How can this be? Simply because Sangiovese is many things, many wines, and can be different things to different people. Consider for the moment that you can buy Chianti, Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva and Super Tuscans all from Tuscany, all based on Sangiovese, with each trying to fill a niche in the marketplace that is not served by the other. Heck, you can find producers who offer this line-up of wines and more, simply trying to satisfy market demands.
You think I’m going to be able to offer an easy answer to the question of Sangiovese’s ageability? Not a chance, but a longer answer? That I can do.
We might as well begin with why Sangiovese might be a good candidate for ageability in the first place. In two words, tannins and acid. These are the two elements wine geeks refer to when speaking of the structure of a wine, red wine in particular. While both can be added to a wine, having them in balance and in quantities that might suggest durability in a wine is the best indicator of a wine’s likely ability to age. I say likely because it is not always that simple.
In order to properly age, and for the wine’s structure to gently soften over time allowing for the formation of complex flavors with some reminiscent fruit, a wine has to have a certain type and concentration of fruit to begin with. That’s really where the categories of Chianti come into play.
For example, the vast majority of straight Chianti is simple wine, lightly fruity, with plenty of acid and modest tannins. There are obvious reasons for this. The first is price driven. Cheap wines must be made in bulk. In order to make money making cheap wine, you have to make generous amounts of it. The easiest way to do that is by cropping your vineyards quite heavily. I know, many people just sighed disdainfully, thinking that over-cropping is one of the great sins of wine making, but you have to consider all the facts before heaping your disdain on these producers.
The goal of much Chianti is to make a wine that is simple and fun. A wine that is likely going to be drunk on a Monday night, and a Tuesday night, and a Wednesday night, and… you get the picture. We’re not shooting for high art here folks, neither are the producer nor the consumer. We simply want a decent, simple wine at a great price, and that’s what most Chianti manages to do.
This heavy cropping is important because of what it delivers to the winemaker. Heavy crop loads tend not to ripen all that well, so the resultant wines tend to be fairly high in acid, have astringent tannins and light red fruit flavors. In fact, that is the start of many a fine Chianti!
The acid can be managed, acid reduction is not uncommon in wine making, and the tannins can be managed as well through shorter maceration and fining, but the fruit is what the fruit is. So simple, fresh Chianti can be made in either a soft or structured style, though most winemakers have really dialed in on a balance built on the intensity of the fruit. What we get is what we asked for: a light, simple, fresh wine that generally has very modest ageing potential. It is possible that the wine will improve over its first year or two, something I find most wines do, but once that fruit begins to fade, you’re going to be left with an increasingly acid-driven wine. There’s little joy in old Chianti, but that wasn’t the point.
If you want a Chianti that can improve with age, take a look at Chianti Classico. Here, the term “Classico” refers both to more stringent viticultural and wine making regulations and to a well defined region, the heart of traditional Chianti production roughly centered between Pisa, Florence and Siena. Here wines have all the attributes we tend to associate with Chianti, but with more.
There is more richness of fruit in Chianti Classico, more alcohol, more ripe tannins, more depth and more power. With all this more, it is not surprising to discover that Chianti Classico also has a longer life than Chianti. The extra depth of fruit and richness in particular allows Chianti Classico to develop complexity while retaining fruitiness as it ages. And the lower yields practiced here retain plenty of acid and tannin for ageing, though both tend to be riper, softer and with better innate balance than Chianti.
Chianti Classico ages much like Chianti early in its life, though at a slightly slower rate. It tends to peak fairly quickly but stays at its peak for a longer period of time, fading away in a much slower and more interesting way as complexities begin to emerge from the depth of the wine’s fruit. Excellent Chianti Classico can still be at its peak at age ten but rarely improves beyond that. Still, with so many of these wines affordably priced, they make for excellent wines to add to your cellar and very nice wines with which to display what aged wine is like to students of the vine.