Whereas Nebbiolo is prominently a Piedmont grape, Sangiovese is Tuscany’s contribution to the great wine heritage of Italy. Ageable, flavorful, and perfectly rounded yet powerful, it is probably best known among wine buyers as the primary grape of Chianti. Chiantis must be made up of at least 70% Sangiovese. Collectors know it as 100% of Brunello di Montalcino. Whichever type of Sangiovese you like, it is largely responsible for the resurgence of the Italian wine industry all over the world, especially in America.
Sangiovese is a finicky grape, but it has an affinity for the oak barrels. Aging in oak can increase the wine’s aging potential while also bringing out new flavors such as vanilla. Brunello di Montalcino, which is world-famous, is aged for 3 years in oak, which can solve all of the wine’s acidity problems but makes it an expensive wine to produce, and therefore expensive for the consumer. In fact, oak-barrel aging is required for Brunello, and a winemaker who fails to age the wine in oak for at least 2 years can get a 6-year prison sentence!
Chianti is Italy’s most famous wine; Chianti Classico is a more upscale version. It is known for floral, cherry, and light nutty notes, often having lower tannins and acidity than the rest of Chianti. Chianti Rúfina is also held in high regard. Grown in cooler climates, it can often be more elegant than Classico, but will never be as common due to the dramatic difference in the size of the growing area. Wine from Chianti can be labeled Riserva if it has spent 38 months in oak barrels.
Super-Tuscans, in which Sangiovese is blended with an international grape, most often Cabernet Sauvignon, are rising in popularity. Cabernet is also blended in Chianti, but at a maximum of 15%. Some Super-Tuscans are now labeled IGT (between table wine and DOCG in status) but most are sold mainly based on reputation.
Tuscany’s town of Montalcino is home to the most expensive Sangiovese-based wine, Brunello di Montalcino. Warm and dry, the village has interesting soil with limestone, clay, volcanic soil, and a crumbly marl called galestro. The wine must be made entirely from Sangiovese to attain the label; even the non-reserve wines must spend 2 years in the oak barrels. After 10 years, the best Brunello is just beginning to soften. Much different from Chianti, Brunello’s flavors are more full-bodied, although the acidity is still high. Flavors associated with Brunello at any age are blackberry, black cherry, black raspberry, chocolate, leather, and violets. Brunello, though expensive, has gained popularity recently, especially in the US.
In the rest of Europe, few regions question Italy’s stronghold on Sangiovese; due to the region’s long tradition with the grape, overtaking it is an almost impossible task. Some knockoffs in Argentina and Australia have been doing well. California is trying, but the climate is too sunny there.
Where Sangiovese reaches its great heights, especially the magical village of Montalcino, it can produce one of the great red wines of the world. Yet it is also a wine that is fun to drink on a regular basis.