Doesn’t that description make you want to immediately jump into your car to drive to your
nearest wine retailer and pick up a case or two? Though you still may not be familiar with the
Sanguis (blood) of Jovis (Jupiter) or Sangiovese as it’s commonly known, I’m sure you’re
familiar with the woven straw covered light bulb shaped bottles of Chianti found at your
neighborhood Italian restaurant or pizzeria. Well, this Blood of Jupiter or Sangiovese is the
foundation of Chianti wine. Unfortunately, earlier incarnations (the straw covered bottle) of
Chianti probably left you with the indelible impression that all Sangiovese was capable of was a
cheap red wine. And this couldn’t be further from the truth.
If Sangiovese is the blood of Jupiter, then Jupiter’s home must be in the heartland of Italy or
Tuscany to be precise. This thin skinned reddish blue grape thrives in the warm soil of Tuscany’s
plains. However thriving vines and abundant quantities of fruit doesn’t necessarily translate into
great wines, hence the availability of cheap, simple “Chianti” wines found in those
aforementioned straw covered fiasci.
There currently are about 14 clones of Sangiovese though the two main acknowledged clones are
the Sangiovese Grosso and Sangiovese Piccolo and even this distinction isn’t widely agreed upon.
Whatever the clone, the Tuscan version creates wines with distinct cherry and strawberry aromas
with herbs, mushroom and leather and good acidity. The best Sangiovese based wines (found in
normal Bordeaux/Cabernet type wine bottles) can easily age for a decade or more and pair with
anything from poultry to beef to ragus and hearty pasta sauces. Just be forewarned that 007
would not consider you a proper English gentleman if you ordered Chianti with fish.
Will the Real Chianti Please Stand?
The original DOC laws of Italy limited the maximum percentage of Sangiovese that could be
used in Chianti so winemakers also had to add Canaiolo Nero, Malvasia Bianca and/or Trebbiano
to legally label a wine as Chianti. While this blend of grapes is not a bad thing (especially to
Baron Ricasoli who came up with the recipe), poorly grown Sangiovese could be masked with
the supporting grape players. Therefore while cheap Chianti isn’t necessarily a bad wine, it often
lacks any distinction and is simply a plain table wine. Nothing exotic. Then in 1984, Chianti was
elevated to DOCG status (Italy’s top classification for wine) and a little over 10 years ago, the
Chianti recipe allowed for pure Sangiovese based wines in the region. During this time period,
great Chiantis were easier to procure than cheap versions though as quality improves, price
usually follows. Great Chiantis will set you back $50 or more. You might want to save those for
a gourmet dinner instead of Ragu and spaghetti.
Chianti also holds the special distinction of being allowed nine separate sub-regions within their
DOCG status though for the most part Chianti Classico is what’s normally found in the US
The Sangiovese from Montalcino
Sangiovese grown within the town of Montalcino produces the wine known as Brunello di
Montalcino. You may have heard of this wine as Wine Spectator named the Casanova di Neri
Tenuta Nuova Brunello di Montalcino as its Wine of the Year for 2006.
You’ll notice a recurring theme is that every individual town or region in Italy seems to give a
grape its own special name. In Montalcino, the Sangiovese is known as the Brunello grape. I
guess that’s why Italians don’t consider themselves as “Italian”; rather they’re Tuscan or Umbrian
or Sicilian or Calabrese but never “just” Italian.
Anyway, the DOCG laws here require Brunello to be made purely from Sangiovese. No filler red
grapes, no white grapes, just Sangiovese… err, just Brunello. Brunello actually was the first
region to be awarded DOCG status, four years earlier than Chianti.
While Brunello still has the aroma of strawberry and cherry and a lot of the earthy qualities of
Chianti, these sensations are magnified with a good bottle of Brunello. It also has the body to
stand up to the heartiest of dishes (like a good Cabernet) and will easily age up to 30 years in a
great vintage. However if you are looking for Wine Spectators Wine of the Year for 2006, be
prepared to shell out at least $150 (the Wine of the Year normally commands another $20-30
than it would usually sell for).
The Sangiovese from Montepulciano
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is probably the least familiar of the noble Sangiovese based
Tuscan wines. Perhaps it’s because it sometimes is confused with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (a
wine from Abruzzo made from the Montepulciano grape) or perhaps because it shares the same
grape recipe as its famous cousin – Chianti – where Canaiolo Nero, Mammolo and other red
grapes are permitted in the blend. Or perhaps another name for Sangiovese is just too much to
remember, in Montepulciano Sangiovese is known as the Prugnolo Gentile. Despite this lack of
notoriety, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano actually attained DOCG status right after Brunello and
well before Chianti.
As far as aroma and flavor profiles, Vino Nobile has been described as the happy medium
between Chianti and Brunello with more aromatics than Brunello but less than Chianti and with
bolder flavor than Chianti but less than Brunello. In any case, because of its lack of notoriety, it
does come with a softer price tag than either Chianti or Brunello. You can still purchase very
good to excellent wines under $50, most are in the $25 to $40 price range.
Sangiovese is grown in the States but you really have to do your homework (tasting) to find a
good bottle. My personal favorites are Luna Reserve, Stolpman, Showket and Palmina which aren’
t very easy to find and will set you back what good Chianti might cost. I’ve heard that
Sangiovese grows like a weed in the Golden State so attentive vineyard management – pruning,
cutting back on grape yields, etc – is very important to producing good wines. Then again, that
goes for all grape varietals. It seems that blending Sangiovese with other varietals holds more
promise like Palmina’s Alisos (Sangiovese/Merlot), Stolpman’s La Croce (Sangiovese/Syrah) and
Ferrari Carano’s Siena (Sangiovese/Cabernet) kind of in that same mode as the Super Tuscan
wines. But that’s another column.
From the Blood of Jupiter