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Differing Shades of Sangiovese
By Jim Clarke
Dec 9, 2014
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I worked as the Wine Director at the Armani Ristorante in New York for about two years, and one of the pleasures I looked forward to when I took the job was the chance to dive deeper into Italian wines.  They made up 70-75% of the list there once I had revised it; previously I had worked with a list that reached broadly into any number of countries, New World and Old.  I expected to enjoy exploring the country’s wealth of indigenous grape varieties, naturally, but as regards the major grapes, I looked forward to working with Nebbiolo much more than Sangiovese.  That changed, and in the year or so since I left, it is the daily interaction with Sangiovese that I miss the most. 

The grape, despite its long history, seems less highly regarded than Nebbiolo today.  Sangiovese-based wines, for one thing, even from long acknowledged DOCGs, are often much more affordable; in fact, Brunello di Montalcino is the only Sangiovese-based wine that consistently reaches into price points that Barolo and Barbaresco call home.  Sangiovese producers in Tuscany have also been less interested in expressing the terroir of individual sites/crus, preferring an estate model like that of Bordeaux; Barolo’s producers have made hay from exploring single vineyard crus that, as in Burgundy, are owned by multiple producers, allowing a picture of the cru to develop as multiple visions of the site’s typicity are manifested by several different cellars each vintage. 

In almost every case where we do indeed see Sangiovese made as a single vineyard wine, it’s only in the hands of a single winery.  Fèlsina, for example, produces a single vineyard wine, the Rancia Chianti Classico Riserva.  So, we never have the opportunity to examine the terroir and its expression in the hands of multiple winemakers.  The new category of Chianti Classico Gran Selezione DOCG encourages single-vineyard wines, and several producers have taken that approach, but it doesn’t require them; instead, the appellation only requires that a wine must be grown on vineyards owned by the producer, even if these are scattered across the Chianti Classico region.  Almost a dozen producers using the new category are taking this approach.

In Brunello di Montalcino, Altesino’s Montosoli vineyard, is considered another “cru,” albeit once again, a monopole, like Rancia.  Situated on a northwest-facing hillside north of the town of Montalcino, the vineyard has such a reputation that neighboring properties have been trying to co-opt the name, referring to the “Montosoli area” as a way to grab some of the glory.  Or, to look at it in a less cynical light, the area stands out as a unit in part of ongoing efforts to define Brunello’s sub-regions.  There’s definitely a call to add some nuance to the broad-brush stereotypes of the three primary Tuscan regions:  Chianti as the lightest, Brunello the most powerful, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano somewhere in between. 

One could spend plenty of time exploring the terroir and the diversity of Sangiovese’s expressions in any one of those three DOCGs.  But one doesn’t become the most planted variety in Italy by hanging out exclusively in Tuscany.  To the north, there’s the one major DOC to actually feature the grape’s name, Sangiovese di Romagna.   Here on Wine Review Online, Michael Franz has praised this appellation’s wines, especially the Riservas, and deservedly so.  To my palate, Sangiovese di Romagna has a riper, broader character, often with lower acidity and softer tannins -- all qualities that lend themselves to longer barrel-aging.  The Zerbina Pietramora Riserva exemplifies these qualities in most vintages, showing ripe, dark fruit and spice, it is structured on the palate, but still generous and rounded.  When wineries apply similar, Riserva-level aging regimens to Chianti Classico, it often doesn’t sit well with the leaner, more acid-driven, red fruit character that ranks among Chianti’s virtues. 

Sangiovese di Romagna’s qualities also make it a better introduction to the variety for wine drinkers who started with the generous, richer style of California’s wines.  Villa Bagnolo’s Riserva works a lighter but still rounded side of this style; San Patrignano’s Avi offers a more powerful version.  (San Patrignano is a fascinating place, actually a community devoted to supporting and rehabilitating persons affected by drug rehabilitation; all residents are required to work in and learn a craft while there, and winegrowing and winemaking was one of the community’s first activities.)

Part of the reason Sangiovese di Romagna is different is the climate, but the Sangiovese clones native to Romagna also contribute.  Sangiovese clones, like those of Pinot Noir, are immensely varied.  Banfi’s extensive research into Sangiovese clones started with 650 selections; they divided this up by differentiating initially between variations caused by adaptation to local microclimates through mutation, and “true” genetic variations.  Some of these have even gone by different names, most notably Sangiovese Grosso, which Brunello di Montalcino claimed as its own.  These days, the Brunello Consorzio discourages the use of that name, just as they stopped calling the same variety “Brunello” a while back, to prevent vineyards elsewhere from planting it and calling it by that name -- a smart move in terms of trademarking.

But the Grosso name remains in use elsewhere.  Umbria is also home to quite a bit of Sangiovese; Castello delle Regine’s Selezione di Fondatore is 100% Sangiovese -- Sangiovese Grosso, in fact, and labeled as such.  While a small portion of the vineyards are older, most of the plantings date back to 1987.  Franco Bernabei -- nicknamed “Mr. Sangiovese” for his work with the grape -- has been the consulting winemaker and viticulturalist since the very beginning, and the first commercially-released vintage was 2000; it’s still showing well.  Their philosophy is not to release their wines until they’re ready to drink, so the 2007 -- a generous vintage in Umbria as well as in Tuscany -- is their current release.

Much of the Sangiovese in Umbria appears in -- and dominates, as it’s required to be 60-70% of the blend -- Montefalco Rosso.  Actually, since one of the other components is Sagrantino, a powerful and tannic grape, grouping Montefalco Rosso with other Sangiovese wines is misleading; 15% of Sagrantino is enough to put a deep mark on the wines’ character, with licorice notes, darker fruit, and smoky notes.  On the other hand, Montefalco Rosso is still considered a second wine, which producers often intend as something more approachable and early-drinking compared to their flagship Sagrantino di Montefalco.  Marco Antonelli, Paolo Bea, and Roberto Filippo all strike this balance with their Rossos, producing serious but accessible wines.

One could go abroad for further examples, but I’ll stop with just a small step into the Mediterranean.  The French would probably be loath to admit to growing such a clearly Italian grape, so that’s probably why Sangiovese grown in Corsica goes by the name Nielluccio.  In fact, it was only solidly identified as Sangiovese genetically about ten years ago.  Not too many examples are imported to the U.S.  but Kermit Lynch brings in two wines from Domaine Giacometti.  The “Cru des Agriate” is a lighter wine, aged for ten months in stainless steel, paler in color, and reminiscent of a village-level Beaujolais in its freshness; “Cuvée Sarah” spends a year on older barrels and shows a bit more weight and depth.  They may be outliers on the Sangiovese spectrum, but they’re still representative, more so that those Montefalco Rossos or even some Chiantis where Merlot or Cabernet plays too dominant a role in the blend.