Getting to Know Sangiovese
Whenever I’m out at a nice steakhouse in San Francisco with a friend that defaults to a Napa Cabernet, I stop and ask them if they’ve tried a Brunello di Montalcino (made with the Sangiovese grape). If not, I encourage them to try it, and I’ve yet to see a time they’ve regretted said decision. What makes Sangiovese, this bold, ageworthy grape hailing from the central Italian countryside, so special?
Before we dive into unique smells and flavors, let’s discuss an often confusing aspect of Italian wines, if not all ‘old world’ wines in general: in countries like Italy, France, and Spain, the name of the wine is often tied to the region it’s produced in, instead of the actual grape it is made from. Because wine making laws are typically far more restrictive on what grape types can be used in these regions, you can assume “Chianti” or “Brunello” (the region) is synonymous with “Sangiovese” (the actual grape). But, there are a lot of Italian wine regions and varietals (e.g. grape types). The most well known in the states are Chianti and Brunello made from the Sangiovese grape and Barolo or Barbaresco (from the Piedmont region in northwest Italy) made from the Nebbiolo grape.
Now, back to Sangiovese! Sangiovese is kind of like your grandpa that you find out is secretly ripped when you go on a summer vacation to Hawaii. Dried, leathery, and aged at first smell, but hits you with surprising structure and strength on the palate.
Sangiovese leads with oxidized red fruit aromas (think cherry, cranberry, and pomegranate). But, don’t confuse fruit with sweet. This is as dry a wine as it gets! The reason the fruit typically has this “bruised” or “oxidized” characteristic is due to the method and length that Sangiovese is aged. There are nuances by region, but typically you’re going to be drinking a wine that was aged for two+ years in large neutral oak barrels (to avoid imparting vanilla or cinnamon flavor like in Cabernet Sauvignon). Then, the wine is aged again in its bottle giving it slightly more exposure to oxygen (in fact, with Brunello, producers can’t sell a vintage until the fifth year after harvest to ensure proper aging). Remember our grandpa from above? He’s quite aged, just like the Sangiovese in your wine! After the initial fruit aromas, you’ll be exposed to scents of dried flowers (almost potpourri-like), dried herbs (like fennel, thyme, rosemary), a bit of balsamic, and dare I say it, a “band-aid-y” or barnyard-like funk. But in a good way, I swear!
BRETTANOMYCES FUN FACT
Brettanomyces, or “Brett” for short, is a yeast native to the Senne Valley of Belgium, and you’ll often find it as a welcome addition to many beers. However, for winemakers, it’s typically something they want to keep out of the end product, unless they know how to control and balance it. Used in moderation, it’s a hallmark style indicator for traditional Tuscan Sangiovese-based wines, adding an extra layer of depth beyond fruit and herbs! When a wine writer or sommelier refers to a wine as more “complex,” it’s hinting at this concept of balancing, or even layering, flavors. When you smell a complex wine, each time you might get a primary, secondary, or tertiary smell that all meld together creating an extraordinary flavor profile. Brett can be a great tool for a seasoned winemaker to introduce added complexity.
From a taste perspective, Sangiovese will mimic many of the same oxidized fruits and herbaceous notes on the nose. Structurally, however, it is a powerhouse! Remember, grandpa might be old, but he’s jacked! It’s one of the only wines that can make you both salivate profusely (has more of a tart note from high acidity) and feel those classic sandy tannins drying out the sides of your cheeks and gums in the same sip. The balance between high acid and tannin create a unique mouthfeel that is paramount to great Sangiovese wines, unlike other highly tannic wines like Cabernet Sauvignon that have less acidity. This is why it’s such a versatile wine to pair with tomato-based pasta sauces and fatty dark meats.
Many of my friends quickly reach for a Pinot Noir when in pairing doubt because of its flexibility drinking alongside seafoods and lighter meats, and often they’re not wrong. But to me, it’s Sangiovese that’s so versatile. It carries a strong acidic backbone coupled with balanced tannins that allow it to pair well with so many dishes. It goes well with fresh herbs (think basil, thyme, or sage), rich soups, mushroom-heavy dishes, most cheeses, and of course, cliche for a reason, tomato-based sauces. For a specific pairing, a Florentine local favorite, Bistecca alla Fiorentina with a Brunello is a magical experience (and I’m not saying that just because my last name is Fiorentino). In general, I’d try to avoid spicy foods and seafood-heavy dishes with Sangiovese. The heat can blow the wine’s alcohol out of balance and it’s hit or miss, but more often miss, with many types of fish and shellfish (maybe outside of salmon or tuna). Next time you pick up a Brunello, try pairing it with a rosemary and thyme pan-roasted ribeye.
TANNIN FUN FACT
Have you ever found yourself saying something like, “wow, I like this wine’s flavor but I can’t drink it without food.” What are you actually saying? This occasionally occurs with younger wines with higher tannins like Sangiovese or Nebbiolo. The reason wines high in tannin go so well with rich foods like grilled dark meat and foods with lots of butter or oil, is that the tannins in the wines bind to the fat molecules from these foods rather than mixing with saliva, which reduces that overly “dry” feeling on your gums and cheeks!
When friends are looking for a recommendation on new Italian wines to try, my rule of thumb is as follows: Pinot Noir lovers should try out Barolo or Barbaresco (Nebbiolo grape) and Cab Sauv lovers should try out Chianti Classico or Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese grape). Both grapes have very noticeable acid (will make you salivate) and tannin (will leave your cheeks and gums dry) but the Nebbiolo tends to lead with a higher percentage of more red vs. black fruit. If you stared at both wines in a glass side by side, the Nebbiolo will often be noticeably lighter similar to when you compare Pinot Noir and Cab Sauv! Now don’t get me wrong, you can enjoy both types at the end of the day, I know I do!
So where does Sangiovese come from? The grape likely dates back to either the Etruscan or Roman eras, but widespread proliferation within Central Italy, namely Tuscany, wasn’t until the mid to late 18th century when Cosimo Villafranchi discussed this in his “l’Oenologia Toscana.” Even then, it played a supporting role for other Italian varietals until Baron Bettino Ricasoli, the “innovator of Chianti” came up with a new recipe for Chianti wine with Sangiovese at the helm (70% Sangiovese, 20% Canaiolo, and 10% Malvasia). As alluded to above, the most commonly named bottles of wine you’ll see made from Sangiovese will be titled with Chianti/Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Despite its Italian roots, more inland vineyards in California (think Mendocino, Sierra Foothills, and Lake County) are starting to plant this grape since the microclimates are somewhat similar to the Tuscan countryside.
SUPER TUSCAN FUN FACT
I often have friends say, “I really liked this Super Tuscan at dinner, but I have NO idea what it is?” To answer this question, we need to cover basic Italian wine law. Italians have a fairly confusing setup, or “DOCG” system of rating, so learning all the details for the average consumer can be headache inducing. I’ll try to bring this up to a higher level that you can put to use when purchasing wine at a store or restaurant. Each region has its own rules, but most prominent regions in Tuscany should use Sangiovese in their wines, according to the DOCG. For Chianti, any wine bottle you obtain from these regions will contain ~70-75% Sangiovese at minimum, rounded out with other grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and regional Italian varietals like Canaiolo, Colorino, etc. Brunello however, will always be 100% Sangiovese Grosso (still Sangiovese, but a clone prevalent in the Montalcino region).
From a high level, Super Tuscan wines are more of a “movement” rather than a specific wine type. A little over 50 years ago, Marquis Mario Rocchetta released his first commercial vintage of the famed, Sassicaia, which is made predominantly with Cabernet Sauvignon and a bit of Cabernet Franc. And yes, you didn’t read that wrong, there is no Sangiovese despite this wine being from Tuscany. Super Tuscan represents a sentiment that DOCG wine laws are antiquated and that there should be flexibility to experiment with additional blends and varietals. But, there are still plenty of famous Super Tuscan producers that use a high percentage of Sangiovese, take Tignanello for example. So, the next time you see Super Tuscan on a wine menu, don’t be afraid to ask the Sommelier what’s in it. Most folks won’t know!
Can’t wait to try some Sangiovese for yourself now that I’ve spent so long talking about it? Some of my favorites are:
Felsina “Berardegna” – Chianti Classico
EASIER TO FIND AND MORE AFFORDABLE
Montevertine “Montevertine” – IGT from Chianti
Ciacci Piccolomini “Pianrosso” – Brunello di Montalcino
I WANNA SPLURGE A LITTLE
Antinori “Tignanello” – Super Tuscan (usually ~80% Sangiovese)
LIFE MILESTONE OR CELEBRATION-WORTHY
Looking for the tl;dr on Sangiovese for the next time you’re googling in the restaurant bathroom before coming back to the table and ordering the wine for your date? Look no further, your cheat sheet is below. Just remember, grandpa (wine with some oxidation/age) is ripped (bold acid and tannin)!