Quick Guide to Sangiovese Grape Variety & its Italian Wine Regions
Wine lovers will profess that there’s something special about the old world.
Viticulture in Europe and parts of the Mediterranean dates back thousands of years. France, Italy, and Spain have moved along at their steady pace throughout the centuries of making history, producing some of the worlds most beloved and sought after wines.
Today however Italy is the leading producer of wine in the world, producing and exporting more than any other country.
With 350 varietals and hundreds of years of history behind their wine making, Italy has no shortage of culture, with each region producing unique and incredible wines.
With that in mind however, there are two varietals that one can almost say defines Italian wine making. Nebbiolo and Sangiovese comprise the most commercially, and possibly culturally, significant wines produced in the country.
A few essential characteristics of Sangiovese: grape & winemaking
Sangiovese is the soul of Tuscany, and is the bedrock of the region, used in producing Chianti, Chianti Classico, Super Tuscan wines, Rosso di Montalcino, and the venerable Brunello di Montalcino.
Sangiovese’s smell is often characterized by aromas like fresh tea, prunes, and sometimes fresh plum or cherries. The grape also has thicker skin, which lends itself to, for lack of a better term, easier wine making.
With that said, it requires the deftest wine producers in order to create high-caliber Sangiovese wines.
The grape has a balanced acidity with the tannins, meaning that it maintains aging potential while being ready to drink younger.
There is some consideration that the thicker skins also provide greater antioxidant potential, by allowing wine to be produced with a greater volume of resveratrol. These antioxidants are often cited as the mechanism for wines “health benefits.”
Sangiovese: A Brief History
Producers in Tuscany have been working with Sangiovese for longer than 250 years.
However for purposes of brevity here, I’ll just focus on the work with Sangiovese post WWII.
During the post WWII reconstruction period, Italian winemakers began focusing more heavily on quantity over quality. There were most definitely traditional producers that did not go that direction, but as a general trend producers during the time period until the 1980s focused on continuously higher yields.
The historical significance of this is two fold, I think:
- firstly that old vines that had smaller yields but higher quality fruit may have experienced some neglect during this time
- and secondly many contribute this trend to the rise to Super Tuscan wines in Chianti and the IGT classification that was in turn created.
Sangiovese & Italy? The 3 Main Regions:
There are really three regions within Tuscany that are of critical importance when it comes to Sangiovese: Chianti, Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Chianti serves as the core of the region and has extensive history.
It is probably the most widely recognized region of Tuscany as well, with Chianti being very well known throughout the U.S. in particular.
Currently, the wines of Chianti and Chianti Classico must be a minimum of 75% Sangiovese, and only wines from Chianti Classico may be 100% Sangiovese.
Historically though, Trebbiano and Malvasia varieties were included in Chianti. As of 1996, white grapes were not included in the approved blend.
Super Tuscan wines began their proclivity during the 60’s as a response to the decreasing quality and therefore commercial value of Chianti wines.
The Super Tuscans were trail blazers in terms of integrating non-native grape varietals into their winemaking. They frequently contain Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Cabernet Franc, as well as other grapes non-native to Italy.
Arguably though, the dominant grape varietal however in Super Tuscans consistently remains Sangiovese.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
The region that produces the famous Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is not to be confused with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
Abbruzzo (or Abruzzi) is another region of Italy in Central Italy, that produces a red grape variety called Montepulciano. I know, it’s confusing but important.
Wines called Vino Nobile as a contrast, come from the Tuscan village of Montepulciano hence their name. Nobile is Italian for noble highlighting their recognised and distinctive quality in the local winemaking history.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano must be at least 70% Sangiovese, with the remainder being comprised of Canaiolo Nero and other local lesser-known varietals.
Wines must be aged for at least one year in oak, and aged for two years overall before leaving the winery.
The soil is largely a limestone composite.
The area is located on hills at an altitude of about 600 metres (2,000 ft approx.) above sea level. Higher elevation is favorable to grape’s quality, for two reasons:
- A cooler climate helps retaining acidity and it increases aging potential
- elevation also makes the fruit more “hearty” in that it goes through growing conditions that are more challenging. Yields are therefore naturally lower and the quality tends to be higher.
Montalcino & its Brunello Wine
Montalcino is a small commune (or village) located to the south of Florence.
The climate of Montalcino is quite warm and quite dry relative to the rest of the region.
Grapes here often ripen earlier than fruit in the other regions of Montalcino and Chianti.
Despite the small size of the region, the terroir is distinct in four different areas
- On the northeast slope the lower reaches of the soil are made of heavy clay
- The higher portions there are a calcareous and sandstone composite
- The southeast side of the hill by contrast is primarily sandstone with heavy trace amounts of soil with volcanic origins
- The southwest side by contrast is the hottest, however receives cooling influence from the sea.
Parts of Montalcino are also higher altitude, though not quite as high as Montepulciano.
Brunello and “baby Brunello” Rosso di Montalcino are made from 100% Sangiovese Grosso. Sangiovese grosso is actually a variant (or clone) of Sangiovese, of which there are numerable examples, the Grosso probably being the most famous.
The region of Montalcino is arguably the “newest” wine producing region of the three. Although really they all have a reasonably lengthy history.
Brunello was granted the highest DOCG status in 1980, while Rosso di Montalcino received its DOC recognition in 1984 as a means of differenciating the two.
Montalcino wines are aged in large vats often made of Slovenian oak, which is more neutral than French or American oak, and thus imparts less oak to the wine during fermentation.
With that said, some producers use smaller small barrels or barriques which imparts vanilla tones to the wine.
A mature Brunello will have incredibly smooth and refined tannins, especially in high caliber vintages and can arguably be the most expensive of the three wines listed here.
Brunello wines are required to age a minimum of three years prior to being released, while Montalcino wines only require a year. The wines otherwise follow a very similar process.
While this is not an exhaustive composition of these wines and their regions, this is meant to be a quick “survey” of Sangiovese at its very best in Tuscany.
This article was written by Dan Decker, partner at VinoVin Wine and Spirits. VinoVin deals in small production boutique wines that emphasize the character and quality of estate bottled wines like Chianti Colli Fiorentin, Tiezzi Brunello, and Mocali Super Tuscan.