What Do We Want from Sangiovese?

It's the Largest Dart Board in Italian Wine, But Everyone Seems to Have a Different Bullseye

Stylistic treatment of Sangiovese grape
14 min read

For students of Italian wine, there is no avoiding the chapter on Sangiovese. You can’t claim expertise on this country’s wines without diving into the deep end of its most widely planted grape. It colors the majority of wines in Tuscany, as well as a significant portion of the reds from Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, Marche and even Puglia.

But more importantly, Sangiovese’s reputation is compelling. Whether it is a properly aged Brunello di Montalcino or a Chianti Classico that perfectly translates the Tuscan countryside, everyone wants to taste Sangiovese in its golden hour.

If the chapters on the aforementioned wines were written by Hemingway in his short, declarative sentences, than Sangiovese’s chapter seems to be crafted by Faulker and his ramblings.

Yet, ask yourself this: what exactly is that taste? And how well do you know Sangiovese? Is it as familiar as Nebbiolo? As distinctive as Etna Rosso? As comforting as Valpolicella? An enthusiast can stop there, avoiding the complications of Sangiovese, and be perfectly happy. But a student seeking expertise must press on. If the chapters on the aforementioned wines were written by Hemingway in his short, declarative sentences, than Sangiovese’s chapter seems to be crafted by Faulker and his ramblings.

In fact, I’ve noticed that many wine professionals are more comfortable talking about Nebbiolo in general. Sangiovese makes them squirm. Hell, it makes me squirm. And the reason for that is simple: we are not sure how to answer a very simple question … what exactly do we want from Sangiovese?

Is it a lean elegance or a wine of muscle and sinew? Can we have both? Do we even want both?

I raise these questions because they’ve confronted me at every turn in recent months. I’ve been intensively studying Sangiovese wines from Tuscany, a preamble to a 12-day research trip that I’ll be taking at the end of this month. From Radda to Rufinà, Pomino to any poggio place I can get my hands on, I’ve been aiming my nose and palate at some of Sangiovese’s finest ambassadors, trying to open up a new avenue of understanding.

I’ve tasted some incredible wines (shout out: Istine! Montesecondo! Selvapiana! Padelletti!), and my excitement for the potential of Tuscan wine has never been higher. Yet, in terms of establishing “a relationship” with Sangiovese — a term I have no problem using with Nebbiolo and Etna Rosso — I strangely feel no closer.

Illustration of a Sangiovese grape cluster, artistically rendered.The other night, as my wife quizzed me on two blind bottles from somewhere in Tuscany, I had to pause at my stemware. It occurred to me that I wasn’t even confident that a Bordeaux glass was best for tasting these wines. What if the wine was from the cool, forested hills of Gaiole in Chianti Classico or the high-in-the-sky slopes around Montalcino? Wouldn’t a Burgundy glass reveal those elegant aromas better?

For Sangiovese to trip me up on stemware at this stage in my career … that seems to say something.

An Ocean That Ought to Be a Lake

So why is it that Sangiovese stumps even the most ardent devotees of Italian wine? For starters, the grape has a muddled identity and everyone seems to know it now. But don’t blame the grape. Blame its application: in other words, its over-planting.

Sangiovese claims 11% of Italy’s vineyard land, and that can be pegged to its generous nature. But the vine is also particular. Yes, it will provide plenty of grapes even if the conditions are not optimal, but for quality wine production, this presents a conundrum to winemakers: shall they stifle the grape’s nature by limiting yields, or learn to coax character from this abundance? Without excellent terroir, the question is moot, for great Sangiovese has very specific demands.

A wealth of diverse Sangiovese clones, the practice of blending other grapes, and a spectrum of oak usage cloud the picture on Sangiovese in a way that makes studying other red wines seem elementary.

By nature, Sangiovese buds early (so it is prone to frosts), but it ripens late (so the window for something to go wrong can last into October). It performs best in well-draining soil with low fertility, finding its happy place in limestone with a hint of clay. And yet, it is planted in all sorts of soils, seemingly anywhere south of the Po River.

More than anything, Sangiovese’s character is only honest when it has a fairly large swing of diurnal temperatures, which are key to proper acidity and phenolic development. It needs hills, and not just any set of hills, but hills with some distance from the sea, for humidity flattens the temperature curve.

Through process of elimination, that leaves us with a fairly narrow strip of optimal land running down the spine of Italy. And it is no mistake what we find there: Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino, the two most celebrated zones for Sangiovese.

OK, great, a student might say. The best terroir was long ago isolated, so we’ll concentrate our studies there.

If only.

A wealth of diverse Sangiovese clones, the practice of blending other grapes, and a spectrum of oak usage cloud the picture on Sangiovese in a way that makes studying other red wines seem elementary. Oh, and one more thing: the soils and microclimates within those two celebrated zones are even more complicated, and (sorry) they’re not always ideal.

Are you starting to see why Sangiovese makes some of us squirm?

The Rules Keep Getting Rewritten

In The Essential Wine Book, author Zachary Sussman identifies one of the main reasons behind Sangiovese’s largely muddled identity:

“Tuscany is Italy’s most successful and widely exported wine region. So it should shock no one that its modern history has been marked by the widest stylistic swings and concessions to market forces, resulting in a self-inflicted identity crisis from which it has only begun to emerge.”

Sussman further identifies the role Tuscany’s “mercantile culture” and “concentration of wealthy families with no shortage of capital to burn” played in building up the oversized role of Super Tuscans — off-appellation wines predicated mostly on international variety blends, many of them with Sangiovese hidden amongst swaths of Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet. The popularity of those wines in the 1980s, ’90s and ’00s has faded substantially, but their imprint on the make-up of Central Italy’s vineyards lingers to this day.

I should point out that Sussman goes on to praise Sangiovese’s potential for timeless wines, an assertion I share whole-heartedly. But his supposition underscores what a moving target the appellations of Tuscany are. In the arm-wrestling match between tradition and market forces, the market continues to come out on top. Right now, things are changing rapidly, and largely for the better. My heart wanted to visit Mount Etna this spring, but my head knew that tapping into Tuscany’s dynamic scene was a more crucial assignment, particularly since there appears to be a fierce and sudden determination to showcase Tuscan terroir.

Chianti Classico’s Fine-Tuning of Identity

The formalization of terroir-centric wines within Tuscany’s appellations is most prominently on display in Chianti Classico. (It has been a complicated few decades, so buckle up). As recently as 1996, varietal Sangiovese was not even allowed in the blending guidelines of the Chianti Classico DOCG. At that time, a tension between the tradition of blended wines and what consumers actually wanted — big, bold, brash characters closing in on triple-digit scores from critics — threatened to tear Chianti Classico in two.

The most crucial part of the controversy was the mandated inclusion of Trebbiano and Malvasia in the blend, two white grapes that historically softened the tannic red wine and made them easier to drink (but shortened their lifespan considerably). As technology and viticulture advanced, the white grapes not only became superfluous, they became a burden. Quality-minded producers were abandoning the name “Chianti” in droves. The white grapes had to go.

Fiasco wine bottle extruded designEventually, they were rightly removed from the guidelines and eventually prohibited in 2006. It was effectively the death knell for the old image of Chianti — that of the wicker-basket, fiasco bottle with a wine inside that you’d barely want to spend a few bucks on.

But what was left behind from this battle was an unclear picture of what the most historic of Italian wines actually is and ought to be. Today, a large percentage of Chianti Classico wines are varietal Sangiovese, but not because of that initial demand from the market to hit more home runs. Rather, it is because varietal Sangiovese can more easily showcase terroir than any blend (or so it would seem).

That said, a significant cadre of Chianti Classico producers continue to carry the flag for blended wines, which often speak in vastly different languages in the glass.

Bordeaux varieties date back to the 19th century in Tuscany, and they continue to be allowed in percentages up to 20% in Chianti Classico. That proportion is plenty enough, in my opinion, to skew the storyline away from Sangiovese’s lean, citric touch. Over the last few months, I’ve encountered several of these, and at times have actually been charmed by them. But I’ve been left with that persistent question: what do I want from this Sangiovese? The telltale pepper and depth from Cabernet and/or Syrah, or the velvet texture of Merlot (even in small amounts) … these traits have me reaching for a Bordeaux glass and recalibrating my dinner plans. Yet to write these wines off as inferior because they fail to showcase Sangiovese — something many wine professionals are inclined to do — misses the point. Chianti Classico’s history, its very viticultural fabric, is not varietal. (Then again, it is also not that of a Bordeaux imposter).

If Chianti Classico is to emerge as the lead protagonist in a Sangiovese quality revolution, its many variables need to be isolated and celebrated.

Native red varieties, like Canaiolo Nero, Ciliegiolo, Colorino and Mammolo, can also account for that 20% blending portion, and frequently, they have more of a natural alchemy with Sangiovese, especially Canaiolo Nero. They’re savory, earthy and lean, and they provide Sangiovese with a reliable chorus. Here is where a blended wine can actually make a statement on terroir. Few estates better demonstrate this than Badia a Coltibuono, whom I will be visiting. To me, their entry-level Chianti Classico perfectly embodies a sense of place and what I most want from Sangiovese — power and finesse, citric and cherry fruit, animal and earth — all while bearing a 10% mix of Canaiolo Nero, Colorino and Ciliegiolo.

But it is the latest development in Chianti Classico that has me most intrigued: a burgeoning effort to delineate the various villages of the zone. For terroir-centric tasting, this is an essential step to understanding. Radda’s heights, San Casciano in Val di Pesa’s alluvial soil, Gaiole’s forests … all of these variables ought to be explored and celebrated if Chianti Classico is to emerge as the lead protagonist in a Sangiovese quality revolution, which I think it is neatly poised for.

But while these villages can now be added to the front of the label, the guidelines only pertain to the Gran Selezione category — the top-of-the-pyramid quality designation in Chianti Classico, and generally a wine that is more oak-forward. The rules have been rewritten once again to make this accommodation, but I suspect that within a few short years they’ll need to be revised to include all levels of Chianti Classico. They’re getting closer to answering our most-pressing question — what do we want from Sangiovese? — but there is still some ways to go.

Brunello Eclipses All

As for Brunello di Montalcino, expectations in the glass have to be completely recalibrated. The more I dig, the more I realize that the Brunello clone of Sangiovese — a key ingredient to the make up of everything Montalcino — performs like a distinct grape variety. Its power is substantial, its tones are meatier, its layers more densely packed and harder to pry apart in youth. To compare a varietal Chianti Classico to Brunello di Montalcino is like comparing a Rolls Royce to a Lamborghini.

To compare a varietal Chianti Classico to Brunello di Montalcino is like comparing a Rolls Royce to a Lamborghini.

At times while tasting Brunello di Montalcino, I’ve abandoned the question of my expectations of Sangiovese entirely, and simply asked can I learn to love these wines? Kerin O’Keefe, one of the world’s foremost experts on Montalcino, was gracious enough to talk to me at length about this conundrum when we conducted our interview, and much of what we discussed didn’t even make it into the article due to length. But in short, the zone of production for Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino is too vast, too overplanted, and — increasingly — too hot to reveal the true essence of the Brunello clone of Sangiovese. Given their tremendous cost, students of Italian wine can often only read about the best examples, which typically come with altitude and a minimum of 10 years of aging past vintage. Thanks in part to Kerin and several contacts I’ve built at importers over the years, I will be able to visit a small cadre of top producers in Montalcino to explore the modern state of Brunello: Biondi Santi, Padelletti, Il Marroneto, L’Aietta and Sesti.

It was this last producer, Sesti, who has given me the most faith that I can love Brunello di Montalcino. Their 2016 showed bottomless depth and an unusual grace, while still bearing the savory, meaty side of Brunello. But for me to get there, I had to turn-around in a lot of dead ends.

The Elephant in the Room: Oak

Wine barrique barrel illustration extrudedUltimately, the nature of the wine’s time in oak is far and away the largest variable for all Sangiovese-based wines. At times, it appears to be the one thing that can unify my tasting impression between most Sangiovese wines: how hammered they are by wood. And since oak usage is still something that is largely up to producers in all of the major appellations, consistency can faulter.

Years ago in Piedmont, this debate split Barolo in two between the modernist and traditionalist camps, but over the last two decades, the pendulum has swung towards larger, older oak vessels that impart less oaky character on Nebbiolo. “Modernists” have cooled their enthusiasm for new oak as well, and found a middle ground that still allows Barolo’s unique identity to shine for the most part.

A similar reckoning is still needed throughout Sangioveseland, for there are still far too many wines that lead with vanilla-bean aromas and end with the sensation of wow, I just licked a wool carpet. The mandates within appellations vary: all of them have mandatory aging requirements, some specific to oak. What is left to the producer is the size of the vessel and the age and toast of the oak. Typically, the smaller and newer the vessel, the bolder oak’s signature will be on the wine.

This is not to say that oak is inherently bad. It is like salt in the kitchen: it is often necessary to allow small amounts of oxygen to smooth out the edges of the wine, but heavy-handed use can quickly make things unpalatable. Indigenous Italian grapes are notoriously oak-sensitive, but few have had to deal with a more ambitious lot of people-pleasing producers than Sangiovese has in Tuscany. For many producers, “over-oaking” is like a bad habit they can’t quit. Compounding the issue is that very little information on oak is presented on the label. For consumers, it’s Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates.

However, over the course of the last 10 years, Sangiovese winemakers deserve some credit for toning down their oak usage. I have hope that this trend will continue, but it will likely come down to consumer demand for less oaky wines, and not a mandate at each appellation’s consorzio level. The desire to shift with market forces seems baked into the power structures of Tuscan wine, and that’s fine. It is a product, and they need to sell it. This being Italy, there will always be a balancing force of traditionalists to set the ship right again.

Artistic rendering of a vineyard scene in Umbria.

My excitement for the potential of Tuscan wine has never been higher. Yet, in terms of establishing “a relationship” with Sangiovese, I strangely feel no closer.

I have a theory that the reason Barolo pivoted sooner on oak usage is that Barolo consumer’s have more of an affinity for Burgundian-style wines, while Sangiovese consumers have more of an affinity for Bordeaux-style wines. This checks out on many levels (most acutely with Barolo’s cru system of vineyards versus the estate-vineyard model that dominates in Tuscany).

Yet Sangiovese’s soul is not that different from Nebbiolo’s. There is that unique, quick-footed acidity that dashes across the palate. There is that heavenly mix of earthy, savory components. While Nebbiolo tends to be more floral with a leaner body, and Sangiovese tends to be more citric, on a global level, I find more similarities than differences, especially in their fragility: they both have a tendency to disappear when new oak and/or international varieties are brought into the picture.

So … What Do We Want from Sangiovese?

And this brings us back to the big question: what do we want from Sangiovese? It is the largest dart board in Italian wine, but everyone seems to have a different bullseye. In fact, that target can change from night to night in my household depending on our mood. Sadly, this being a European wine, a lack of information on the label makes pinning the target tricky, but I’ll do my best to report on these substantial differences in the tasting reports, winemaker stories, and Wines to Admire write-ups coming in the months ahead. (Shameless plug: subscribe to gain full access to our editorial).

These last few months have been an essential exercise for me; the 12-day research trip will prove even more vital. But I have largely figured out where I like to aim when selecting a Sangiovese-based wine for a nice dinner at home: give me the aromas, give me a traditional profile of subdued oak so those leathery, earthy, herbaceous tea notes can rise to the top.

In other words, hand me a Burgundy glass.

 

Live Vicariously on Instagram

Follow me on Instagram from March 27 to April 6, 2022 as I tour Tuscany and explore these questions. Below is a list of the estates I will be visiting (subject to change). I’ll also be in Lazio for the first two days, visiting one winery, but mostly exploring a countryside I’ve never seen.

  • Chianti Classico* (March 30–April 1): Ricasoli/Castello di Brolio, Fèlsina, Lilliano, Rodano, Poggerino, Badia a Coltibuono, Caparsa, Monteraponi, Cigliano di Sopra, Villa Calcinaia, Fontodi, Istine
  • Chianti Rufina (April 2): Selvapiana
  • Brunello di Montalcino/Rosso di Montalcino (April 4–5): Biondi Santi, Il Marroneto, Padelletti, L’Aietta, Sesti
  • Chianti Colli Senesi (April 6): Montenidoli

*Note: I will be a guest of the Chianti Classico Consorzio for these dates, with travel expenses covered for these three days. Otherwise, this trip is entirely self-funded thanks to Opening a Bottle’s subscribers.

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