Sangiovese wine guide: grape, history and organoleptic characteristics
If there is a grape whose history and personality have always been intriguing to students, connoisseurs, and wine enthusiasts, it is Sangiovese. If lovingly grown, with low yields and densely planted vines—at least 3500 or 4000 plants per hectare—it can be a perfectly balanced wine, with a fine floral and aromatic bouquet. But it’s fragile.
For this reason, so much attention is needed when it’s blended with other vines that can overpower it and during the grapes’ ripening, which must be slow to let the tannins mature gradually, otherwise, the wine becomes unpleasantly grumpy or a hypertrophic fruit bomb.
Sangiovese can stand long aging beautifully if made in large casks that wisely sculpt its body, whereas an overabundance of French barrels can intoxicate the wine, flattening its roundness. From this great grape, we can make both a noble Brunello, which can last for decades, or a five-liter keg, which is great for unblocking sinks.
A little bit of history on Sangiovese
The first step toward making a great wine is to cultivate vines with low yields and high quality, such as Gobelet and Alberello in Italy. It seems that the Etruscans already knew this noble grape and that it widely spread following their trading routes, as proof that their ancient dominions in central Italy indeed match the favored terroirs of the grape: Tuscany, Umbria, and Romagna.
Another myth says that its names come from Sanguis Jovis—Blood of Jupiter—the name given by a Capuchin monk of Sant’Arcangelo’s monastery, near Jupiter mount, during a banquet in honor of Pope Leone XII, which asked the name of the delicious nectar that the monks had poured.
The first trustworthy source speaking of Sangiogheto or Sangioveto is Gainvettorio Soderini, a gentleman of the sixteen century. “Juicy grape full of wine,” he tells us, “Wine that never fails,” but dangerous because it’s easy to turn it into vinegar.
Sangiovese: grape anatomy
The last ampelographic discoveries of Vouillamoz confirm the lineage of Sangiovese from Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montenuovo, a grape that escaped extinction by accident. Imagine central Italy as an archipelago of vineyards, bound each other forming a half-moon that has a tip in Romagna, the back in Tuscany and the bottom in Umbria.
The source is always the same, but it means nothing because is the terroir that makes the wine. Let’s take a Romagna’s clone, where are produced the best, and then plant it in Montalcino, within two years, there will be a mutation, that vine will have been adapted to the soil, developing unique features and consequently giving back grapes only in part similar to the ones of the original clone: it has become an X-Grape and if you wanted to plant it again in its native terroir, it wouldn’t come back to the original configuration.
The connoisseur’s corner: what does Sangiovese wine taste like?
How can we recognize Sangiovese? is not the question, better to ask ourselves: “Where does the Sangiovese that I’m drinking come from?” because identifying it is not so hard. There are some hints that can help you, first of all, the refreshing complexity of the bouquet, which ranges from the fragrance of violet, cherry, rose, sour cherry, peony, mulberry—especially in Romagna’s Sangiovese—plum, carob, rhubarb, tomato jam, licorice, and anise, to the aromatic waves of tea, thyme, marjoram, pinewood and caper that you can smell in some Sangiovese coming from vineyards near the sea, so Morellino and bottles from Marche and Romagna’s shores.
And finally we have a barrage of mineral-earthy aromas—starting from at least 5 years old bottles, especially in Chianti Classico Riserva and Brunello di Montalcino—like truffles, mushrooms, moss, bitter herbs, fern, pencil lead, flint all prowling in a chalky undergrowth, but it’s the dark, wet smell of earth and bark-leaves that must make the bell in your head ring, not as much as in a Barolo, but it’s irrefutably fascinating. Clearly, there are plenty of memories coming from the oak, like sandalwood, cloves, cinnamon, tobacco, mocha, espresso, walnuts, cola nuts, pepper, caramel, and vanilla, but they must be soft, integrated into the earthy body-layers, otherwise, the freshness could be compromised.
However, the filigree is generally fine; tannins have a silky-rocky consistency that surrounds your mouth pleasantly; and on the nose, flowers are the first to emerge, either fresh or dried if the wine is aged. Cherry and mulberry have a tart tendency that keeps the wine vibrant, but it is round and runs through the palate smoothly.
The color is purple when young, ruby until four or five years old, then it gradually shades into garnet nuances, always brilliant and consistent when swirled in the glass, but not too dense.
You can’t confuse Sangiovese with Merlot, because Merlot is more sensual, darker and full of herbs and green-black olives that you can’t find in a Sangiovese, which is sharper. You can’t confuse it with Cabernet Sauvignon, because Sangiovese is more subtle and not so full, also speaking about the color, with a lighter tannin and you will hardly find green pepper in a glass of Sangiovese. Impossible too with Cabernet Franc, because the Franc has less tannin and a distinctive herby pulse.
And you won’t confuse Sangiovese with Syrah, although there are blackberry and pepper in both grapes, because Sangiovese is not so dense, tangy, full-bodied, and chocolate-driven as Syrah, but fresher and earthier for sure. Pinot Noir and Barolo–Barbaresco have a profusion of mushrooms, truffles, and red berries scattered in a musky undergrowth, but you just need to look through their amazing transparency to not get fooled. Montepulciano maybe? Both have a load of sour cherries and aromatic herbs, but Sangiovese is more graceful and earth-friendly, while Montepulciano is a warmer warrior with a massive frame, molded by a rustic, relentless fruitiness.