(Text written in preparation for the inverview with Wine Tripping Tv linked below)
History and biodiversity of Sangiovese
Sangiovese, also known as Sangioveto, is a black grape variety whose origins can be traced back as far as the Etruscans, who as early as 3,000 years ago would have cultivated it in the area now between Siena and Florence, Chianti. The importance of this grape variety to Tuscan wines leads some to say that “Sangiovese IS Tuscany,” which is practically undeniable, at least from an enological point of view.
Some believe that its present name derives from the Latin expression “sanguis jovis” or from Mount Jupiter in Romagna, or perhaps it derives from the town of San Giovanni Valdarno.
In any case, recent genetic studies now tend to indicate that Sangiovese would have originated from hybridization between Ciliegiolo, a grape that is widespread in Italy and has very particular characteristics, and a southern Italian grape variety, Calabrese di Montenuovo, recently discovered in Campania (Calabrese not because it came from Calabria, but because it was discovered by a certain Strigari, who was of Calabrian origin). Understanding when this hybridization occurred in antiquity is far from simple.
Although there are no documented records of this vine dating back to before the 16th century, when Soderini, in his treatise “The Cultivation of Vines,” spoke of it praising its “regular productivity,” the antiquity of Sangiovese is demonstrated by the very large number of existing clonal varieties. Some speak of 35, others of 76 clones, but I personally could count 87, on a catalog of clones published in 2009.
To understand how large these numbers are, one need only compare with Cabernet Sauvignon, which is listed in 11 clonal varieties in the same catalog.
This means that over the centuries variations of Sangiovese have been able to adapt to very different territories, so much so that some clones that are successful in one area of Tuscany do not produce good fruit in another, even not too distant. Such diversification can only have taken many centuries.
Given precisely its great variety, talking about Sangiovese in general is not particularly accurate. Attempts have been made to bring order to this great variety by introducing the distinction of small-berry and large-berry Sangiovese, as well as between Sangiovese Toscano and Sangiovese Romagnolo.
Coarse-berry Sangiovese is widely used in almost all well-known Tuscan red wines, such as Chianti DOCG, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (variety “Brunello”), Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG (variety Prognolo Gentile) and Morellino di Scansano DOCG (variety Morellino). In Romagna, Sangiovese gives rise, in its local varieties, to Sangiovese di Romagna DOC.
However, the contemporary trend is toward selecting small berry clones to increase the concentration of polyphenols and tannins in the skin, at the expense of the quantity of pulp.
People always say how difficult it is to grow Sangiovese. This is not just one of the usual farmer’s complaints, but rather an actual difficulty related to the delicate and complex nature of this grape.
The first thing to consider when talking about its cultivation is the time in which it ripens: it is called a third-age grape, that is, with a very elongated ripening towards autumn. This late ripening clearly carries risks: you face cold weather and a decrease in the amount of sunshine. In difficult years, this those very wet and rainy ones, this leads to higher acidity and worse phenolic and tannin ripening, that is, the substances contained in the skin and berries.
Another factor of complexity is that of its susceptibility to disease, particularly to powdery mildew and botrytis, also complicating the late ripening, precisely.
On the other hand, its great vigor and its adaptation to virtually any form of cultivation make it a very versatile vine that adapts to even very different soils, whether arid, of important bone, limestone or clay.
The high acidity and lack of some colorful phenolic complexes can also create difficulties in Sangiovese winemaking. It can often be a grape with very aggressive and rough tannins and, in particularly difficult vintages give such results that it is not recommended to make wine from it.
From these characteristics derives the ancient Tuscan winemaking tradition of blends. Alongside the extraordinary characteristics of Sangiovese have traditionally been added Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo, Mammolo, Colorino, white grapes such as Trebbiano and Malvasia, and vines such as Cabernet Sauvignon (present, however, since the 17th century), Merlot and Syrah.
Another useful technique to maximize the extraction of substances from the peel is prolonged maceration (7 to 28 days).
Given the tannicity and freshness (acidity) of wines derived from Sangiovese it often lends itself to aging. To achieve conspicuous refinement of tannins through their polymerization, wooden containers are used, which allow natural micro-oxygenation of the wine, among other wood-wine interactions.
The taste characteristics of Sangiovese
The aroma of Sangiovese is fruity, with moderate to high acidity and generally with a medium, elegant to robust body and a finish that can sometimes tend toward slight bitterness. The most common varietal aromas in Sangiovese are:
fruit: black cherry, currant, blackberry, strawberry, blueberry, orange peel, plum;
Spices: cinnamon, cloves and thyme.
The places and wines of Sangiovese
Although it is possible to find Sangiovese vineyards a little bit all over the world, as mentioned above Sangiovese is Tuscany and vice versa. It is used in this region to make wines with a very high flavor profile and high reputation and also for ready-to-drink wines. There are also instances of white and rosé vinification of this extraordinary grape variety.
In the rest of Italy, Sangiovese is present almost everywhere; in fact, it turns out to be the most widespread red grape variety in the country.
It is generally used in blends with other grape varieties such as those already mentioned and others, such as Primitivo, Montepulciano and Nero d’Avola but some of its best results are obtained on its own (Brunello).
Sangiovese was introduced to the U.S. by Italian immigrants in the late 19th century, but its importance in American cultivation began to grow only with the advent of Supertuscans. The results seem to be not particularly good at the moment, partly because of the excessive sunshine in certain areas (e.g. California).
Sangiovese has been slowly spreading in Australia since the 1960s, but selection of suitable clones is still in its infancy, although efforts are not lacking. So in South Africa and South America.