ITALIAN SANGIOVESE: AN IDEAL SUMMER RED

European countries generally are distinguished by their predominate use of indigenous varieties in their wines. And Italy especially is known for its abundance of indigenous grape varieties (nearly 400) cultivated for the production of wine.  Of all those, sangiovese (translated as the blood of Jupiter)  rises above in quantity – it’s Italy’s most planted variety – and quality (with the exception of nebbiolo) – it’s most responsible for the great wines of Tuscany.

 

And it is in Tuscany, where it is believed to have originated thousands of years ago, that sangiovese reaches its epitome.The Tuscan hills (particularly between Firenze and Siena) just seem to have been created to nurture the sangiovese grape to its essence. Generally, quality wines made with sangiovese exhibit deep, bright cherry aromas and flavors with firm, dry structure and earthy qualities. But, even within Tuscany, different clones, grown in different microclimates yield distinct expressions.

 

Generally, quality wines made with sangiovese exhibit deep, bright cherry aromas and flavors with firm, noticeably dry structure and earthy qualities. Sometimes supplemented with other grapes to fill out the wine. These qualities make sangiovese wines great with food. They pair well with hearty red meat and poultry, pasta, dishes such as Bolognese or chicken cacciatore as well as burgers and pizza.

 

Chianti is the most famous rendition, at least in the U.S. The cooler, wetter climate leads to higher acid wines, complex, firm and savory. Current laws allow up to 20% other grapes, usually the native grapes canaiolo and colorino, but also sometimes cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Still, many these days are 100% sangiovese. Ruffino is one of Chianti’s most recognizable names. Founded in 1877, Ruffino claims to be the first Chianti imported to the U.S. As an inexpensive, everyday wine, the sangiovese of the 2014 Ruffino Chianti ($10) is supplemented 30% with other grapes and released with minimal aging. It is a good everyday wine.

For a little more money (ok, twice the money) it’s worth stepping up to Chianti Classico. The grapes come from a more delimited zone, basically the center of the Chianti region, with a history of making the best wines.  Not long after Ruffino, the Cecchi (check-ee) family began making Chiant in 1893. The 2014 Cecchi Chianti Classico “Storia di Famiglia” ($22) might be described as a traditional style, in that its 90% sangiovese is supplemented with local varieties and aged in large casks. Intense dark cherries yield to earthy flavors as the wine reveals a richness that finishes with firm tannins.

And if you like that, venture on to Chianti Classico Riserva. Riserva’s require more aging before release and Ruffino’s Riserva “Ducale” (2012, $25) has been one of my favorites since I first started drinking wine. Made since 1927, this vintage luxuriates in its 20% merlot and cabernet sauvignon. A special selection of estate grapes, it was aged 24 months in a combination of oak, stainless steel, and concrete vats.

 

And there are other worthy manifestations of sangiovese deserving of your attention. Among wine intenditori (Italian for connoisseurs), Brunello di Montalcino is even more prized than Chianti. It also is more expensive, with some bottles costing several hundred dollars. Named after the town of Montalcino and the local clone of sangiovese, the area’s warm, dry summers, 30 miles from the sea, and rocky soils, combined with that specific clone produce some of the most concentrated, muscular, long-lived versions of sangiovese. Typically 100% sangiovese, Brunello almost mandates several years of development before drinking. As great as Brunello is, a better option for our purposes is Rosso di Montalcino. Basically made from younger vines or declassified grapes, these wines give you a taste of Brunello without the hit to the wallet. A good one is the 2010 Banfi ($25). Aged 12 months in French oak and six months in bottle, it is lighter and less concentrated  than Brunello but still lush and fruitful, earthy and fresh, with dusty tannins. 

Montepulciano, Montalcino’s neighbor to the east, is another classic Tuscan hill town whose environs produce fine sangiovese. Take a close look, though, the names can be confusing, as can be the tradition of locally assigned names for the local clones of sangiovese – here known as prugnolo gentile. More similar to Chianti, these wines, designated Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, are less likely to be 100% sangiovese. Up to 30% other grapes are allowed. The wines can age but are best enjoyed sooner than later. There are no better producers to introduce you to Vino Nobile than Avignonesi (established in 1974) and Poliziano (founded in 1961). They are leaders in a quality revolution restoring Vino Nobile to the level of Chianti and Brunello.

The 2013 Avignonesi ($29) is 100% estate grown sangiovese. With 12 months in barriques, six months in large Slovenian oak casks and six months in bottle, it is energetic, revealing smoky, earthy, notes with tobacco and leather and solid tannins. The 2013 Poliziano ($28) includes 15% colorino, canaiolo, and merlot. Fermented in stainless steel ranks, then aged 16 months in oak (2/3 in small barriques and 1/3 in large tonneaux), it is dense with bright acidity and plump fruit displaying oak, with hints of spice and tobacco finishing with smooth tannins – arguably a modern style. For an everyday drink, try the 2014 Poliziano Rosso di Montepulciano ($15). It’s from younger vines and with 20% merlot; is fermented in stainless steel; and aged 8 months in oak, mostly large vats, yielding softer, yet juicy cherry and fresh tannin.

 

At the other end of the price/quality scale, if you are willing to spend the money, is the amazing 2012 Poliziano Vino Nobiile di Montepulciano “Asinone” ($60). A limited production, 100% sangiovese wine from Poliziano’s best vineyard (with 50+ year-old vines), it is rich, deep, vibrant and concentrated; firmly structured with spice, leather, tobacco, and herbal notes. Stainless steel fermentation, 18 months in new French oak barriques and tonneaux, and one year in bottle have yielded a really impressive wine.

 

Finally, for good sangiovese value, try a Morellino di Scansano. From the Maremma region on the Tuscan coast. Named for the village of Scansano and the local name for sangiovese, it is not surprising that many Chianti producers have invested in the area. With vineyards located closer to the coast, near sea level and with a milder climate, the wines tend to be fleshier and suppler. See what I mean with the  inviting 2014 Poliziano “Lohsa” ($15). Enhanced with 15% of the local grape ciliegiolo, its ripe fruit is lightly smoky, firm yet lush.

 

NOTE: Featured Image and top photo are courtesy of the Chianti Classico Consortium.

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.