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Sangiovese Over Time, and Why You Should Be Drinking It Again
By John McDermott
Jul 3, 2024
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Sangiovese, the quintessential Tuscan grape, is enjoying a resurgence after spending a decade flying under the radar.  In the decades leading up to the late 2000s, Sangiovese, and particularly Brunello di Montalcino, experienced a boom.  However, over-saturation, a shift toward the "Parkerization" of wines, and a scandal regarding winemaking practices led to Sangiovese taking a back seat to other varieties and wines.  Today, Sangiovese is making a comeback by returning to its roots, captivating a new generation of wine enthusiasts with its authentic and diverse expressions.

Sangiovese is the most widely planted grape variety in Italy, renowned for producing a range of wines that vary in style and complexity.  The most famous Sangiovese-based wines are undoubtedly Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino.  Both Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino are produced in Tuscany.  Chianti is known for its bright acidity, red fruit flavors, and savory undertones.  Brunello di Montalcino, on the other hand, is a more robust and age-worthy wine, offering deeper flavors and a longer aging potential.  Beyond these well-known appellations, great Sangiovese can come from so many other appellations, including Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Morellino di Scansano, and Carmignano, to name a few.

The history of Sangiovese dates back to ancient times, but the grape gained modern prominence at the turn of the 20th century.  With the awarding of DOCG status to the Chianti Classico region in 1984, and with Brunello receiving the same status only four years earlier, Sangiovese started making it onto the radars of more and more wine lovers.  

As the popularity of Sangiovese wines continued toward its peak in the 2000s, it is important to note two major wine trends that were occurring in parallel:  The rise of Robert Parker and the rise of Super Tuscan wines.   Robert Parker, perhaps the most famous or infamous wine critic of all time, started his now-famous wine review newsletter The Wine Advocate, shortly before Brunello di Montalcino gained its DOCG status.  Parker was one of the first wine critics to employ the now ubiquitous 100-point review system, and for one reason or another, his palate seemed to resonate with large swaths of the wine-buying public.  So much so that, over the next few decades, Parker’s personal preference for opulent, fruit-forward, and often high-alcohol wines started to dictate winemaking techniques around the world.

At the same time, some rebellious winemakers in Tuscany started making wines that bucked tradition and local appellation rules, to blend Sangiovese with international grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  These new wines became known as “Super Tuscans,” and brought together the brightness and savoriness of Sangiovese, with the richness and boldness of Bordeaux wines.  These wines played perfectly to a market that was coming to be dominated by Robert Parker’s palate, as they could achieve a level of ripeness, richness, and heft that Sangiovese had not classically sought to achieve.

Given these happenings in the wine market at large, it is perhaps no surprise that Brunellos started to be made with heavier extraction techniques, riper grapes, and an overall richer profile.  With Super Tuscans being all the rage, and with Parker’s palate dominating the wine market, more delicate, brighter wines were falling out of favor.  So, traditional Tuscan winemakers adjusted their winemaking to match the trend.  This continued to the late 2000s, when many Brunello di Montalcinos were becoming unrecognizably opulent, losing the purity of its supposed Sangiovese core.

This all came to a head when, in 2008, Tuscany became wrapped up in what became known as “Brunellogate.”  By law, Brunello di Montalcino must be made of 100% Sangiovese.  But in early 2008, a wine journalist accused many top producers of blending non-Sangiovese grapes into their Brunellos.  This story aligned with whispers that had been circulating for years, as industry insiders questioned the dark and rich reds coming from Brunello.  A backlash ensued, and at the same time, the wine market as a whole began its slow shift toward more terrior-driven, often times less opulent wines.  

For the next decade, it seemed that Sangiovese fell from favor.  Sommeliers simply weren’t excited about it, and neither were the wine media.  Today, however, Sangiovese is experiencing a renaissance.  Winemakers have returned to more traditional practices, focusing on expressing the grape's true character and the unique qualities of their vineyards.  This resurgence is driven by a new generation of wine lovers who value authenticity, diversity, and a sense of place in their wines.

Chianti's versatility makes it a favorite among wine enthusiasts.  Light and ephemeral Chiantis are perfect for casual sipping or pairing with a variety of dishes.  These wines, characterized by their bright red cherry flavors, crisp acidity, and tomato leaf and balsamic notes, pair so perfectly with pasta dishes and pizza.

On the other end of the spectrum, Brunello di Montalcino wines offer more structure and complexity.  They often display richer fruit flavors, including dark cherries and plums, along with hints of spice, leather, and earthiness.  These wines can pair beautifully with heartier dishes like steak, game, and aged cheeses.

While Chianti and Brunello are the most famous Sangiovese-based wines, there are many Sangiovese-based wines worth exploring.  Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, produced in the town of Montepulciano, offers a more elegant and refined expression of Sangiovese.  These wines are known for their balance, with vibrant acidity, ripe red fruit, and a touch of spice.  And on the more out-there side of the spectrum, you have producers like Stolpman Vineyards in California experimenting with new ways of using the grape; Stolpman’s Love You Bunches carbonic Sangiovese is a phenomenal summertime red.  

One of the most exciting aspects of Sangiovese-based wines is their age-worthiness.  While many wines are enjoyable when young, the best examples can improve significantly with age.  Chianti Classico Riserva and Brunello di Montalcino, in particular, have the potential to evolve and develop over decades.  With time, these wines gain complexity and depth, as the primary fruit flavors give way to more subtle and nuanced notes.  The acidity and tannins soften, resulting in a smoother and more integrated wine.  A well-aged Sangiovese can offer a truly transcendent experience, with layers of flavors that unfold with each sip.

Rediscovering the joys of Sangiovese-based wines is like reconnecting with an old friend.  These wines offer a remarkable range of styles and flavors, from the light and ephemeral Chiantis to the bold and age-worthy Brunellos.  Moreover, great examples of Sangiovese can be found within the $20-$30 price point.  With their bright acidity, savory undertones, and the ability to age gracefully, Sangiovese wines have something to offer every wine lover.  As winemakers return to traditional practices and embrace the grape's true character, Sangiovese is once again capturing the hearts of wine enthusiasts worldwide.  Whether you are a seasoned aficionado or a curious newcomer, now is the perfect time to explore the diverse and delightful world of Sangiovese.

Before I conclude this piece, I’ll leave you with a few Sangiovese-based wines to try, encompassing many different price points and styles:

Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2020 - $20:  A bargain at this price, Avignonesi’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano brings together classic bright red fruit and spice in a medium-bodied wine.

Stolpman Vineyards Love You Bunches Carbonic Sangiovese 2022 - $25:  Unmistakably Sangiovese, yet nothing like any Sangiovese you have had before.  Served chilled, this wine is tart and refreshing with just a touch of savoriness.

Selvapiana Chianti Rufina Riserva “Bucerchiale” 2020 - $40:  A classic and balanced example of Rufina DOCG Chianti, bringing together red fruit notes with a touch of spice and tannin structure.

Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino 2018 - $50:  A fantastic example of what restrained Brunello di Montalcino can be.  Structured, with moderate alcohol, and this wine brings together red and black fruits in a package that will stand up to heavier meat dishes but will not overpower a simple pasta a red sauce.  A stellar value among Tuscan producers.

Argiano “Vigna del Suolo” Brunello di Montalcino 2018 - $240:  Here, red and black fruits combine in a velvety smooth palate, that is paired perfectly with integrated tannins and energetic acidity.  This wine is a fantastic example of how a Brunello can achieve richness while still staying true to the Sangiovese grape.