Sangiovese (san-gee-oh-VAY-zee)

Italy’s most famous grape, sangiovese is responsible for the three great wines of Tuscany: Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino. It’s also a major grape (if not the grape) in many of the prestigious wines known as the Super Tuscans. Outside Tuscany, sangiovese is used to make red wines in the neighboring regions of Umbria and Emilia-Romagna (and there’s a bit in California), but with a few notable exceptions, great sangiovese comes only from Tuscany in central Italy. This said, surprising DNA research in 2004 revealed one of the parents of sangiovese to be southern Italian—calabrese di montenuovo (from Calabria). The other parent ciliegiolo (Italian for small cherry) is cultivated all over Italy, but today is especially well known in Tuscany. It appears then that sangiovese may have originated in southern Italy and only later spread to Tuscany. Sangiovese, like pinot noir, is old enough (and possibly genetically unstable enough) to have mutated considerably, leading to hundreds (perhaps thousands) of clones. The differences among these clones, coupled with differences in the sites where sangiovese is planted, mean that the wines made from the grape vary widely in style and quality. Indeed, from poor clones in poor sites, sangiovese can be as thin and dreary as red-stained, watery alcohol. The top sangioveses, however, are as earthy, rich, and complex as a great sauce. In flavor and structure, sangiovese is again, closer to pinot noir than it is to cabernet sauvignon. Sangiovese, for example, takes its structure primarily from acidity, rather than tannin. When it’s young, sangiovese has the wonderful appeal of a fresh, warm, baked cherry pie. As it ages, the wine takes on dried leaf, dried orange peel, tea, mocha, spicy, peaty, earthy flavors, and a fabulous sensation of minerality, even saltiness. (The latter is just a metaphor; wine never contains significant sodium, per se). In fact, a glass of great sangiovese, with its salty sensations, has historically been the perfect partner to Tuscany’s other great classic—peppery extra virgin olive oil. Indeed, as any visitor to Tuscany can attest, sangiovese-based wines seem to taste so much better in Tuscany. As simple as salt and pepper, perhaps?


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