Lesson 10 – Grape Talk : Sangiovese

Sangiovese [SAHN-gee-o-VAY-zee], the diplomat of wine grapes – will get to that in a minute – has done much to bring Italian (red) wine to stardom in the international arena. Brunello di Montalcino for example and Chianti to a lesser extent perhaps are two of the most sought-after wines in the world. Italians are not the only one besotted with Sangiovese. Wine enthusiasts in the US and all over the world seem to ingratiate themselves with this stuff. Back in Tuscany, the new classification of Chianti Classico which has succeeded in restoring lost faith and much needed respect for this classical rendition of Sangiovese blends has raised the bar for the percentage of Sangiovese in the blend to 90%. Previously when Baron Ricasoli invented Chianti just before the turn of the 20th century, the assemblage is 70% Sangiovese with the filler made up of equal parts of a red and a white varietal. Well, times have changed. Modern-day wine buyers want more purity of grape varietals, preferring to select wines by the name of the grape – Sangiovese in this case – rather than the type of blend or a terroir- Chianti. Today Chianti Classico is one of the cachets of premium Italian wines..

This diplomat of wine grape maintains a middle-of-the-road position on all important oenological issues. Its color is not too dark and not to light. So are its flavors and aromas. They are not too assertive, not to weak and its low tannins always mild and agreeable. No wonder it always wins many votes among frequent diners even the fastidious lot, ordering a reliable bottle for dinner especially in Italian restaurants.

Insipid is one quality that Sangiovese is not. It has a relative high natural acidity that is always delivered fresh. This results in a wine that is robust and vigorous, almost never flat or dull. Combine that with a generous amount of fruit flavors on good vintages, we have ourselves a well-balanced wine that is just about perfect for all sorts of home-made Italian food. The classic pairing as professed by the Tuscans is wild boar with a matured Brunello/Chianti. Other pairings that are highly recommended include grilled zucchini with extra virgin olive oil, bruschetta, carpaccio and pizza with tomato sauces.

Back on the farms, viticulturists have learnt from generations of experience that Sangiovese loves hot and dry climates. That pretty much describes the climate of Tuscany, coincidentally. A quick study of the grape quickly reveals that its skin is rather thin. That means it is susceptible to rot, so humidity that usually exists in high elevation is unwelcome. It also takes a long time to ripen and that means trouble if it was planted in a place prone to late-Autumn rains, like Bordeaux for example. No such climatic threats await its arrival to California. Today there are many fine Sangiovese wines coming out of California and their prices seem to tell us how confident producers are about their wines.

There is a good reason why it is difficult to find cheap Sangiovese. Unlike Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah/Shiraz, Sangiovese is not a very spectacular varietal. It is a lot easier to make an enjoyable Cab or Merlot. A mediocre Sangiovese has little or no personality to speak of, light-weight in all respect and all too forgettable. Cheap Sangiovese is invariably, to be quite honest, plonk. In contrast, many low-price Merlots and Cabs are quite enjoyable and sometimes quite interesting. But up in the heavy-weight arenas, Sangiovese wines reign supreme in many tasting tables even in the face of formidable adversaries like Lafite, Richebourg, Grange and Vega Sicilia. Fans of Sangiovese will seek out these great Sangiovese labels: Tignanello, Biondi-Santi and Gaja. From the new-world, there are some stunning albeit different renditions. Try to get your hands on a “Peter’s Vineyard” bottling from Long Meadow Ranch or a Napa blend from Turnbull. On the more affordable end of the price range, try Italy’s household name, Ruffino and from the new world a pretty good Sangiovese from Napa’s Kuleto Estates. Don’t forget Australia’s Yarra Valley. A cadre of wine makers is starting to fool around with this varietal and some of the stuff that come out of there are not that bad, especially for those who are able to keep the alcohol level under 14%.

For cheese lovers, the recommended choices are all from Italy, namely Boschetto al Tartufo, a soft cheese with New-World Sangiovese, Grana Padano for the hearty and firmer Brunello and the popular Mozzarella Bufala with the friendly Chianti but a Provolone, Pecorino or Pecorino Romano would do fine with any good Sangiovese wine.

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