How do you make sense of Italian wine? The country has more indigenous grapes than any other (somewhere between 800 and 1000 at a rough estimate) many of which are planted in a single region and nowhere else. Italian varieties are notoriously difficult to export, but even within their country of origin they are reluctant travellers. It’s easier to get an honest answer out of Silvio Berlusconi than grow, say, Nebbiolo in Tuscany or Fiano in Piedmont.
The cornucopia is part of Italy’s appeal, of course. But for consumers trying to understand its wines, there are few shortcuts and a lot of cul de sacs. Sangiovese, grown all over central Italy and as far south as Campania and Sicily and as far north as Lombardy and the Veneto is one of them. Even people who aren’t familiar with the grape have heard of Chianti, surely Italy’s most famous (or infamous if you remember those wicker flasks) red wine.
Ignore the synonyms (Brunello, Morellino, Calabrese, Nielluccio and Prugnolo Gentile to name but five out of more than two dozen) and it’s a comparatively easy grape to explain to punters. If a wine is called Chianti Classico, Carmignano or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano it will be dominated by Sangiovese (and may even be a varietal), while in Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino it is unblended.
That’s the theory, at any rate. As the “Brunellogate” scandal demonstrated in 2008, when a number of producers were fingered for adding French varieties to their wines, most notably Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon, things are never that simple. In Italy, rules are there to be flouted. This explains why t-shirts with seat belts drawn across them became instantly popular when the wearing of the real thing became legally binding a decade or more ago.
The best way to get to grips with Sangiovese, for a journalist at least, is to attend the Tuscan anteprima tastings, a five day tasting tour that moves through Tuscany like some over-sized charabanc, stopping in Florence (for Chianti Classico), Montepulciano (for Vino Nobile) and Montalcino (for Brunello). If you’re dedicated to the task — and there are more onerous ones, I admit — then it’s an opportunity to taste more than 500 examples of Tuscany’s signature red grape.
This being Italy, not all the best producers choose to show their wines. Some elected to present bottles at smaller tastings, held in wine shops, restaurants and bars, some insist that you visit the winery to sample the latest releases, while others give the whole thing the metaphorical middle finger. Still, there are more than enough wines to satisfy even the most passionate Sangiovese lover.
The first thing to say about tasting Sangiovese is that it is a very complex grape. Lidie Ceseri, the winemaker at the excellent Tenuta Valdipiatta in Montepulciano, who wrote her PhD about the grape, told me that there are 80 clones in Italy, which can be divided into four main groups, all of which are to be found in Tuscany. “It is not a stable grape variety,” she confirmed.
There’s also the matter of whether it is best blended with other things (traditional partners such as Canaiolo, Mammolo and Colorino or more recently, Bordeaux grapes) or left to its own devices. Then there’s the question of new versus old oak and how to manage what can be quite astringent tannins. Winemaking choices have a big effect on style.
Vintage-wise, there was a slightly different focus in the three Tuscan sub-regions. Chianti Classico was showing 2009, 2008 and 2007, Vino Nobile was presenting 2008, while in Brunello the focus was on the “five star” 2006 vintage. Quality, as you’d expect with such a tricky grape, varied accordingly. The worst wines were thin and weedy, or (just as bad at the other end of the spectrum) over-oaked and pruney. To complicate things further, you don’t necessarily get what you pay for. Some of the (generally much cheaper) Chianti Classicos were fresher and better balanced than the more powerful, colour and oak-saturated Brunellos and Vino Nobiles.
But the best wines, both blended in Chianti and Montepulciano and (theoretically at least) unblended in Brunello were sublime. My half dozen favourite producers from each region were: Castello di Ama, Badia a Coltibuono, Isole e Olena, Castello della Panaretta, Renzo Marinai and Fontodi in Chianti Classico; Contucci, Boscarelli, Dei, Avignonesi, Fassati and Tenuta Valdepiatta in Montepulciano and Salvioni, Stella di Campalto, Talenti, Tassi, Tenuta Le Potazzine and Fuligni in Montalcino. Different styles, but all superb examples of Sangiovese.
The DOCG that showed the greatest variation, both in style and quality, was Brunello. This is understandable in a place whose vineyards have expanded so rapidly and where there are so many new producers. But it also reflects different opinions about the best way to express the unique qualities of Sangiovese. My hunch is that to compensate for the loss of Merlot and our other Bordeaux varieties some producers are picking later and using more oak to appeal to the all-important US market. Other, more traditional wineries continue to fashion more elegant wines, much as they did before Brunellogate. Did I say Sangiovese was easy to understand?
Originally published in Off Licence News