Updated: Sep 1
Grown on less than 74,000 hectares worldwide (in 2016), Sangiovese holds its rank in the "Top 15" most planted red grape variety in the world and over 93 percent is still grown in Italy.
Argentina and France (Corsica, to be precise) are each growing between 1,500 & 2,000 hectares while California and Australia are growing under 1,000 hectares each.
Here is the story of the grape, where it grows, how it's turned into wine and what to try out...
As the natural child of Calabrese di Montenuovo (pointing to Calabria) and Ciliegiolo (an ancient grape of Tuscany), the grape has been around for a while, but it is not until the Renascimento (1) that its name appears in the literature as "Sangiovese", from the Latin Sanguis Jovis translating into "Jupiter's blood". In truth, depending on where it grows in Italy, Sangiovese has many names (Brunello, Prugnolo Gentile, Morellino di Scansano, Nielluccio...) which are often the result of mutation and "clonage".
Expansion and Improvement
From its home in Tuscany, Sangiovese slowly spread as the key grape variety in many vineyards of Central Italy and Emilia-Romagna, but as one travels further north or south, it loses importance to other local varieties. In Central Italy, it is the base grape for table wine, premium wines, rosés, Passito and Vin Santo. There was a time (in the 1970's) when producers propagated Sangiovese's most prolific clones, resulting in high yields for the export of millions of hectoliters of cheap and uninteresting wines bottled in the iconic straw-covered flasks. This is no longer the case. Since the Chianti Classico 2000 Project in the mid 80's, research has helped producers focus on quality and clones are selected for concentration of pigment, aromas and flavors. Beyond the identification of the best clones; new rootstocks, density of planting, pruning and soil management options were experimented all in search of better quality.
In the vineyard, Sangiovese takes its own sweet time to mature and is harvested late in September or October. In cool vintages, it can be acidic with harsh tannins or too high in alcohol in warmer vintages. If over-cropped, it results in pale and acidic wines prone to rapid oxidation. As a relative thin-skinned grape, it is susceptible to fungal diseases, which is a problem in wet vintages. The best Sangiovese are planted on the famous Galestro friable marl-like soils of the cooler Chianti Classico and the Alberese clay & limestone of the warmer Montalcino. Density of planting depends on fertility of the soil and rainfall. Many producers reckon 5,000 plants per hectare is the right balance to control yield and avoid plants to over-shade each other. Still, green harvest and careful canopy management is required. In short, Sangiovese needs a lot of attention in the vineyard to produce healthy quality fruit with perfect phenolic ripeness.
Winemaking & Maturation
Modern Sangiovese winemaking is concerned with taming harsh tannins. To accomplish this, techniques such as post-fermentation maceration on skin of three to four weeks and malolactic conversion in wooden barrels are common. Maturation is often in 600 l Botti made of oak or chestnut wood, sometimes in 225 l Bordeaux Barriques, and occasionally in combination of both. Finally, Sangiovese is often blended with local or French grapes to add color and flesh to the finished wine.
Sangiovese- based Dry Wines
A pure Sangiovese wine is likely to be medium in intensity and garnet in color, which can quickly turn tawny after a few years in the bottle. On the nose, the cherry (inherited from its daddy "Ciliegiolo") is obvious. Other red fruits are often mentioned include red plum, raspberry, strawberry and dried cranberries. Tea, dried flowers and dried herbs (Pot-pourri) are typical as well as earthiness when aged in the bottle. When new oak was used, depending on the toasting level, scents of spices and expresso might appear. On the palate, the wines are dry with high acidity and tannins, moderate levels of alcohol and variable levels of complexity from fruit, herbs, oak and age. Blended Sangiovese with a lil' Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc or Merlot will be noticeably darker, with black fruit flavors (black currant, plum and mulberry) and more fleshy on the palate to balance structure.
If you could afford to taste 3 really good examples?
To experience a 100 percent single vineyard Sangiovese aged in French Oak, try a Fontodi Flaccianello della Pieve (Colli Toscana Centrale IGT). For a modern style of Sangiovese-Cabernet(s) blend, Antinori's Tignanello is the iconic wine to taste.