For those of you who follow this blog or our social media accounts, you know that Sangiovese is my favorite grape variety. It may seem a strange choice for someone who lives in the heart of California’s famous wine country where Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay rule, but there is a special “just right” quality to Sangiovese that makes my tastebuds sing.

Sangiovese Origins

Fully ripe bunch of Sangiovese Grapes

Sangiovese originally comes from the region of Italy known as Tuscany;  located in the North of the country. You may know it by the name Chianti which is one of the famous wine areas in Italy where it grows. It is also a main component in other Italian wines like Brunello di Montepulciano, Nielluccio, Sangioveto, Sangiovese Grosso, Sangiovese Piccolo, Brunello, Prugnolo Gentile, Morellino and Super Tuscan blends. Super Tuscans are Italy’s answer to wine blends from Bordeaux, France. They are traditionally Sangiovese heavy blends with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sangiovese grapes on the vine during verasion.

The first mention of Sangiovese in Italy is in documents from 1590. Sangiovese has been genetically traced back to two grapes as its “Parents”. Recent DNA profiling by José Vouillamoz of the Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige suggests that Sangiovese’s ancestors are Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montenuovo. The former is well known as an ancient variety in Tuscany, the latter is an almost-extinct from Calabria, the toe of Italy. Sangiovese derives its name from the Latin sanguis Jovis, “the blood of Jupiter”

Why I love Sangiovese

So why is Sangiovese my favorite grape rather than Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah, Grenache, or Pinot Noir? When I tell people about my love of this grape, I can’t help but describe it as: If you put the outstanding qualities of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Pinot Noir together you’d get Sangiovese. Cabernet Franc for the structure and depth of flavor, Merlot for its richness and medium body, and  Pinot Noir for its notes of cherry, strawberry, and baking spices. It is a flexible wine that can be served with meats, pastas, cheeses, vegetarian dishes, or simply on its own. It has wonderful acidity (it makes your mouth water) preparing your tastebuds and the chemistry in your mouth for food.

Drink no wine before its time…

Sangiovese at Acorn’s Alegría Vineyard

 Like any other wine, timing is everything when serving Sangiovese. Served too young and the tannins rule along with notes of under ripe strawberries, black tea, tomato leaves, and a fair bit of spiciness. In the first two years in the bottle, the wine hasn’t had time to really grow up and mature; kind of like a young girl with coltish arms and legs who will someday be an amazing beauty.

Year three in the bottle and Sangiovese really starts to show promise. By year five you get something truly wonderful in the glass. Suddenly the tannins are smooth, and the wine gets round and lush. Ripe cherries start to fill the glass and layers of baking spices linger on the palate. I like the fact that it doesn’t take ten plus years to age and hit its peak. Many wineries do not release the wines before the three year mark to make it more approachable to the public..

Climate Change

Sangiovese grapes drying due to heat.

So why suddenly are we starting to see Sangiovese being grown in the US, and especially California? To be honest, winemakers are realizing that they need to start planting grapes that work well in their particular climate and soil types. The Californian climate is far more similar to Tuscany than it is to Bordeaux so Italian grape varieties make sense. Italian grapes flourish in warm, dry, heat and they are more likely to produce outstanding fruit.

Sangiovese also requires less water and doesn’t have some of the growing issues of other varieties that are more labor intensive and therefore more expensive to produce. Growers have had to be careful and specific with the clonal choices and canopy management though as California has more intense sunshine (a higher UV index) than Italy does. This causes uneven ripening and sunburned, shriveled, grapes.

It has taken years for the popularity of Sangiovese to take hold in the United States despite it being the most planted grape in Italy. Whilst it is still not a common grape in California, (just 1950 acres planted at its peak) I am seeing more and more wineries producing quality Sangiovese. 

Seghesio Introduced Sangiovese to California

When I think of Seghesio Family Vineyards, my mind automatically thinks Zinfandel. That is the grape that they are mainly known for. However, I have come to find out through my research that this Italian family first planted Sangiovese in the United States. They planted it originally for their own consumption and not to sell to the public. That makes me love them even more!

The Chianti Station vineyard located in Alexander Valley, near Geyserville consists of only an acre and a half. Planted in 1910, with four Sangiovese heirloom clones that would have otherwise gone extinct (as they can no longer be found anywhere in the world). Luckily, the Seghesio family saved them from obscurity and have subsequently used these original mother clones to propagate additional plantings.

This tiny original vineyard also features a smattering of traditional Tuscan field blend varieties – Canaiolo Nero, Malvasia, and Trebbiano.  Sangiovese was never considered very important as a wine variety in California until the success of the Super Tuscans in the 1980s spurred new interest in the grape.

A tale of two Sangioveses..

Photo courtesy of Seghesio Family Vineyard

Seghesio currently produces two different Sangioveses. The current release of their Club only Chianti Station Sangiovese is 2018 at a cost of $75.00. It sits at 14.8% ABV . On the nose you will find ripe bing cherries, cassis, clove, black tea, and licorice. On the palate, I tasted wonderous flavors of forest fruits, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, with a long lush finish and supple tannins. I will stick with my statements about when to drink this wine – this is for drinking starting from about now where it is starting to show its potential to 2023 where it will be a true beauty. This wine is elegant and complex – not your average table plonk in the least.  

Photo courtesy of Seghesio Family Vineyard

The second Sangiovese Seghesio produces is called Venom. The current release is 2017 at a cost of $50. It has an ABV of 14.8%. Venom is grown at a different vineyard in Anderson Valley. This wine is more in keeping with the Cal-Ital style –  California’s spin on Italian grapes which is more fruit forward and less tannic . Those characteristics make it taste more approachable to the average consumer. 

The charming aromas coming from the glass made me want to take my first sip. Notes of Earth, flowers, sage, and an abundance of ripe cherries fill the nose. On the palate, I get damson plums, forest fruits, and rich baking spices. The wine has a gorgeous mouthfeel and it is drinking beautifully right now.  For best taste, I would suggest decanting at least an hour before serving.

Coming soon to the blog..

In upcoming articles, I am going to highlight some of my favorite Sanigovese producers in California. Luna Vineyards, Castello Di Amorosa, Pedroncelli Winery, Acorn Winery, Stolpman Vineyards, Lanza Family, Vezer Family Vineyard, and several others. As I find new discoveries of Sangiovese from California and beyond I will be adding them to this series. I hope you will follow along and learn about this under-rated, but wonderful grape and the wineries that make it.

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