There’s Something About Sangiovese
It’s an unconditional Sangiovese surrender.”
— Doug Shafer, Shafer Vineyards, Napa, California
In the late 1980s, inspired by a trip through Tuscany and a taste of the now-legendary Tignanello, Doug Shafer and his father John decided to have a go at producing their own Sangiovese-dominated red wine from the vineyards they had planted in the early 1980s. In 2006, Doug and John wrapped one of the remaining bottles of their 2003 Firebreak Sangiovese in a white flag and sent it to Marchese Piero Antinori, the father of Tignanello. Having built a reputation for crafting some of California’s top Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, the Shafers were simply not completely satisfied with the Sangiovese wine they had been crafting over thirteen vintages.
Keeping Italy Afloat
Indeed, Sangiovese is unquestionably one of the most important and most enigmatic black grapes planted in Italy. So widely planted is this variety that should it all come to be torn out, the country would no doubt begin to sink economically, perhaps even literally.
Part of what makes Sangiovese such an interesting variety is not only that it rarely succeeds when transplanted outside its native turf, but that even at home the wines it produces can vary enormously in terms of quality. Jancis Robinson, in her book Vines, Grapes and Wine, claims that Sangiovese-based wines “range from near-undrinkable thin, inky mouthwash, to essences of fermented grape juice that can keep their concentration and beauty for a century.”
For proof, one need look no further than the most well-known Sangiovese-based wine: Chianti. When done well, Chianti sports an earthy, leather-tinged, rustic bouquet with a medium-bodied profile, balanced yet notable acidity and a warm, almost nourishing flavour that seems to harmonize perfectly with Tuscan delicacies involving tomatoes, mushrooms, herbs and beef. Cheap Chianti often resembles a combination of water, red food colouring, alcohol and battery acid. Wines like this traditionally came in straw-encased bottles called fiascos (a suitable indicator, if ever there was one, of the liquid contained within). The recommended serving technique for these wines was to simply pop the cork and immediately stick a candle in its neck, leaving the wine inside to act as a ballast.
Chianti on steroids
While this type of variance is an issue when it comes to consumer trust in the quality of Chianti, it becomes even more irksome when the best Chianti and the worst (and everything in between) fall under the lofty Denominazione de Origine controllata e Garantita (DOCG) appellation — the highest designation available to Italian wines. Frustrated by this reality and by the restrictive (or perhaps too liberal) nature of the DOCG Chianti designation, maverick Tuscan producers basically thumbed their collective noses at the regulators and began to blend Cabernet Sauvignon with their Sangiovese, aging these wines in new French oak barriques.
While these new Supertuscans were only eligible for the lowly Vino da Tavola classification, they were soon commanding global attention and prices that made other Chianti producers extremely envious. Italian wine laws were subsequently updated to recognize this important new style, now allowing for an Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) classification.
Attack of the clones
One of the factors that contributes to the quality, or lack thereof, of Sangiovese is clonal selection. The variety (the name is derived from the term sanguis Jovis, “blood of Jupiter”) has two main sub-varieties: Sangiovese Grosso and Sangiovese Piccolo. Sangiovese Grosso and its clones are typically found in Tuscany, whereas Sangiovese Piccolo makes its home in Emilia-Romagna.
The most important clonal offshoot of Sangiovese Grosso is undoubtedly the one isolated by Biondi-Santi over a century ago. Dubbed Brunello (“little dark one”), this clone produces lower yields than typical Sangiovese Grosso, with more concentrated, tannic fruit. The wine it makes, Brunello di Montalcino, is perhaps Italy’s most coveted. It is also, at the time of writing, at the centre of an investigation that may result in it being banned from export to the United States. It would seem that certain keepers of the “little dark one” have stirred up some big-time controversy.
The much-condensed version of this story involves a suspicion by Sienna’s district attorney that some producers might not be complying with the “100 per cent Sangiovese” requirements of the DOCG and that they are in fact pumping up their wines with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot to soften hard edges and enhance the wine’s colour. The US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) demands that wine labels accurately reflect what is in a bottle. If it says “Brunello,” it must be 100 per cent Sangiovese, and, until the Italians can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this is the case, the wines cannot enter the US. While this no doubt elicits an “Oh, brother” response from many wine lovers (and no doubt a few producers), it has caused some serious concerns in that the bulk of Brunello production is slated for the US market. The last time Big Brother (er, sorry, the TTB) flexed its ban brawn was during the infamous “the Austrians are putting anti-freeze in their wines to kill Americans” panic/joke fest … Don’t get me started.
James Mariani, co-CEO of Banfi Vintners and Castello Banfi Vineyard Estate in Montalcino, was (understandably) somewhat tight-lipped about the affair during his visit to Toronto in May this year. His firm, along with other heavy hitters including Antinori and Frescobaldi, is one of the many producers the DA has targeted for inquisition (er, investigation). The official word from Castello Banfi is that it “stands behind the integrity of its Brunello under both Italian and international regulations.” In any case, Mariani’s off-the-record comments suggest the whole thing is more of a political witch-hunt than an actual cause for concern. By the time you read this, the whole debacle should be more or less history, so it’s probably best I appease Tidings legal counsel by keeping mum. Mariani did have a few things to say on-record about the subject of this article, namely, Sangiovese and its particular affinity with the Tuscan hillsides.
“Sangiovese is an extremely prolific variety,” Mariani reveals. “Italy is an agrarian culture and because of a lack of fresh water, wine became a very important source of liquid nutrition. The amount of wine that a person could make from their vineyards became a measure of wealth. Since Sangiovese is a very prolific vine, it was favoured due to the large amounts of fruit — and therefore wine — it could yield.”
Mariani reveals that, all things being equal, Sangiovese will produce up to four times as much fruit as Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a naturally low-yielding vine. Over the course of time, as communities became more established, less emphasis was placed on wine as food and a shift toward quality began to occur.
“People’s taste buds began to evolve and it was noticed that the wines made from vines planted in the hills had a more favourable structure. The valleys, being more fertile, were given over to rice and wheat and the vine was gradually relocated exclusively to the hills where the soil was much leaner.”
The real dirt
The problems incurred trying to grow Sangiovese outside of the harsh soils of the Tuscan hills have, in Mariani’s opinion, much to do with finding similarly lean soils. “If you plant Sangiovese in the more fertile soil of, say, the Napa valley, the vine will literally go crazy,” he notes. “You won’t be able to prune it fast enough to stop the vine from overproducing.”
Mariani admits that Sangiovese might do well somewhere in North America, “but you can’t just find a place where Cabernet does well and plant Sangiovese.” The bigger question for wine lovers is not whether Sangiovese can be cultivated outside of Italy, but whether or not there’s any point in planting it. “Truth is, our vineyard property is a better home for Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot,” admitted Doug Shafer. Perhaps the wisest course really is to follow Shafer’s lead and surrender Sangiovese to Italy in general and the Tuscan hills in particular.
Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalcino DOC 2006, Tuscany ($28.80)
Made from 100 per cent Sangiovese grown within the Brunello appellation but harvested from younger vines, this wine offers up slightly earthy, mildly spicy notes enhanced by nuances of tobacco, blackcurrant and herbal/mineral overtones. Quite rich and ripe with smoky blackcurrant flavours and a long, lightly peppery finish. A red wine that works surprisingly well with seafood.
Castello Banfi Cum Laude Sant’ Antimo DOC 2004, Tuscany ($32.75)
Though controversy continues to rage over whether some Brunello is being “adulterated” with the addition of non-approved grape varieties, there can be no denying that Sangiovese gets along extremely well in the company of others. This wine blends Sangiovese (25%) with Cabernet Sauvignon (30%), Merlot (30%) and Syrah (15%). Designed as an “accessible” (read: affordable — even to journalists) Supertuscan, Cum Laude is priced about one-third cheaper than the average Supertuscan while delivering comparable quality. Inky purple with vanilla, plum, currant jam and herbs on the nose; ripe, balanced and supple in the mouth with flavours hinting at ripe plum, blueberry and anise.
Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2002, Tuscany ($57)
Produced from 100 per cent Sangiovese clones specifically chosen by Banfi. Leather, smoke, licorice, ripe cherry and tobacco leaf on the nose. Still showing the tannic edge of youth in the mouth, this Brunello nonetheless showed substantial fruit with considerable depth and balance that segued into a long, elegant finish.
Ceravolo Sangiovese 2006, Adelaide Plains, Australia ($17)
Cocoa, pepper, tar, leather, smoke and mild sandalwood on the nose. Soft, round, mildly spicy with a short-ish finish. A tad one-dimensional. Closer to Shiraz than typical Sangiovese.
Tenuta Le Farnete Carmignano Riserva DOCG 2001, Tuscany, Italy ($XX.XX)
Almost black in colour. Complex, meaty/leathery, mineral, black-olive aromas with underlying kirsch and tobacco notes. Rich, silky, wet-slate, truffle and herbal flavours with a hint of earthiness on the finish.
Canneto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2003, Tuscany, Italy ($40)
Forward cherry-liqueur aromas with hints of chocolate, fennel and mild pepper. Dense and chewy with warm black-cherry fruit and spicy, fairly tannic end notes.
Umani Ronchi Medoro Sangiovese IGT 2006, The Marche, Italy ($11)
Ripe Bing cherries and dried herbs; a brightly fruity, simple, straightforward aroma. Light weight with crisp acidity and soft tannins. Pizza wine for sure — cheap ’n’ cheerful. Chill a bit.
Carpineto Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2004, Tuscany, Italy ($100)
A classic Chianti with the telltale earthy, black-olive, iodine, anise, dill and ripe dark-plum notes characteristic of Italy’s quintessential red wine. Medium weight; dry and fruity/earthy with a hint of truffle and mild gamey notes. Bring on the wild-mushroom risotto.
Lungarotti San Giorgio Rosso IGT 2001, Umbria, Italy ($45.75)
From Umbria’s pioneering winery. A blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon. Cassis, cherry tobacco, dark chocolate and Italian herbs on the nose. Medium- to full-bodied with a dense, chewy structure; moderate tannins, a complex black-fruit-dominated palate and terrific length.