Italian immigrants from Tuscany probably introduced the Sangiovese grape to California in the late 1800s, possibly at the Segheshio Family’s “Chianti Station,” near Geyserville. It is one of several varietal components of the field blend in many old North Coast and Gold Country vineyards that are often otherwise identified as Zinfandel.
Sanguis Jovis, the Latin origin for the varietal name, literally means “blood of Jove” and it is likely that Sangiovese (a.k.a. Sangioveto or San Gioveto) was known by Etruscan winemakers, although the first literary reference to it was in 1722. It is probably indigenous to Tuscany, whose most famous wine is Chianti.
The basic blend of Chianti was established by Baron Ricasoli in the 1890s. This averages 70% sangiovese as the varietal base (along with 15% canaiolo [red], and 15% trebbiano [white] and sometimes a little colorino [red]). Many vineyards are traditionally planted with this varietal mix. It is difficult even for the Italians to keep up with their own ever-changing and very detailed wine laws, which specify permitted grape types, maximum yields per acre, minimum alcohol content, minimum aging standards before sale, etc. Currently, the minimum amount of sangiovese permitted in Chianti is 90%. Other grapes that may be used now include malvasia toscana, a white grape far superior to the ubiquitous trebbiano. Still, the total white grapes used must not exceed 5% of the blend.
In some ways sangiovese is to Chianti as cabernet sauvignon is to Bordeaux. Both form the base of wines normally blended with other varietals and both by themselves share a certain distinctive elegance and complexity, when well-made.
There are at least 14 separate and distinct clones of sangiovese. At one point, there was some attempt in Italy to identify two separate “families”, Grosso and Piccolo, although this seemed to have more commercial basis (“mine’s better than yours”) than ampelographic or taste evidence to justify this attempt to classify.
The fruit is slow to mature and late-ripening. With relatively thin skins, it has a tendency to rot in dampness and does not mature well if planted above an elevation of 1,500 feet. Sangiovese vineyards with limestone soil seem to produce wines with more forceful aromas.
The hot, dry climate, such as Tuscany provides, is where sangiovese thrives. Because these climatic criteria generally enhance quantity, rather than quality, it takes careful cultivation and winemaking techniques to produce really excellent wine from this grape. The official classification of Chianti itself demonstrates the widely fluctuating range of Sangiovese quality from those identified as ordinary vino di tavola to the highest classico superiore. Sangiovese is the #1 varietal in Italy with 247,000 acres, 10% of the entire wine grape crop.
The flavor profile of Sangiovese is fruity, with moderate to high natural acidity and generally a medium-body ranging from firm and elegant to assertive and robust and a finish that can tend towards bitterness. The aroma is generally not as assertive and easily identifiable as Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, but can have a strawberry, blueberry, faintly floral, violet or plummy character.
Typical Sangiovese Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
Fruit: strawberry, blueberry, orange peel, plum
Oak (light): vanilla, sweet wood
Spice: cinnamon, clove, thyme
Oak (heavy): oak, smoke, toast, tar
Most Chianti up through the 1980s was imported in straw-covered fiasci and more attention was paid to low price than any quality factor. Probably because of this association, very few California wine reference books published before 1990 make mention of Sangiovese as either wine or grape. With no snob-appeal as a “collector’s wine,” it generated little interest from growers or consumers until relatively recently.
Tuscan winemakers, experimenting the past few years with blends of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and/or merlot have succeeded creating some excellent Supertuscan blends commanding high prices. This has led to an increasing number of experimental Sangiovese vineyards being planted and, as of 1991, there were 200 acres in California. (It is interesting, possibly foretelling, to note here that this is the same total as the entire cabernet sauvignon acreage planted in California in 1961.) The best results so far have come from Napa, San Luis Obispo and the Sierra Foothills. There are several California producers making proprietary blends of cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese, following the Supertuscan example.
It will be interesting to see the progress of California Sangiovese over the next few decades, as the right vineyard locales and the best fermentation, blending, and aging techniques are discovered.
by Alan Cannon and Jim LaMar