Theories abound on the origin of the name Sangiovese. One of the most common (and most likely incorrect) is that it comes from the Latin sangius Jovis, “the blood of Jove.” Others say it comes from the phrase “the blood of the ridges” (sangue dai gioghetti), which would seem to tie to the name Sangiogheto used in what is believed to be the first written reference to the grape. Another interesting theory is that it comes from the term sangiovannese, a word that refers to an inhabitant of San Giovanni Valdarno, a town in eastern Tuscany.
No matter what the origin of the name, no grape captures the essence of Italian wine better than Sangiovese. This is not because it is the most widely grown grape in Italy, present in more than 250 DOCs across the country, nor because somewhere around 90% of the Sangiovese grown worldwide is grown in Italy. All those things are true, but the key fact is that the wines made from Sangiovese demonstrate both the abysmal lows and the stellar heights that Italian winemaking can reach.
There are some good reasons for this. Sangiovese has been described as being as sensitive to location and climate as Pinot Noir. It buds early and ripens late, so it likes a long growing season with plenty of warmth. If not fully ripe when picked, the resulting wine can have a distinct barnyard quality, but too much warmth can dilute the grape’s flavors and rob the wine of complexity.
Left to its own devices, Sangiovese will produce copious amounts of fruit, leading to wines that are thin and acidic. The fruit grows in very tight clusters that ripen unevenly. It is a relatively thin-skinned variety which, along with the tight clusters, makes it prone to rot when rains occur near harvest, a fact that can put pressure on growers to pick the grapes before they are fully ripe.
In the mid-twentieth century, the focus for many Italian winemakers was to create low-cost easy-drinking beverages meant to be consumed in their youth. In such an environment, greater quantity meant greater profits, making Sangiovese a popular grape. It was not uncommon for growers to rip out lower yielding varieties and replant with Sangiovese (or if looking for white grapes, Trebbiano, another variety known for abundance). Emphasizing quantity almost guaranteed bringing out the worst in Sangiovese, so blending in other grapes to shore up the weaknesses was the norm.
It didn’t always work.
However, there always was a segment of industry focused on quality vinification using Sangiovese. Out of this group have risen some of the greatest Italian wines of all time: Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti Classico, Morellino di Scansano, Sangiovese di Romagna, and, more recently, Sangiovese-based Super Tuscans. (Ironically, “Super Tuscan” is a term now coming to encompass the worst in Italian winemaking as well. See Snake Oil From Tuscany.)
While each expression of Sangiovese has its own identity, and blending partners can change the overall taste of the wine, there are commonalities. Flavors of cherries, tobacco, and leather generally come from Sangiovese. Some people get strawberry notes in young wines and prune and chestnut flavors in older ones. Regardless of style, these wines are exceptionally food-friendly, matching with everything from red sauces and pizza for young Chiantis to deep rich stews for Brunellos.
And that truly is the soul of Vino Italiano– food and wine together.