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How to Find the Best Sangiovese Wine – Italy’s Superstar!
The shining star of Italy’s Tuscany region, Sangiovese is one of the quintessential Italian wines. Rich, medium-bodied, and savoury, Sangiovese-based wines range from rustic Chianti to bold and luxurious Brunello di Montalcino with everything in between. With so many options, choosing the best Sangiovese wine can be confusing. Follow this simple guide to not only find the best wine for your taste, but also for your dinner!
Points to Remember about Sangiovese:
- Red grape used in red wine
- Grown primarily in Italy
- Most popular Italian grape
- Creates savoury wines
- Usually dry, medium-bodied, light-coloured reds
- Strong notes of cherry and tomato
- High acidity, high tannins
- Often oaked
- Commonly sold as: Chianti or Brunello
- Very food-friendly
What is Sangiovese
It is important to note that the term “Sangiovese” refers to the grape used in classic Italian wines, not a specific type of wine itself. You may find a wine labelled “Sangiovese.” But for the most part, the best examples of this wine are under headings like “Chianti” or “Brunello” or “Morellino.”
Sangiovese itself is a little red grape that grows largely in Italy. It is fairly thick-skinned and small, resulting in intense flavours, though light aromas. Sangiovese produces savoury, red wines with high tannins and high acidity.
Sangiovese Viticulture and Winemaking
Sangiovese grapes will bud early in the season. This may seem like the promise of an early harvest, but don’t get your hopes up. Sangiovese grapes actually have one of the longest growing seasons, often not harvested until October.
Sangiovese grapes are also highly adaptable and grow in numerous soils to diverse effect. The Sangiovese grape is strongly influenced by terroir and can absorb the flavour notes of the region it comes from. (This is why Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino are so highly prized, as you’ll see below.)
The best soil type for Sangiovese is limestone, followed by shale, and finally clay with marine sediments. The strength of the minerals in each soil type determines the richness and minerality of Sangiovese-based wines. The best Sangiovese grapes come from areas that have a combination of limestone and shale, usually called galestro or Albanese.
Hazards of Growing Sangiovese Grapes:
While Sangiovese is incredibly popular, growing Sangiovese grapes isn’t all smooth sailing. They require a warm growing season, with direct sunlight. (Tuscany is very hot, which is why Sangiovese thrives there.) But it can’t be too warm or the grapes will lose the intensity of flavour and become diluted. Of course, too cool and you’ll end up with unmediated tannins and overly punchy acidity. Finicky grapes aren’t they?
Going a step further to discuss the irrigation of Sangiovese grapes, they generally grow successfully in low irrigation, especially in the United States. In fact, some areas of Tuscany have to be careful to avoid rot on Sangiovese grapes, which can occur when the season is too wet.
More proof of their difficulty? Sangiovese vines must be yield controlled or they over-produce. As you might imagine, overproduction on certain vines creates diluted flavour, colour, and sugars with extra high acidity. The lower sugar and flavour creates low alcohol wines that oxidize and turn brown. Ick!
The solution? Soils that are fairly low in nutrients can actually be better for Sangiovese, as it lowers the yield production of the vines. Any way you cut it, Sangiovese grapes do need some extra care and a watchful eye as they grow.
Winemaking with Sangiovese Grapes
Because the Sangiovese grape is very high in acidity and tannins, some care must be taken in the production of Sangiovese wines. Most of the time a few extra techniques are added to increase colour and flavour and reduce tannins. These include:
Adjusting fermentation temperature
- Extended resting in new oak barrels – absorbs vanilla and woody compounds for flavour
- Longer maceration periods – removes compounds with strong tannins
- Malolactic Fermentation – increases round mouthfeel and body
But the most common technique is blending grapes. Most Sangiovese wines are a combination of majority Sangiovese and various other wine types, which is why you’ll see them referred to as “Sangiovese-based wines.” Historically Sangiovese was blended with other Italian grapes, both white and red. But modern varieties tend to blend with grapes from Bordeaux, France, namely Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines are often called “Super Tuscan” wines, and you’re probably familiar with them even if you don’t realize it! We’ll talk about those below.
Regardless, most Sangiovese wines are a majority Sangiovese grapes, so you’re still getting the unique flavours of this special, finicky little grape!
Other names of Sangiovese Grapes
Sangiovese grapes have numerous offspring and clones that grow in various regions around Tuscany and form the basis for many popular Sangiovese wines.
There are two key varieties (according to Giralamo Molon in 1906): Grosso and Piccolo.
Grosso grapes create the highest quality wines like Brunello di Montalcino, while Piccolo varieties seem to produce lower-end wines. (However, it is important to note that these two classifications are not widely accepted or even used, so your local wine shop probably won’t use them to organize their stock. Just keep them in mind yourself when you’re hunting.)
When looking on a bottle you may find any of these below grape types listed, indicating which Sangiovese region and variety was used:
- Prognolo Gentile
- Montefalco Rosso
Where is Sangiovese from
For being the most popular Italian grape, Sangiovese grows in a relatively small area and is fairly scarcely planted. There are under 200,000 acres of Sangiovese planted worldwide and 90% of those are found in Italy’s Tuscany region. Tuscany is located right in the centre of Italy. You’ll probably recognize it as the area with bright sun and rolling hills you’ve seen in movies or photos. (Unless you’ve been there to experience it, you lucky dog.)
Corsica, Argentina, and the United States all have a few thousand acres each as well.
History of Sangiovese
Sangiovese is dated to at least the 16th century, if not the early Roman Empire! The earliest recorded mention seems to be in 1590 under the name “Sangiogheto.” Ciriegiulo (the writer Soderini) claims this Sangiogheto wine from Tuscany can be quite good, as long as care is taken in the making. Otherwise, he says, it turns to vinegar. Sounds like our picky little friend doesn’t it!
The translation of “Sangiovese” is “Blood of Jove.” Jove is Roman god Jupiter, so we know even in its earliest days the wines must have been pretty divine, despite the hazards of the grape itself!
Taste of Sangiovese
Sangiovese based wines are always savoury. The strongest and most consistent notes are cherries and tomatoes. In nearly any bottle or any style, you’ll find cherry and tomato somewhere in the bouquet and flavour profile.
But because the grape is so adaptable to its surroundings, you’ll find a wide range of styles and flavours. Some are fruit-forward and young with strong notes of strawberries or figs. Others are rustic and earthy with notes of tobacco, savoury herbs (rosemary, thyme, oregano, fennel), and balsamic vinegar.
Smoke is another key flavour that is mostly older, aged Sangiovese-based wines. You’ll also note some flavours like iron, spices (pepper, cloves), floral (violet, lavender), and black tea.
Sangiovese is also highly absorbent to oak, so strong oak, wood, vanilla, and wood spice is very common.
Keep in mind that most Sangiovese is very strong in tannins which is why tea and tobacco notes are frequently mentioned. Tannins are what give your mouth that rich, velvety feel. Too high though, and the wine will be bitter and leave behind a coating in your mouth.
Also remember that Sangiovese is high in acidity, indicated by the vinegar and sour cherry fruits.
Young Sangiovese can be really touch-and-go. Some young Chiantis are quite nice once the fruit has been mixed with Cabernet. They will be fruity and bright. Some young bottles are too punchy and unripened with thick tannins.
There are a few aged Sangiovese that are usually very round and earthy, malolactic fermentation and oak have taken off some of the edges in these bottles. For tips on how to pick the best of these options, look below!
Top Flavor Notes for Sangiovese:
- Cherry (red, black, and sour)
- Savoury Herbs (rosemary, oregano, thyme)
- Spices (Pepper, Cloves)
- Minerals (Iron, Vinegar)
- Oakwood spice
Sangiovese Food Pairings
Sangiovese-based wines are one of the most food-friendly in the world! (How could they not, they come from Italy – the home of good food!)
Why is this the case? They very tannins and all that acidity that make Sangiovese grapes so difficult to work with. So it does have its uses! The acidity is useful in clearing and refreshing your palate between particularly fatty foods. The tannins provide an excellent structure that allows Sangiovese wines to stand up to heartier dishes and not get overwhelmed with complex flavours.
So, you know it goes with food. But what food to pick?
The obvious choice? Anything with tomatoes. Especially those lovely Italian tomato-based sauces. Yes, this means you’ve found your dream wine to pair with Spaghetti and Meatballs and…pizza!
But other Italian dishes will go just as well including gnocchi with butter sauce and even vodka sauce.
Sangiovese wines also pair excellently with roasted meats like Prime Rib or Crusted Lamb Racks or extra fatty game meats like Goose and Duck! Seared duck breast is one of my favourite recipes to pair with Sangiovese-based wines, in fact! And for the holidays, roast quail stuffed with figs and walnuts makes an excellent pairing with the 2006 Chianti listed below.
Really, most strong, fatty foods will pair with Sangiovese. Anything with a tomato, savoury, or earthy component pairs well. Just stay away from light cream and delicate fish and you’ll be golden!
Pizza with tomato sauces, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Spaghetti Bolognese, Pasta with red sauces like Marinaras, Fra Diavolo, and some butter herb sauces
Mushrooms, grilled vegetables, chicory/endive, tomatoes, fennel
Charcuterie trays, especially with prosciutto, salami, speck, and soppressata
Pecorino, Parmesan, Gruyere, Gouda, Most aged or semi-aged cheeses
Sangiovese is not a dessert wine. If you’re serving a dessert on the savoury side, you could potentially try a Sangiovese. But for the most part, you’ll prefer to stick with savouries or cheese!
Try fig-based desserts or desserts with a savoury component like cheese, thyme, or pepper.
How to Buy Sangiovese Wines
If you’re anxious to try the heavenly “blood of Jove” wine, you’ll need to go shopping armed with more than just “Sangiovese wine.” There are so many varieties of Sangiovese-based wines. Because Italy won’t list the wine as simply “Sangiovese,” it is wise to know the most common types and what the bottles will actually say!
Chianti is the most common and widely-known Sangiovese-based wine. Chianti must be made from at least 70% Sangiovese. (Other wines are blended in including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Canaiolo.) But other than that, the rules of Chianti can vary. They differ in ageing, style, and taste, based on where in Tuscany they originate.
Most Chianti comes from the DOCG region of Chianti in the northern part of Tuscany. However, there are now numerous other regions with Tuscany that produce it for a total of 8 subregions. On top of that, there are 4 ageing ranges that result in even more style variation.
8 Subregions of Chianti:
- Colli Senesi
- Colline Pisane
- Colli Aretini
- Colli Fiorentini
4 Chianti Aging Types:
- Chianti – aged around 6 months, young and tart
- Superiore – aged for 1 year, bold and smooth
- Riserva – aged for 2 years, this is a winery’s top bottle
- Gran Selezione – aged for 2.5 years, only Chianti Classico
Most bottles labelled simply “Chianti” are fairly young red wines with sharp, tart acidity. (Especially those that come from the actual region of Chianti, as northern Italy has cooler temperatures. This brings out the acidity in Sangiovese grapes and decreases their fullness and body.) A bit of chilling will cut down on the harsher edge of these young wines. But even served at room temperature they pair perfectly with Italian dishes.
Look for Chianti when you want a lighter red wine with tart, punchy acidity to pair with food.
Chianti Classico DOCG (and Chianti Rufina)
Chianti Classico (and to a lesser extent, Chianti Rufina) gets its own heading. Chianti Classico is the original regional home of Chianti. (Which is why they have their own DOCG designation.) And, logically, they produce the best examples of the wine! These are the ones you want to look for in your wine shop, especially for a romantic evening or a nice dinner party. They’ll be a step above average Chianti.
Chianti, in general, is the lightest version of Sangiovese-based wines. But Chianti Classico will be slightly bolder and richer. They tend to be aged at least one-year minimum and are often labelled “Riserva” or “Gran Selezione” to indicate the superior ageing time and superior quality. Some Chianti Classico is comparable to Brunello, and these examples will be able to age longer. Chianti Classico also has a slightly higher percentage of Sangiovese at 80%, so you’ll get more of this unique grape.
Super Tuscans (aka IGTs)
These red wine blends emerged in the ’80s and surged in popularity. And despite the cheap-sounding name, Super Tuscans can be exceptional.
Because they are blends, Super Tuscans will vary in style, ageing, richness, and flavour. So it’s difficult to give you an overall taste profile. Use the percentages of blends on the back of the bottle to help you decide what might suit your tastes best.
What makes a Super Tuscan blend different from a blend like Chianti? First, Super Tuscans don’t have to follow the same winemaking rules and ageing requirements as the Chianti DOCG. Also, Super Tuscans invariably use grape varieties that originate outside of Italy. These usually include Bordeaux wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. These varietals are not indigenous to Italy, so while the base of Sangiovese is Tuscan, the rest is not. The designation was sanctioned in 1992 and is still common today.
I understand if you don’t want to walk into a wine shop and ask for a “Super Tuscan,” we’re all sick of the superhero fad too. That’s fine because these wines are actually called IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica).
How do you identify these IGTs? Madeline Puckette at Wine Folly provides some helpful information. She suggests you look for named wines, which you’ll recognize by the quotes around their names on the bottle. These names are used in place of a grape varietal. (There is an example below!) You’ll also see the designation ‘Toscana’ as the region. And these bottles will also be labelled “IGT.” If you see a combination of IGT and Toscana, you can be pretty sure you’ve found a Super Tuscan. The “named wine” will seal the deal! Most of the bottles also list the percentages of varietals on the back, so you’ll be able to see how much Sangiovese is included in each type, as this amount will vary.
Brunello di Montalcino
Brunello di Montalcino needs to go on your bucket list. Many wine critics site these 100% Sangiovese wines as the best in all of Italy. Regardless of the rather subjective term “best,” Brunello is an incredibly rich wine that deserves your attention at the very least.
First, let’s talk about the location since that’s a key aspect of nearly every stellar wine variety. Montalcino is one of the key regions of Italy. Most of its vineyards are elegantly perched on rolling hills with a high elevation that ranges from over 1500 ft to around 500 ft. As you can imagine, with hills come valleys. So there are two key terroirs to remember.
- Valley: Clay sediments produce strong, bold, flavorful wines with high tannins and dark fruit (Richer base wine that works well with modern winemaking methods)
- Hills: Shale soil produces lighter, red fruit flavour wines with more subtle, floral notes (Subtle base wine that works best with traditional winemaking methods)
Brunello wines use a clone of Sangiovese grapes known as “Prognolo Gentile” or simply “Brunello,” meaning “little dark one.” (Yet another name for our little Sangiovese friend.) This clone has the same dark, rich flavour with high acidity and merciless tannins.
Most Brunello wines are made to age to develop stronger and more desirable flavours. But the style and type of ageing varies and can have a major effect on your wine type. Here are a few key areas you should look into before investing in a bottle of Brunello. Because, yes, Italy’s best wine is expensive.
Brunello Winemaking Styles:
- Traditional Methods: aged in used oak barrels to allow oxygenation and the development of flavours like leather, tobacco, smoke, violets, and tea. Very little oak absorption, long ageing potential
- Modern Methods: smaller, newer oak barrels with strong oak absorption, wines with vanilla, chocolate, figs, pepper. These wines can be consumed younger
- Normale: 5 years ageing minimum, 2 years minimum in oak, 4 months in the bottle
- Younger Brunello will be sharper, tart cherry, strawberry, cranberry, violets, dark espresso, tomato. May need a bit of ageing
- Riserva: 6 years ageing minimum, 2 years minimum in oak, 6 months in the bottle
Older Brunello will be softer, dark sweet cherries, figs, chocolate. Usually ready to drink.
Brunello Regions/Additional Styles:
- Brunello di Montalcino – the shining star of Sangiovese wines, 100% Sangiovese, produced and bottled in Montalcino, 12.5% ABV, 5-6 years ageing
- Rosso di Montalcino – the second best and often just as worthy, 100% Sangiovese, produced and bottled in Montalcino, 12% ABV, 1 year of age minimum, no oak ageing requirements
- Sant’antimo – blends of grapes produced in Montalcino. May include Sangiovese but can also include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, etc.
- Moscadello di Montalcino – white wines from Montalcino made with 100% Muscat Blanc, including still, sparkling, and late harvest (sweet) wines.
A note on Rosso di Montalcino
If you’re just dying to try a Brunello but can’t pony up the cash just yet, try for a Rosso di Montalcino. The regions are nearly entirely overlapping so you get all the same terroir and the same 100% Sangiovese grapes. In fact, many Brunellos end up declassified to Rossos because of the strict requirements. Try one of these for the budget version, you won’t lose out on quality.
Best Vintages for Brunello: 2015, 2012, 2010, 2007, 2006, 2004, 2001
Note: This is NOT Montepulciano, the grape. They are in no way related. This is simply Sangiovese-based wine from the Montepulciano DOCG.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano refers to wines made from 70% “Prognolo Gentile” grapes, which are clones of Sangiovese. Minimum ageing requirements are 2 to 3 years with a minimum of 12 months in oak barrels.
A wine made from a region near Chianti that uses very strong versions of Sangiovese grapes. To counteract the strong flavour, these wines are only about 50% Sangiovese with at least 10 to 20% Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. The minimum ageing requirement is 18 months and oak is often used.
These wines will be easy drinkers like Chianti. But because of the stronger Sangiovese character, they should be paired with food.
Morellino di Scansano DOCG
Like Brunello, “Morellino” translates to “little dark one” in the local dialect of this DOC region. These wines are a little more fruity due partly to the fact that Scansano is the southernmost part of Tuscany. But the soil in Scansano is much more marine and brine-based, so the fruit character is lighter and wines will be more fruit-forward. There are both young and aged (Riserva) varieties of Morellino.
Top 5 Sangiovese Recommendations of 2021
Red wine from Chianti Classico · Italy. This Riserva expression of Chianti Classico reveals ripe richness and plush layers of blackberry, cherry, spice, leather and tobacco. Smooth tannins and a compact texture would match white meat or pork.
A plush Chianti, full of bright fruit flavours like cherries, blueberries, and blackberries. There is a hint of darker leather and tobacco, but the strong fruit is almost sweet. A note of savoury green sage keeps it grounded and added hot spices as pepper and cloves add to the vibrancy. Overall highly elegant and delicious to pair with food. Surprising to find something this good at such a good price too!
Red wine from Brunello di Montalcino · Italy. Capanna Brunello di Montalcino is an intense ruby color. This wine is velvety and mouth-filling with supple yet firm tannins.
A bright bold wine that explodes with flavours in a highly expressive wine. You can instantly tell the wine was an elegant base from high in the hills of Montalcino and the traditional Slovanian oak allows the subtle flavours to shine through in huge bursts.
Definite notes of the classic cherries, but a strong presence of blackberry, blueberry, and even raspberry as well. Baking spices and vanilla combine for a darker almost rum-like hint, rather like a Christmas cake. You’ll also get deep notes of leather, wood, smoke, and meat. Green savoury stays around the bright, fresh mint arena, but there is something sharper like anise or liquorice as well.
Early tasters noted the sharp tannins and some minor lack of maturity. But this wine should just be coming into its peak years now so buy and open for a treat! Decant for an hour or so to let it open up before you serve.
Red wine from Toscana · Italy. Bright, clear red colour. Aromas of red berries, violets. In the mouth, excellent balance, freshness and pleasantness blend with delicate notes of berries.
Definitely a drink-now wine. A very bright and fruit-forward example full of cherry and strawberry notes. But there’s something richer like a mocha cappuccino as well. Velvety tannins coat your mouth, but they are filled with some spice as well for an interesting lingering finish. A blood-red eye with hints of coffee brown. The nose is full of tomato and sour cherry acidity. Strong tannic structure with lots of tart cherry and a somewhat chewy texture. The finish is a tad bitter with tannic coating.
13% ABV, 50% Sangiovese, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot 25%
Red wine from Chianti Classico · Italy. This complex wine is characterized by cherry and violet notes with delicate hints of tobacco, white pepper, and a touch of flint.
Very full-bodied with strong tannins, this is the meatiest Sangiovese-based wine on the list. It’s full of gamey flavours mingling with the cherry and plum notes. You’ll get a hint of dark earth and there are definite hints of floral potpourri. The eye is surprisingly lighter, redder and a bit toffee coloured at the edges. A much darker nose that I was expecting, violet and lavender with definite hints of cherry and a bit of dark earth and Italian herbs. Strong sour cherry, with a hint of lavender and violets, tomato on the back palate. Vaguely like a freshly picked sun-warmed tomato from the garden, still covered with a bit of dirt. The finish is quick, acidic, and pleasantly tart. Fewer tannins than I expected!
13% ABV, Aged 24 months
A combination of fruit-forward and earthy. This is a very basic and simple example of 100% Sangiovese wine from Abruzzo, Italy. Its tannins are a little harsh and its acidity a little punchy, so this is definitely best consumed with Italian foods. But it’s a perfect example of the Sangiovese character, complete with cherries, plums, thyme, tomato, rich earth and a bit of cinnamon spice. The eye is deep blood red. The nose is full of cherry and plum, with just a bit of tomato and thyme as an afterthought. The palate is strong with tart cherry and metallic tin, but it’s a bit thin and intensely tannic. The finish is a bit of tomato with green herbs and just a hint of red candy.
This might be a good mulling wine!
12.5% ABV, 100% Sangiovese
Sangiovese has much in common with Nebbiolo, the other popular Italian grape. They both create strong, full, bold wines with high acidity and high tannins. However, Sangiovese is actually lighter than Nebbiolo, which has stronger rose and anise flavours and tannins that just won’t quit.
Sangiovese wines, like most red wines, should be served at just below room temperature. The optimum goal is 60-65 °F. However, if you are sensitive to tannins, you may want to chill Sangiovese just slightly down to 50-55 °F which will take the edge off those intense tannins. But remember, because of the equally intense acidity, chilling may make the wine seem harsh.
The pronunciation is very simple though not necessarily intuitive: san-jow-VAY-Zeh.
We haven’t touched on price yet, but it’s an important part of wine shopping (and budgeting your bank account…) Fortunately for you, the huge variety in Sangiovese means a huge variety in price points as well, so you’re bound to find something you like in a price range you can handle.
The most expensive is obviously Brunello. You likely won’t find a good Brunello for under $25, and many good bottles are upwards of $40 or even $70.
A budget Brunello example is Rosso di Montalcino. They’ll be slightly cheaper in price with not much difference in quality.
Good Chianti is easier as you can find a lovely bottle for between $35 and $25. And you can find good dinner pairings for around $19-20.
Some IGTs will be even cheaper, depending on the blends and vintages. These may be touch and go when it comes to quality, so check before you buy.