Trying to be everything to everyone is a bad idea, for a person at least. Nonetheless, we expect such adaptability from many of our wines. And how rare it is. So for a wine grape, the ability to please everybody should make it awfully special.
Sangiovese is one of those special grapes – perhaps the most unique of all. Although it has not travelled widely beyond Italy, in its native land it is the most planted grape – bar none – precisely because of its incredible versatility and range of charms.
When it is well made, that is. Because as a slow ripening variety capable of developing beautiful depth and clarity of flavour, Sangiovese can also be quite tannic and notably acidic. In hotter climates like Australia it can be valued precisely for its acid, because intense heat can cause grapes to lose acid at ripeness. Thus Sangiovese pops up as a blending grape among the more open-minded Aussie producers. But in the back stretches of Italy, basic table wine made from Sangiovese can fail to reach full ripeness at times: tannins and acid can be too prominent, without enough fruit to hold it all together. This is a category known as ‘awful Italian plonk’.
But don’t be fooled. Nowadays very little of this stuff ever makes it to New Zealand – and none of it to Caro’s, of course. Even tourists returning home from Italy tend to report encounters with ordinary local wine that are, if anything, exceptional for the price. When selecting Sangiovese however it is still worth keeping in mind not only the province but the provenance.
But let’s begin where this wonderful grape demands – not with its extraordinary value wines but with its superbly noble and premium ones. Because each year Italy drinks a massive pyramid of bright-fruited Sangiovese, with the very top being some of the finest and most age-worthy red wines in the world.
Tuscany’s Brunello di Montalcino is a cellaring style, made famous by its elegant red fruit and nuances of cured meat and flowers. Here the local variant clone of Sangiovese makes gorgeous cellar staples like the Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino. There are also ‘entry level’ wines known as Rosso di Montalcino – such as the lovely Rosso from Tenuta Buon Tempo. Such Montalcino Sangiovese expressions benefit from the age-worthy acidity and structure of the grape, while enjoying a special grace, subtlety and harmony that is easy to compare with fine Burgundy from France.
But lovers of fresh, mineral red Burgundies may just as easily compare them to the standard, classical clone of Sangiovese. Because in Tuscany lies Chianti, where the central ‘Classico’ zone is considered the traditional heart and homeland of the Sangiovese grape. Premium Chianti such as those from Fontodi and Felsina reveal the pure soul of Sangiovese – and to many wine lovers (including the author) they would be among a shortlist of desert island wines. On paper they could be said to mimic the flavour profile of Burgundy’s famous Pinot Noirs: bright berry fruit, acid/mineral bite and even leafy/herbal themes. Yet Chianti is beautiful for entirely its own reasons: not just its age-worthiness but its peculiar urgency and vibrancy of character, its aromatic levity and fruit generosity on the palate, and its charming combination of wayward simplicity and complex precision. In short it is unassuming directness and gusto – with a certain elegance of form – that is unmistakably Sangiovese. And essentially Italian, perhaps.
And to a great extent this is true, in fact, of even the less elevated expressions of Chianti. The delicious Castello di Farnetella is an ‘everyday’ Chianti yet captures the region’s obvious and less obvious charms. Not as ethereal as Brunello – perhaps more direct and assertive – Chianti shows a face of Sangiovese in which nobility is expressed in serious freshness and brightness.
Tuscany also reveals another side of the grape. The ‘Super Tuscan’ style came about when ‘international’ grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were introduced, made in the French style and aged in oak – recognising the similarity between the Tuscan and Bordeaux climates. The stellar success of these non-traditional wines has changed the face of Tuscan wine – and Sangiovese. Because the Super Tuscan perspective on fruit ripeness and palate richness seems to have introduced an extra notch or two of depth and scale. Sangiovese in blends such as Santini’s phenomenal and inexpensive Poggio al Moro has, like the international varieties, been pushed to slightly greater levels of fruit ripeness, colour and power.
Meanwhile in premium Super Tuscans such as the famous Ornellaia, this fullness can verge on the hedonistic. Even traditional Chianti producers are in on the act, with Felsina’s ‘Fontolloro’ and Fontodi’s ‘Flaccianello’ (both Super Tuscan classics, depsite being 100% Sangiovese) offering a sophisticated but slightly augmented, more generous feel than equivalent Chianti wines. In such examples the Sangiovese fruit is completely ripe, lovingly tended and produced at such exclusive volumes. Yet miraculously, the grape never seems to become ‘heavy’ or overly assertive. Instead, with legendary balance Sangiovese tends – like a great Bordeaux – to frame its richness in fine acidity and tannins. Still, the Super Tuscan style’s darker, deeper and more brooding side remains one of Sangiovese’s more surprising and pleasing personalities.
Indeed you don’t need to spend a lot for richer Sangiovese… you may just need to head further south. As Italy’s most planted grape, Sangiovese is common from Tuscany’s ‘shin’ of Italy right down to the warm heel of the boot. And down on this Adriatic side, between Abruzzo and Puglia, lies a small region called Molise. Here many interesting wines are made, with much in common which another neighbouring region, Campania. The delicious Contado Aglianico by di Majo Norante is a case in point, but the same producer also makes a Sangiovese so good it has become one of the world’s more consistent icons of red wine value. Norante’s Sangiovese is always a classic varietal expression – fresh, vibrant and spicy – yet in 2014 it shows a ripeness and brooding richness that is notably satisfying. Long on the palate and a little darker in fruit aspect, this is a warmer climate face of the grape. And it nails another important aspect of Sangiovese too – sheer quality at the value end.
Regions outside Tuscany can be highly undervalued for what you get in the glass. But whether it is labelled Chianti or not, we recommend you ensure quality by looking to the best boutique suppliers – like Caro’s. And to the best boutique producers.
So big names don’t always help. But big investment in vineyard and winemaking is another matter. For example, the famous car producer Lamborghini make wine in another Central Italian region – Umbria, just south of Tuscany. And considering that they share their brand with a famous sportscar, it’s a relief that their wines are not flashy in the least. Rather their ‘Era’ is among the more sophisticated Sangiovese you are likely to find for $20 something. Savoury dark fruits are delivered in a perfectly elegant nose and a dry, texturally seamless palate. Impeccably restrained, it is a fine-cut red destined, simply, to accompany a beautiful dinner. Meanwhile the top Lamborghini wine, called Campoleone, is made from Sangiovese and Bordeaux varietals and has developed a stellar reputation as a premium Super Tuscan in style…though nothing like such wines in price.
It is hard to image a grape that could accompany food better than Sangiovese, with its acid to cut rich meat dishes, it’s vibrant fruit to contrast savoury flavours, and its moderate body making it suitable for white meat too. And this is finally what makes Sangiovese so special: versatility.
It is an interesting mental exercise to think of putting foods with Sangiovese and seeing if you can make a bad match. It’s hard. Pork… delicious. Beef… great. Lamb… particularly good. Poultry… no problem. Cheese… yum! Casserole… richer examples stand up effortlessly. Seafood… as good as any red can be – and in fact classic matches exist (try Chianti with a firm-fleshed fish baked in tomato and olives!). The list goes on and Sangiovese just stays on point. The grape’s special balance of medium body and non-invasive fruit character makes it the very definition of the effortless Italian food wine.
From high to low, from rich to light, from the bulk bin to the top shelf, Sangiovese manages to achieve the impossible – being all things to all people. And it does so in way so pleasing and unassuming that, really, we just can’t get enough.
And why would we? No matter where you are or what’s on the menu, a good Sangiovese always brings a charming personality to the table.