Italy’s got so many grape varietals it’s ridiculous-well over 300 that we know of and probably some we don’t-but the one you’re especially likely to have encountered in one form or another is probably Sangiovese. The classic purple-skinned grape of the huge wine-producing region of Tuscany, Sangiovese means “Blood of Jupiter” in Italian, which should give you a decent sense of its importance. Sangiovese is the basis of numerous wines, some rustic and humble, some extremely top-shelf. If you’re drinking something labeled Chianti, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino or vino nobile di Montepulciano, you’re drinking Sangiovese. A red “Supertuscan” blend is Sangiovese that’s adulterated past the blending limits for Chianti (often with Merlot or Ciliegiolo). This is an interesting contrast to, say, Sauvignon Blanc; Where some grapes will grow everywhere but can almost seem like totally different wines based on the latitude, altitude, soil and climate of the site, Sangiovese is grown in massive quantities in northern to central Italy and sparsely if at all in other regions (there are small amounts in Corsica, Greece, California and Washington), yet within that one stretch of terrain it can turn into a vast range of wines depending on how it’s handled.
If you wanted to generalize even more about Sangiovese, you might say it’s pretty tannic, high in acidity, and is not a particularly perfumed wine but has strong flavors of sour cherry and strawberry in its youth and can be earthy, tea-like, leathery or tarry with age and barrel exposure. In my experience, the grape’s such a shapeshifter that generalizations are pointless. In part, this might be due to the vast and not-totally-accounted for number of clones of this grape that can be found intermingled throughout its growing region; in some cases, it’s how a certain sub-region tends to ripen the grape or process it. But there is a Sangiovese at every price tier from “dorm-friend” to “50th Wedding Anniversary,” and styles ranging from resinous and raisiny to light and fruity, earthy no-nonsense table wines to total divas. So probably if there’s a single “something for everyone” berry in the wide world of red wine grapes, it’s possibly this one.
Six Bottles to Try
Avignonesi Vino Nobile de Montepuciano (Tuscany, Italy $25)
Avignonesi is a really old winery in Italy’s oldest DOCG. But today the winery combines its sense of history with a fresh, modern, sustainability-forward approach, and is creating wines that are 100% organic and biodynamic. Whether that accounts for the epic tastiness of this wine I cannot tell you. Vino Nobile de Montepuciano is required by law to contain 70% Sangiovese, and many, if not most, producers do cast a few supporting players, but Avignonesi Vino Nobile is a 100% Sangiovese blended from vineyards in the Montepulciano DOCG. Their vines range from 10-40 years old and tend to sit on the kind of alkaline soil this grape happens to love. The wine features intense aromatics (for me, sour cherry with some spicy sub-notes and a vague hint of mint). This wine is delicate but by no means timorous—medium body, a strong cherry character grounded by herbaceous notes, and a very soft, very lingering finish. Youthful, accessible, wonderful. And a great value for beauty and sophistication without breaking the bank.
Castello Di Albola Chianti Classico (Tuscany, Italy $14)
If you’ve ever been to Siena, odds are good that you frequently fantasize about going back. The easiest way to do that might be to pull the cork on a bottle of this Chianti, sourced from the beautiful hillsides surrounding the town. This is a fairly refined Chianti with a youthful ruby glow, a violet and sour cherry nose, and relatively supple tannins. I am admittedly not an automatic fan of Chianti Classico; to me they can be a little rough or have a lot of “dirty” notes. I find this one to be a pleasant exception, with a velvety texture not unlike a nice Merlot. It’s dry and restrained and an excellent wingman for salumi or grilled meats, if that’s your thing. I expect it also appreciates hard cheeses.
Frescobaldi “Castelgiocondo Brunello” di Montalcino DOCG 2008 (Tuscany, Italy $50)
Yes, it’s a chunk of change, but actually you could do more damage with a Brunello. This wine has the classic garnet tone in the glass and a strong aroma of ripe plums and sweet violets. These develop with a little air, bringing spice and mineral tones. This Brunello is mature, but it isn’t stodgy. It’s dense but clean on the palate, with softened tannins and stony and leathery undertones.
Frescobaldi Nipozzano Chianti Rufina (Tuscany, Italy $20)
The Frescobaldis have been producing Sangiovese wines for over a century and it’s pretty safe to say they know what they’re doing. On the slightly rougher and more rustic end of the Sangiovese spectrum is this Chianti, a high-acid character with a strong and complicated personality, full of smoky, meaty, and herbaceous notes along with prominent red fruit. There’s a slight hint of menthol and a biting undertone of olive leaf. Tannin structure is in the range generally referred to as “chewy.” If you like your Chiantis on the edgy side this might be your guy.
Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico (Tuscany, Italy $18)
Full-bodied and rounded, this Chianti is a straightforward and pure expression of the classic notes of Sangiovese; cherry, violets, earth and red plums. It also features some accent notes of cinnamon and mocha. A best friend to pasta Bolognese, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, roasted vegetables and well-marbled steaks. Controlled tannins and a very long finish.
Tenute Silvio Nardi Brunello di Montalcino (Tuscany, Italy $70)
Brunello from hand harvested, top-notch estate fruit, this is an intense, full-bodied, garnet-reflexed wine with an incense-like bouquet and a restrained palate of red fruits, leather and a tiny hint of sandalwood. Tannins are firm but fine. A well-balanced and elegant wine that will pair especially well with beef, but those who prefer not to eat that will find it happily shares the stage with root vegetables, mushrooms, full-bodied cheeses and roasted nuts.