ITALIAN REDS – SANGIOVESE FROM TUSCANY
Members of London Branch and friends from other Branches zoomed to Tuscany to taste three types of red wines made from Sangiovese, the most planted grape in Italy.
Ambitious and dedicated wine producers are drawn to Tuscany. Once the aristocratic Florentine wine merchant houses such as Antinori and Frescobaldi held sway. Now there are also very many smallholders, some of whom have moved in from other parts of Italy, Northern Europe or the United States. There is no shortage of investment both for traditionally made wines and for innovation.
There are wide variations in altitude and terrain. The hills, from the western coast to the Apennine Mountains along the border with Emilia-Romagna, moderate the summer heat of the Mediterranean climate.
More than 80% of Tuscany’s production is of red wine, and the Sangiovese grape is responsible for the best. It goes by other names – it is called Brunello in Montalcino and Prugnolo Gentile in Montepulciano. It is most celebrated as the principal grape in Chianti, where it is often blended; it is the primary variety in Vino Nobile di Montepulciano; and the sole variety in the complex long-lived Brunello di Montalcino.
Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, which is readily identifiable wherever it is planted, the Sangiovese grape is not genetically strong. It has numerous clones of various sub-varieties, in different localities. It is extremely sensitive to where it is grown and not an easy grape to cultivate. So the wines vary according to the particular clone, terroir, micro-climate, altitude and how the wine is made.
Viticulturally it is early budding and late ripening, and therefore susceptible to springtime frosts and the cooler temperatures of autumn. It enjoys direct sunlight, which is a benefit of the many hillside vineyards in Tuscany. The higher elevations, where the majority of vineyards are situated, also increase the night temperature variation, helping the grapes maintain their balance of sugars and acidity as well as their aromatic qualities.
Colour is relatively light, from ruby to garnet. Generally, the aroma is delicate yet earthy. The taste is of bright red fruit when young, developing a savoury earthiness, sometimes with notes of prunes, black tea, chocolate or tobacco, leather, and a spicy finish The fruit spectrum may include blueberry, sour cherry, red or black berries.
At one end of the scale it is possible to get a harsh acidic thin wine with astringent tannins and no aromas. At the other, the wine can be concentrated, matured in oak for development over years, with good acidity and structure from the tannins.
Wines informally named Super Tuscan may include a proportion, even a majority, of non-indigenous grapes, particularly, but not necessarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Sangiovese blends well with Cabernet Sauvignon, which although not a native grape, has been cultivated in Tuscany for 250 years.
This name came about because of the rigidity of the Italian wine classification laws in the 1970s. The categories DOC and DOCG did not permit the inclusion of non-indigenous grapes. Certain Tuscan wine makers were experimenting by blending Sangiovese with non-native grapes to make high quality wines. These wines originally had to be categorised as Vino di Tavola, although this category was intended to be the most basic. Antinori was an early innovator in introducing Cabernet Sauvignon to create its “Tignanello” blend in 1971, which retails today at around £100 a bottle.
In 1992 a new classification allowed for more creativity. IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) status denotes a wine that is produced in a specific area, focusing on the region rather than grape varieties or wine styles. Tuscany is the home of Italy’s most famous IGT category “Toscana IGT”.
Dogajolo Carpineto IGT 2018 Toscana £10.99
80% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is inexpensive for a Super Tuscan. The Majestic tasting note actually refers to it as a “Baby Tuscan”.
Some found this wine acidic, but most of us found it immediately attractive, soft with a smooth finish. It had some oak-ageing combined with the fresh fruit of a young wine. It was agreed to be good value.
Tenuto San Guido Le Difese IGT 2018 c. £20-£24
70% Cabernet, 30% Sangiovese. This wine had strong acidity, good structure, texture and character, with supple tannins and a good length. It had a smooth palate of cherries, red and black berry fruit, notes of herbs, leather and tobacco.
The Tenuta San Guido estate is renowned for Sassicaia, Italy’s only single estate vineyard with its own appellation: DOC Bolghari Sassicaia, costing well over £100 a bottle – mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and a tiny proportion of Cabernet Franc.
Chianti Classico Riserva
Chianti is Italy’s most important red wine, of DOCG status, from central Tuscany. The vineyards are often at relatively high altitudes in the hills. The climate is predominantly continental with Mediterranean influence. Winters can be cold and summers intensely hot. The terroir is of “galestro”, the name for the rocky, schistous compacted clay-based soil that can crumble into flakes, found in most of the best vineyards.
Chianti Classico’s pink label with the Black Rooster seal is the symbol of the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium, to promote the wine and to prevent wine fraud.
Chianti Classico Riserva has a minimum 80% Sangiovese; other red grapes up to a maximum of 20% may be Canaiolo, Colorino, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. There are rules about vine cultivation, yields and vinification. Its minimum alcohol level is 12.5%, and it must be aged at least 24 months.
Villa Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva 2016 £19.99
90% Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malvasia Nera, aged predominantly in large oak casks.
This full- to medium-bodied elegant wine needed aeration. It was still developing. It was ruby red with garnet reflections. Aromas were of ripe cherries, redcurrants, and wild berries. There were hints of undergrowth, earth and smoky oak. The opulent palate was fuller and firmer than the previous wines, a velvety texture and a structure supporting the fruit and savoury cinnamon notes. Some of us found dark fruit: blackberries and plums. The fine balance between citrus freshness and well integrated tannins led to a long finish.
Antinori is a most distinguished Italian producer, one of the world’s oldest, dating back to 1385 in Florence. It has expanded enormously since the 1960s, with vineyards around the world. Its heart remains in Tuscany.
Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano DOCG
(Montepulciano here is a Tuscan town. This wine must not be confused with wine made from the Montepulciano grape grown in the east of central Italy, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.) This wine must be at least 70% Sangiovese, which may be blended with other native varieties like Canaiolo Nero and Mammolo, and international varieties Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The best examples of this wine have been described as a sort of cross between Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico Riserva. It matures more quickly than Brunello but the latter has tended to have more form and finesse. However, its quality is improving.
Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano 2016 Bonacchi DOCG £13.99
100% Prugnolo Gentile (Sangiovese).
This wine was deep coloured. For some of us, the aroma was quite powerful, spicy notes and vanilla hints. For others, the nose did not reveal as much as the palate. Balanced and medium bodied, it had an appealing taste of red cherries and strawberries with a touch of oak.
Bonacchi is family owned and operated. Its centre is in Montalbano in the heart of the Chianti production zone. Ivan Misuri, the winemaker, won Tuscany’s Giulio Gambelli Prize in 2020, for a “winemaker under 40 whose wine has been able to better interpret the spirit and vision of Giulio Gambelli”, who was celebrated as a superb taster and champion of the Sangiovese grape. The citation said that Misuri, a graduate in oenology and viticulture from the University of Florence, came closest to the way of making wine to show maximum respect for the raw material, the variety, the vintage, and the characteristics of the territory.
Brunello di Montalcino
100% Sangiovese. “Brunello” is the clone of the Sangiovese grape found only in the hill top town of Montalcino, near Siena. It creates prestigious wines that are concentrated, intense, tannic and powerful, and can age for decades.
The terroir has poor infertile soils. The climate is mild, and different micro-climates affect the viticulture in the area, so the wines made by many small family producers differ according to the microclimate, location of the vineyard, and techniques used. Brunello di Montalcino Normale requires 5 years of ageing with 2 years minimum in oak and 4 months in bottle.
Agostina Pieri Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2015 £25.99
This powerful wine was deep purple with a brick-coloured rim. It had a complex nose of cherry jam and spices, with hints of coffee and minerals. The palate was full bodied and dry with bright acidity, showing red and black fruits, mineral acid and ripe tannins. It had good length. The small family winery was created in 1991 by Agostina Pieri who runs it with her sons, one the winemaker and the other the vineyard manager.
The quality of Tuscan Sangiovese wines is high and consistent, thanks to great expertise from the winemakers themselves or oenologists hired into the estates or small holdings, and ongoing interest in developing excellent wines.