No one can dispute the role played by the Sangiovese grape in the history of Italian winemaking. Specific to Tuscany, this renowned fruit is the driver behind ubiquitous Chianti and (hush the tones, please) Brunello di Montalcino.
When discussing Italian red wine as a whole, a good place to start is Sangiovese. From there, the discussion can segue to Nebbiolo on the high end, and Primitivo or Sicily’s Nero d’Avola on the value side.
In more recent years, ambitious Italian vintners have blended the native Sangiovese with “international” varietals (Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot), which can lead to interesting products. However, this practice has also been in use to obtain plaudits from the usual suspects. Subsequently, people who use wine more as a status symbol than an enjoyable beverage end up nodding like lemmings, and fall en masse off the cliff into the abyss of the importers’/distributors’ coffers.
One thing that continues to “plague” Sangiovese is the lineup of higher-priced Chiantis and Brunellos. The higher-end versions of both of these Tuscan mainstays are often heavily influenced by new oak, extraction overkill and score-driven marketing muscle (disguised as fluffy, back-label copy). Also, many inexpensive versions of Chianti – or other Tuscan blends led by Sangiovese – are produced in ocean-like quantities, making them one-dimensional dullards.
Sangiovese does not need to be a powerhouse wine – earmarked for rarified bastions or commodity-level bottlings. Look hard enough, and notice it is in the hands of these lesser known, yet nurturing producers and vintners – who know how to unlock the grape’s more nuanced character. Although it’s one of the few red grapes that can be considered “bracing,” Sangiovese is also vinified in ways that give it different expressions – ranging from the rustic to the modern.
Tuscany has many examples of the obscure/oddball version of Sangiovese, and the results can be delicious. They can originate right in the heart of Tuscany – such as Morellino di Scansano – or from the New World. Below are just a few examples of delicious, good-value Sangiovese:
Terre di Talamo, Morellino di Scansano DOC Tempo: Using 100 percent Sangiovese, this wine has bright cherry fruit and a slightly floral aroma. On the palate, the red fruit becomes richer and medium-to-full-bodied, with an earthy element. Great with grilled or roasted red meats – a boneless prime rib prepared with olive-oil-dipped rosemary sprigs on top – or with dishes emphasizing hearty sauces. $14.
Moris Morellino di Scansano DOCG: Fruit-driven, but with distinct notes of clove and cinnamon – most interesting for Sangiovese – which makes up the vast majority of this Morellino. The fruit and spice flavors balance nicely on the palate and show good depth, along with smooth tannins. A versatile wine that goes with many foods, and a real charmer – especially for the price: $13.
Dei Rosso di Montepulciano: A lush, aromatic and fruit-driven wine that actually uses a local clone of Sangiovese, called Prugnolo (plus tiny amounts of Canaiolo and Mammolo). Aromas are of dark fruit and cedar, with flavors of ripe plum, and a bit of cedar. The finish is nice and long. Serve with cold weather braises, or heavily seasoned roast chicken. $15.
RiverAerie Sangiovese Columbia Valley: This beauty is from the desert country of eastern Washington State – an interesting and overlooked terroir. It’s a fruit forward Sangiovese with lots of dark fruit and spice box aromas, followed by muscular black cherry flavors – truly unique nuances for the grape. Pair with an Italian-seasoned bone-in pork roast. $17.