You can’t talk about Tuscan wine without mentioning the region’s famed grape, Sangiovese. Derived from the Latin phrase “sanguis Jovis” (meaning “blood of Jove”), this grape is the main component in Chianti, Tuscany’s trademark wine.
But Sangiovese wasn’t always regarded as a prized grape, and it actually has quite a rocky past. First of all, Sangiovese has never been an easy grape to cultivate. It has a naturally high acid content and a thin skin, which can result in sour-tasting wine with a flat flavor if not properly grown and cared for. Its thin skin also causes the grapes to rot easily when damp, so they require extra handling and care. Secondly, due to strict winemaking regulations and lax winemakers who seemed to be indifferent about the inferior taste, Chianti once earned itself a reputation for being a cheap Italian table wine people drank for the decorative straw-cased bottle casing rather than for the wine itself.
Happily, thanks to more meticulous winemakers, new techniques and creative blending, Sangiovese has made a comeback. To bypass the problem of high acidity, many winemakers began using grapes from low-yielding vines in order to create a balance of flavor. Additionally, they aged the wine in oak barrels in order to infuse body and depth into the wine with the smoky, caramel taste of oak. Blending Sangiovese with full-bodied, robust varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot is another way winemakers add fruity flavor and smooth texture to the wine.
You will notice, however, that whether it is used in a Chianti Classico or a sweet Tuscan Vin Santo, Sangiovese is rarely bottled on its own (with the notable exception of Brunello di Montalcino). Although it can be delicious when bottled solo, Sangiovese really is a grape that plays well with others. It is most frequently blended with local white Italian grapes to produce Chianti, or combined with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to make the “Super Tuscans.” Sangiovese is a grape that depends largely upon the winemaker’s touch and care, which is clearly reflected in every bottle.
On its own, Sangiovese has a delicate fruit flavor of sour cherries, strawberries and plums, with a bouquet of orange peel and spices. Sangiovese tends to be a light, translucent shade of garnet and contains medium to high levels of acid. On the palate it is a lighter-bodied wine with a medium finish, making this a food-friendly wine that pairs well with tomato-based dishes like pizza, soups, veal chops or other traditional Tuscan fare.
To learn more about Sangiovese, watch this video with wine expert Michael Green.