovese can capture similar aspects of Tuscan expressions. "That said, a direct comparison is deeply difficult, because the place(s) of origin in Italy produce starkly unique wines," he says. Smedley first fell in love with Stolpman's carbonic Sangiovese back in 2016. He recalls feeling "instantly struck by its snappy personality and pleasurable quaffability".

Future prospects

Reeve fervently believes that the industry will continue to see more Sangiovese outside of Italy. "There is a broader variety of grapes being planted now than ever, and Sangiovese certainly has a certain positive name recognition with consumers," he says. Down Under, Walpole agrees. "I think Sangiovese has a great future here. Growers have now worked out how to grow it, and most winemakers now understand that you can't vinify it like Shiraz or Cabernet." Walpole also finds that the clear trend towards medium-bodied (as opposed to fuller-bodied) wines will also contribute to Sangiovese's promising future.

Smedley feels site-reflective expressions of Sangiovese, rather than those that try to emulate the great wines of Tuscany, will ultimately be the ones who find success. "The less a winemaker attempts to imitate a sculpted Brunello, a bloody Chianti Classico, or a feral juicy beast from other Central Italian regions, the better for the wine," he says.

However, some aren't as convinced. Despite Leonetti’s success, Figgins admits to feeling unsure of the grape's future in the United States. "I'm bullish on it, however, I hope more consumers discover its delights and that it joins the respect levels that Cabernet and Merlot currently enjoy in Washington," he says.

Hoskins notes that he's seen an increasing popularity in Italian varieties, however, wineries ultimately will continue to produce what consumers buy – and in New Zealand, that means Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

Stolpman agrees. "While we have found great success with Sangiovese, I doubt that other wineries will flock to it, specifically to make a carbonic version of it," he says, affirming that plantings outside of Italy will continue to be extremely niche. However, where Stolpman does see potential is in Tuscany itself.

"Wineries are sitting on inventory of traditionally crushed and aged Sangiovese, and I think more and more of them will start to make lighter, fresher versions of the grape to address the changing tastes of the new generation of wine drinkers," he says, noting that the temptation of lighter, fresh, quick-release Sangiovese wines will become more and more appealing to the Italians that make them. "I believe that Sangiovese will play a significant role in the worldwide trend of less extractive winemaking," he confirms.

Ironically, only time will tell.

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