F&W's Megan Krigbaum explores the recent evolution of Sangiovese.
For the past 600 years, winemakers in Tuscany’s Chianti Classico have been trying to figure out the best way to deal with Sangiovese, their signature grape. In its purest state, Sangiovese produces wines that are light red in color, assertively tannic and intensely acidic. At its best, Chianti Classico is lithe and elegant while also being memorably present and structured. It’s some of the greatest wine to pair with food.
But for the past 30 years, that’s not what a large portion of the drinking public—Americans especially—wanted. Bigger, richer, denser wines were in style, and in response, many winemakers transformed their Chianti Classico into something it was never meant to be. Producers started planting and blending in up to 20 percent (the legal maximum) international grape varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, to bulk up the Sangiovese, give it more color, and temper its acidity and tannins. The result: wines that were truly anonymous. As Michele Braganti of Monteraponi told me, “Sangiovese is a very delicate grape, and the wine is very delicate; Merlot and Cabernet can often cover that up.”
For producers who were loyal to Sangiovese as the true grape of Chianti Classico, this perceived dumbing-down of the wine made them question their association with the Chianti Classico region. Several producers, including Montevertine, chose to leave the regional designation off their labels altogether.
Finally, however, many winemakers are reclaiming the traditional Chianti Classico they love: wines made from Sangiovese; wines that speak of the region rather than an international style. Not only are the wines getting better and more interesting, but the producers are also expanding on the things they’re most philosophically invested in: farming in a conscientious way to get stunning, world-class fruit; doing clonal research (there are more than 70 different varieties of Sangiovese); seeking out the greatest terroirs in their region; and working to give Chianti Classico the attention it deserves.
The movement is encouraging some winemakers to research Sangiovese’s deepest Chianti Classico roots, which could date all the way back to the Etruscan era, some 2,500 years ago. Emanuela Stucchi Prinetti of Badia a Coltibuono told me that in the course of excavating an ancient Etruscan site that lies below her vineyards, geologists uncovered a bucket they believe contains grape seeds. She’s now working with scientists to map the seeds’ DNA.
Another producer, Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni of Querciabella, has purchased property in six different areas of Chianti with hopes of making six different single-vineyard wines from the region. That we somedaysoon could come to know the wines as not only distinctly Sangiovese but also distinctly and importantly Chianti Classico is very exciting indeed.