Sangiovese wine, formed from the red Italian wine grape variety sangiovese, dervies it’s name from the Latin “sanguis Jovis” – literally translated as “the blood of Jupiter”. Sangiovese is most frequently used as a blend in Chianti, Carmignano and Morellino di Scansano although also gained some reputation as the sole component in Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino.
History and genetics of Sangiovese
Popular since the 16th century, recent DNA profiling conducted by the Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige suggested that the grapes ancestors are Ciliegiolo (from Tuscany) and Calabrese Montenuovo (from Calabria). Sangiovese was originally noted in the 1590 writings of Ciriegiulo, but did not gain widespread popularity until the 18th century where the grape rapidly gained favor in Tuscany, joining Malvasia and Trebbiano as the most widely planted grapes in the region.
In the early 1900s an attempt was launched to classify types of Sangiovese into Sangiovese Grosso and Sangiovese Piccolo, although this gained little traction. There are at least fourteen clones are popularly used in Italian wines, with clones grown in the Brunello region regarded as some of the best of the variety. Many of the best producing clones (from a wine quality perspective) have been isolated to the Emilia-Romangna region today propagating under the names R24 and T19.
Tasting Sangiovese wines
Young Sangiovese wines will typically adopt fruity and light flavors of strawberry and light spice, but matures beautifully into oaky and tarry flavors while barrell aged. Although barrell aged sangiovese wine is not often as aromatic as popular Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah blends, they will often mature into a complex flavor profile featuring sour red cherries, earthy aromas, and tea notes.
Wines made from the Sangiovese grape tend to exhibit the grape’s natural high acitidy and moderately high tannin content, albeit with a light color. Dominant natures of other grapes (specifically, Cabernet) can often have a disproportionate effect on the wine in as small quantities as 4-5% grape blend. Fortunately, as the wine ages, the dominant Cabernet flavours will often soften and mellow to bring out more of the character of the underlying Sangiovese. For this reason, we would recommend only acquiring aged Sangiovese blends with even a moderately high Cabernet blend.
Sangiovese is strongly influenced by regional soil, with Tuscan Sangiovese taking on the distinctive and bitter-sweet notes of cherries, floral violets and teas – with younger Tuscan Sangiovese even exhibiting tomato-like savoriness. In contrast, Californian Sangiovese will frequently have more red fruit flavors with higher levels of spice or dark fruits, with Argentine Sangiovese placing as a middle ground between the two – producing juicy, fruity, wines that often end in cherry notes.
While Sangiovese wine has aging potential, the vast majority of Sangiovese are intended to be consumed towards the start of their lives – with the exception of Brunello di Montalcino wines which may age for upwards of 20 years in ideal vintages, often needing 5-10 years before they are optimal.
Most Sangiovese wine tends to open earlier, at around the 5 year age mark, with a significantly shorter lifespan of a little under 10 years. Chianti blends of Sangiovese are even shorter lived, typically within the 3-6 years post-vintage, although premium Chianti Classico Riserva may last for upwards of a decade.
As a final note, New World Sangiovese are on the very extreme end of the aging spectrum, often with potential to improve only for a year after bottling.
Pairing food with Sangiovese wine
Due to the high acidity and moderate alcohol content of Sangiovese, they are an absolute treat to pair with food. Arguably the most classical pairing in Italian cookery and cuisine, Sangiovese-based Chianti is a perfect compliment to tomato-based pasta and pizza sauces.
For Sangiovese with a low blend of Cabernet, opt instead to pair with more subtle dishes such as meatloaf or roast chicken in order to accentuate the natural flavors of the dish. In these, herbal seasonings popular in Italian food such as basil, thyme or sage play perfectly off the herbal notes in the grapes to round off the dish with artisanal perfection.
For more oaky, aged Sangiovese, the optimal pairing is with grilled or smoked food such as steak or even earthy soups, such as those made from beans or legumes.
In Italy, Sangiovese is the most widely planted red grape variety, being an officially recommended variety in 53 provinces and an authorized planting in an additional 13 – accounting for approximately 10% of all vineyard plantings throughout Italy.
Outside of Italy, the grape achieved popularity in Argentina due to propogation by Italian immigrants (often found in the Mendoza region, with similar wines to it’s Tuscan counterparts). In the 1980s, Sangiovese enjoyed a surge of popularity in California due mostly to the “Cal-Ital” movement, with winemakers seeking red wine alternatives from the standard and widely accepted French varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinor noir.
In France, while the mainland often opts away from Sangiovese, the grape has a long history on the island of Corsica where it is known locally as Nielluccio. Here, it will often be blended together with Sciaccarello and as a permitted blend for several AOCs.
Sangiovese is a wonderfully versitile wine, especially for those who enjoy pairing wines with food, and while you need to be careful to ensure that the Cabernet Sauvignon often included does not dominate the blend, there are some absolutely beautiful bottles out there for reasonable prices.