Wine

How to decode the language of Italian sangiovese wine

Americans love to visit Italy, especially Tuscany, and one of the reasons is the grape called sangiovese. Best known when made into the red wine called Chianti, it is called “the defining grape of Italy.” It has been both the region’s boon and its bane.

Infinitely malleable, it is so familiar to centuries of Italian growers that they have given it a dozen local names, from sangiovese grosso to prugnolo to brunello, to the confusion of its fans.

It’s been planted at least as far back as the Etruscan civilization in the second century BC. Its name comes from the Latin sanguis Jovis, or the “blood of Jove,” the supreme local god.

Sangiovese’s home is Tuscany, a stunningly beautiful area of rolling hills topped with medieval castles, olive groves and miles of vines. Sangiovese’s most famous wine, Chianti, is named for a wine region covering a large chunk of Tuscany south of Florence down to Siena. The center of Chianti, considered the best growing area, is called Chianti Classico.

Chianti Classico is ruled by complicated, often shifting rules. Its traditional recipe written in 1872 calls for at least 80 percent sangiovese, blended with 20 percent of other local grapes such as canaiolo and colorino.

Sangiovese is sensitive to how it’s treated. Grown poorly, made cheaply, it turns pale, thin and acidic, with tart tannins. Grown and made well, it is savory and dry, with aromas and flavors from violets to blueberries to mulberries to black cherries, spice, even tobacco and leather.

It is a great wine for everything from the wild boars of the Tuscan Hills to grilled steaks to meat-lovers’ pizza to pasta with tomato sauce.

America’s love affair with sangiovese began after World War II when American GIs returned from the Italian front with fond memories of sidewalk tables with checkered tablecloths and Chianti poured from straw-covered bottles called fiaschi, or flasks.

By the 1960s, however, Chianti had flooded the American market, becoming a victim of its own popularity as overplanting and cheap production methods turned some of the wine thin and acidic, hurting its reputation.

Italian growers realized they had to react. They did, in two different ways.

In 1971, pioneering Tuscan grower Piero Antinori boldly broke the rules, giving additional heft and body to Chianti by adding such nontraditional, international varieties as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and others.

The new wines were dubbed “Super Tuscans,” soaring in popularity and price by appealing to the international taste for wines with fuller body, more alcohol and intense fruit flavors.

A popular Super Tuscan wine today is the 2012 “Modus” Toscana IGT by Ruffino. It uses only 50 percent sangiovese, with the rest such “international” grapes as merlot and cabernet franc.

Some Super Tuscans forgo the traditional sangiovese grape altogether. Casa Brancaia Winery’s Ilatraia Super Tuscan uses only cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and cabernet franc.

Not surprisingly, such radical changes horrified some of Tuscany’s more traditional winemakers. They pushed back by creating 100 percent sangiovese wines with better grapes and better methods that put them on a par with the Super Tuscans for power and elegance.

As one example, Italy’s Frescobaldi family is making a modern, powerful wine from 100 percent top quality sangiovese grapes. The wine is Castelgiocondo Brunello di Montalcino, and it calls its sangiovese grapes by yet another local name, brunello.

To add to the confusion, growers around the Tuscan hill town of Montepulciano, make a popular red wine elegantly named Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. It uses the sangiovese grape, which locals call prugnolo gentile, along with colorino, canaiolo and merlot.

The area also produces a slightly lighter, less expensive red wine of sangiovese and other red grapes called Rosso di Montepulciano. Rosso is Italian for “red.”

Finally, an up-and-coming region in southwest Tuscany called Maremma, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, is making news. Here a winery called Losha is making a wine called Morellino di Scansano, of sangiovese and ciliegiolo that is catching on with Italian and international wine fans.

In Maremma, the local name for sangiovese is morellino.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

▪ 2011 Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico DOCG (sangiovese, canaiolo, cillegiolo, colorino): ruby red, aromas and flavors of black cherries, mocha and minerals, dry, medium body, soft, ripe tannins; $20.

▪ 2012 “Modus” Super Tuscan IGT Toscana (50 percent sangiovese, 25 percent merlot, 25 percent cabernet sauvignon): aromas and flavors of black cherries, mocha and cinnamon, rich and hearty, with firm tannins; $23.

▪ 2012 Brancaia IL BLU, IGT Rosso Toscano Super Tuscan (50 percent sangiovese, 45 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon): hint of oak, intense aromas and flavors of black raspberries and bittersweet chocolate, full body, big, ripe tannins, long finish; $85.

▪ 2011 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG by Azienda Agricola Poliziano, Toscana (85 percent prugnolo gentile, 15 percent colorino, canaiolo and merlot): hint of oak, medium body, aromas and flavors of black cherries and black coffee; $28.

RECOMMENDED

▪ 2011 Brancaia Ilatraia IGT Rosso Maremma Toscana (40 percent cabernet sauvignon, 40 percent petit verdot, 20 percent Cabernet Franc): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black cherries and espresso, full body, long finish; $60.

▪ 2012 Rosso di Montepulciano DOC, by Azienda Agricola Poliziano (80 percent sangiovese, 20 percent merlot): rich, mellow, light-bodied, with aromas and flavors of black raspberries and mocha; $15.

▪ 2013 Lohsa Morellino di Scansano DOC, by Azienda Agricola Poliziano (85 percent sangiovese, 15 percent ciliegiolo): hearty and generous, with flavors of black cherries and spice and soft tannins; $15.

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