There is one variety that lays claim to more Italian soil than any other, Jancis Robinson proclaims it is “THE dominant grape of central Italian red wines,” and these days it is the backbone, and often the only variety in Tuscany’s famous Chianti. Plus, if you’re saying it correctly the name just rolls over your tongue like an exquisite Brunello di Montalcino. It’s Sangiovese (san-gee-oh-vey-see), of course.
Legend has it Monks named the variety ‘Sanguis Jovis,’ after the ancient Roman and Italian god, literally translating as ‘Blood of Jupiter’. With such a revered title it seems plausible those Monks knew Sangiovese was noble, even other-worldly as early as the 16th Century. But in 1738 it was relegated to being a ‘blending only’ fruit and was subsequently subjected to centuries of slack winemaking. It wasn’t until it featured in the popular ‘Super Tuscan’ blends of the 80s that Sangiovese started its comeback.
In Australia, Sangiovese is increasingly sought-after, but to many it is still relatively unknown. If you ever dined at an Italian/Australian restaurant in the 70s and 80s, just the mention of Chianti is probably giving you flashbacks of raffia covered bottles (always re-used as ‘exotic’ candleholders), a cheap and cheerful Italian red poured from a carafe, bolognaise or pizza on your plate (over a red and white checked tablecloth, of course), with Dean Martin’s That’s Amore flowing from the speakers.
Well, we’re here to reassure you, Chianti, and of course Sangiovese is so much more than the ‘house wine’ at your local Italian joint.
Today, if you can get your hands on some Sangiovese from Italy’s Tuscany region, such as the above mentioned Brunello di Montalcino, a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, or a modern Chianti, then you are in for something of substance. In Australia, vastly different regions such as McLaren Vale, Victorian Highlands and NSW Gundagai are all presenting a unique take on the variety with impressive characteristics to boot. The deep purple fruit with thinnish skins produce wines with strong tannins, good natural acidity, and a tendency towards savoury, however many modern examples are fruit-driven. Typically Sangiovese presents tart cherry, fig, strawberry and red plum, with secondary notes of thyme and oregano, and hints of tomato, leather, toffee, prunes, and spice.
It may seem clichéd (and reminiscent of the checked tablecloth experience we mentioned earlier), but Sangiovese, like many Italian varietals, is incredibly food friendly – and as Wine Australia says, it’s one of our “original ‘alternative’ varieties.” Which means us Aussies have had a fair amount of practice getting the best out of the variety with delicious food matches.
For example, if you have an early-drinking Table of Plenty Sangiovese in front of you, serve up a generous ladle of fresh Pomarola sauce with basil over homemade pasta. The basil will bring out the herbal notes in the wine and tomato enhances the fleshy fruit characters. Or, if you are savouring an aged Sangiovese, then a Veal saltimbocca with sage and prosciutto is going to instantly transport your tastebuds to Roma or at the very least get you humming Dean Martin’s, Mambo Italiano.