Sangiovese is the most planted grape in Italy, and is present in one form or another in around ten per cent of vineyards. It is most commonly found in the central Italian vineyards, planted widely across Umbria, Marche and Lazio. Aside from being the main grape used for red wine in Tuscany, it is the only one permitted in Brunello Di Montalcino and provides the base for Chianti, Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano and most of the super Tuscans. Around 100,000 hectares of Sangiovese are thought to grow across Italy. It is also grown in Corsica, where it is known as Nielluccio. There are 14 clones of the grape, including the well-known Brunello. Efforts are now underway to identify and promote the best of these clones.
There are several legends as to the history of Sangiovese, with one popular theory suggesting that it is an ancient grape originally cultivated from wild vines by the Etruscans. Its name seems to have its roots in the phrase “Sanguis Jovis” (“the blood of Jupiter”), which would suggest Roman ancestry. Later, in 1590, Giovan Vettorio Soderini warned that “Sangiogheto” should be vinified carefully so as to avoid it tasting like vinegar. However, whatever the exact story, it was in the 18th century that the grape became truly widespread around Tuscany. It was recently discovered that Sangiovese is the offspring of Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montenuovo.
The grape is capable of producing rich wines that are high in alcohol and long-living. It is slow to grow and ripens late, sometimes being harvested as late as mid-October. Younger wines often feature fruity flavours. One of the biggest challenges to curating Sangiovese is the quality of wines grown at too high a yield, which can be light coloured, highly acidic, less alcoholic and more likely to oxidise. This potential for overproduction is intrinsic to the vine, which is naturally vigorous, so it grows best on soils of low fertility. If the year is too cool, the wine has a high acidity with harsh tannins. And, thanks to its thin skin, in cool and wet years there is the added hazard of rot setting in. It appears to work best on limestone-rich soils, which bring out its aromas so well. At its best, Sangiovese has red cherry notes with an earthy aroma, with medium body and tannins, and high acidity.
Sangiovese is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, and in the south of Italy is mixed with local grapes. It can be found across much of the world, due to plantings by Italian emigrants, and it gained a new level of international attention following its successful export to California in the 1980s and 1990s.