Sangiovese, Morellino, Sangiovese

Tuscany in general and the Maremma in particular are predominantly red wine areas.  There are good whites made, the very occasional exceptional one, but the reds predominate, both in terms of quality and quantity.  Similarly, while a range of red/black grapes are grown, with varying degrees of success, the most important is Sangiovese.

IMG_5487The grape is grown all over central Italy – in Emilia-Romagna, the Marche and throughout Tuscany.  In fact, at around 40,000 hectares it accounts for about 2/3rds of all land under vine in Tuscany (Belfrage, Finest Wines p. 24)  But to say ‘Sangiovese’ is only the beginning of the matter as the name really refers to a group of closely related types and clones, rather than to a single variety (at least according to some authorities).  Sangiovese is so variable that it vital to get good stock and, and as is beginning to be discovered,  to get the right type for the particular soil in which it is to be grown.

The grape’s, and the resultant wines’, variability was well illustrated at a tasting at one of the Baroncini farms near San Gimignano in October 2006.  Baroncini is quite a big group with vineyards all over Tuscany and in the course of five glasses one could compare directly the Sangiovese based styles of Chianti, Chianti riserva, Montalcino, Montepulciano and Morellino di Scansano.  The wines were not of the highest quality but it was very instructive as some of the wines also bear the name of the grape in its local version. So, the most important names are:

Local name of Sangiovese Area and name of wine
Sangiovese Main component of Chianti and of the riserva
Brunello Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino
Prugnolo Nobile Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montepulciano
Morellino Morellino di Scansano

There are other local names of course, perhaps the most widely encountered being the easily spotted, Sangioveto.      What underlies this wealth of local names is the sheer variability of Sangiovese.

The debate about the origin of Sangiovese and its antiquity, or otherwise, continues to rage, though it now has suddenly gone off in a new direction, following the work of the men and no doubt IMG_0196 some women in white coats at the prestigious Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige, in Trentino, northern Italy.  Having long been regarded as indigenous to Tuscany or at least central Italy, presumably on the grounds that it is what every one has always grown there, DNA analysis appears to show that it is in fact a cross between Ciliegiolo (for the same reasons thought to be Tuscan in origin) and an obscure grape, grown in Campania but thought to have originated in Calabria, the previously unheralded Calabrese di Montenuovo.  If this debate is anything like the one that leads to scientific plant names changing every decade or so (or so it feels to the amateur), we should perhaps not regard this as the last word, fascinating though it is.  Whether this cross is ancient or relatively modern, still remains unclear.  (See Belfrage Finest Wines pp 24-6)

More generally, Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand bring together  the key points about this variety:

  • it is both demanding and inconsistent: it can produce light, juicy wines and big complex ones.  As an early budder and late ripener, it requires a warm climate and the best sites.  As a result, only 10% of the Chianti area (I assume they mean hilly Classico area)  is under vines, with best results on south and south-west facing slopes and between 100 and 550m of altitude.  It ripens better in warmer, more southerly Montalcino and of course in the Maremma where a hotter climate and shorter growing season produces a richer, broader outcome, but where too much alcohol and too little aroma can be a problem.
  • best results are on friable, shaley soils (Chianti’s galestro) or limestone, but it is reasonably successful on clay.  There is no comment on the vast variety of Maremman soils.
  • its a vigorous variety which needs to be kept in check but overly dense planting leads to shading of the vines and problems of under-ripeness. 5,000 – 7,000 plants per hectare may be an optimum, compared to the traditional 2,700 in the past.
  • it needs far more attention than French varieties – more cluster thinning, more selection, more canopy management
  • yields need to be quite low in Tuscany to maintain quality, eg 1.5 kg of fruit per plant (10.5 tonnes per hectare if planted at 7,000 vines per hectare)
  • if not well grown the resulting wine can be rather pale in colour, lack fruit but still have high tannins and acidity.  This led to the (illegal) practice of adding a good dose of deeper coloured and fruitier wine from warmer Southern Italy in the mix.  (There were endless stories about the number of wine tankers to be seen making their way up from Puglia by night …)
  • good examples have the classic sour cherry and herb combination, ‘bitter cherries and violets, with a certain tomatoey savouriness to the fruit, definite rasp of herbs and  tea-like finish. Acidity is high and so is tannin: upfront fruit flavours are not the be-all and end-all of traditional Tuscan reds’ (Grapes and wines, p. 216)

Sangiovese in the Maremma

In broad agreement, Giancarlo Scalabrelli says that ‘Sangiovese’ is in general a population of varied individuals which embraces a range of territories.   The sangiovese e favino fine marzovariability of the grape in the past was not due to direct human intervention.  For example, in the Scansano area, on which this author is commenting, very little new genetic material was introduced in the two centuries before 1980 –  in fact only the variety known as Alicante.  Despite this stability there are around 30 ‘biotypes’ of Morellino (ie Sangiovese) in the Scansano area alone.  Unlike the more famous areas of Chianti Classico, Montalcino, Montepulciano or even the Pisan hills, very little work has been done to evaluate the various types of Sangiovese in Scansano (Un vino di Maremma, p. 111). No doubt this last assertion would be even truer in the rest of the Maremma.  Thus you have a picture of relative isolation on the one hand and then suddenly, from 1990 onwards, with the new investment in the Maremma, the introduction of many grape varieties and types of Sangiovese, before much work could be done on the the local types which had flourished or otherwise in the Maremma.  Until further research is done, all the grower can do is experiment with matching types of Sangiovese to the various types of sites available to them.

What is generally clear, however, is that Sangiovese based wines in the Maremma are generally fruitier, rounder and less astringent and acidic than classic Chianti and less structured than Brunello.  The success of Morellino in particular is based on its slightly new world character.  It has good fruit, is accessible and can be and mainly should be enjoyed when young.  But it comes with the characteristic acidic, tannic and herby edge which is so typically Tuscan and Italian wines.  In many ways it is a good style of Sangiovese for our times.


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