Sangiovese: A Grape Variety Star from Italy
In Tuscany, almost no red wine is made without Sangiovese. Whether it’s Chianti or Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, or Montepulciano Vino Nobile, Sangiovese is present in all major Tuscan red wines. The red grape is the most popular grape variety, and the Tuscan winemakers are correct when they say that Sangiovese is unmistakably Italian. But its origins are mysterious.
Sangiovese was most likely first mentioned in a document at the end of the 16th century, and it is believed that the Etruscans cultivated a Sangiovese variety 2,500 years ago. The name, which translates to “Jupiter’s blood” in Italian, also hints at a link to the Romans.
The ancestry of the grape variety, on the other hand, is still unknown. Sangiovese was said to be a cross between the red varieties Ciliegiolo and Calabrese di Montenuovo in 2004 until it was discovered that Ciliegiolo is a Sangiovese daughter vine. The confusion only grew when more research was published in 2007, 2010, and 2012, all of which contradicted one another. It is safe to say that the origin of this variety is unknown.
Features of Sangiovese
The grape variety itself is responsible for the wide variation in berry size from region to region. Sangiovese responds differently depending on the soil type, which affects the size of the berry and its flavor. When the soil is calcareous, like near Montalcino, the berries grow larger, and the aromas become more elegant and vigorous.
Here are eight facts about this grape variety that you should know:
- In Central Italy, Sangiovese is one of the most important and widely used wine varietals. It can be found in almost all Tuscany red wines.
- The name’s origin is unknown: many experts believe it derives from “sanguis Jovis,” which means “Jove’s blood,” while others believe it derives from “sangiovannese,” which means “San Giovanni Valdarno” (Arezzo, Tuscany).
- It produces astringent wines with a robust sour flavor that can vary in quality.
- It is a wine varietal distinguished by a typically late maturation (end of September, beginning of October).
- Its origins are ancient: some scientists believe that Sangiovese was already known during Etruscan times, even though the first written information dates back to the XVI century, when agronomist Giovan Vettorio Soderini mentioned it in his treaty “The vine plantation,” calling it “sangiocheto” or “sangioveto.”
- It is most likely a Tuscany native vine variety, though it is now found in other regions like Emilia Romagna.
- Sangiovese, like Pinot Noir, has several clones. The most common and well-known are “Sangiovese Grosso,” which includes the brunello variety from Montalcino, prugnolo gentile from Montepulciano, and “Sangiovese Piccolo,” whose famous clone is morellino from Scansano. It is grown primarily in California and Argentina after being introduced in Italy.
- The most important Tuscany DOCGs, such as Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino, Morellino di Scansano, Chianti, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, are based on the red berry wine variety.
How a Sangiovese tastes
Sangiovese is no longer blended as heavily with other grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot as it was in the 1960s or 1970s. Sangiovese is a grape variety that spreads quickly and easily if allowed. As a result, the aroma is less intense, with a slightly sour undertone. Strict yield reduction and selection can help to mitigate this. Under optimal conditions, Sangiovese reveals its full aromatic radiance.
Sangiovese wine has a thin mouthfeel which can be surprising in contrast to its deep dark garnet red color. This is due to the grapes dark blue skin, because of its thin skin there are not as many tannins present in the wine.
Sangiovese and the rest of the world
Beyond Tuscany, the grape variety can also be found in other Italian wine regions like Puglia, Umbria, and Emilia-Romagna. In Italy, 100,000 hectares of Sangiovese were planted in 1990. The area has now been reduced to 72,000 hectares. This does not change the fact that this represents nearly 10% of the country’s total vineyard area. And a significant portion of it can be found in Tuscany.
However, thanks to Italian emigrants, Sangiovese can also be found in the rest of the world. The grape variety is indigenous to the French island of Corsica and Argentina, Chile, and Australia’s McLaren Vale. Yes, it thrives in Romania, Tunisia, and Ethiopia.
Also read: The History of Chianti and the Rooster
All the countries combined have approximately 6,000 hectares of vineyards. If yield reduction and selection are not prioritized, the qualities can differ. In Washington State, cult winemaker Charles Smith launched one of the most exciting projects outside Italy. The former rock band manager’s label, ‘CasaSmith,’ focuses entirely on Italian grape varieties, with Sangiovese at the heart of this project.
Key dates in Sangiovese’s history:
1590: Sangiovese was first mentioned in the writings of Giovanvettorio Soderini, also known under the pen name of Ciriegiulo. Identifying the grape as “Sangiogheto,” Soderini notes that the grape produces excellent wine in Tuscany but that if the winemaker is not careful, it can turn into vinegar.
2004: Researchers at San Michele All’Adige used DNA profiling to discover that the grape was a cross between Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montenuovo. While Ciliegiolo has a long history in Tuscany, Calabrese Montenuovo, which is not related to the grape commonly known as Calabrese, or Nero d’Avola, has its roots in southern Italy, most likely in Calabria before it moved up to Campania. This means that Sangiovese has half Tuscan and half southern Italian genetic heritage.
2008: Another study using DNA typing published in 2008 found a close genetic relationship between Sangiovese and ten other Italian grape varieties: Foglia Tonda, Frappato, Gaglioppo, Mantonicone, Morellino del Casentino, Morellino del Valdarno, Nerello Mascalese, Tuccanese di Turi, Susumaniello, and Vernaccia Nera del Valdarno. Sangiovese could, and probably will, be one of the parents of each of these grape varieties.
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Want to know more about wine? Try reading these books!
- Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson 2012
- Wine. Years. People. Events. Massandra Wine Collection 2010
- The World Atlas of Wine: 8th Edition. Johnson, H & Robinson, J. 2019