Think of Italian wine country, and you are undoubtedly thinking of idyllic terraced vineyards in Tuscany - blue skies, warm weather, and a slow, steady pace of living that speaks to the hurried American soul. More likely than not, those terraced vineyards are growing what has in the minds of most become Italy’s signature red grape variety - Sangiovese.
One of Italy’s finest and most noble grapes, Sangiovese is a chameleon. On the one hand, it can produce intense wines of great depth and complexity, like the Brunello di Montalcino made by such Tuscan greats as Altesino, which can age for decades in your cellar. On the other hand, this grape can produce light, easy drinking, inexpensive wines that go great with pasta and pizza, such as the delectable Chianti produced by Ruffino.
Sangiovese has been grown in Tuscany since time immemorial; some wine historians theorize that it was originally grown by the ancient Etruscans. However, it was not until the late nineteenth century that certain clones of Sangiovese were recognized as having the potential to create the amazing, captivating wines that we think of today. In modern times, these superior vines produce wines of substance and full body, while still maintaining the high levels of acidity that make Sangiovese such a phenomenal food-pairing opportunity for gourmands. From Isole e Olena’s lively Chianti Classico to La Fiorita’s powerhouse Brunello, Sangiovese has developed into the heart and soul of Tuscan winemaking.
In other parts of Italy, Sangiovese is the workhorse red grape; it is found in nearly every wine region throughout the country, from Lombardia in the north to Sicilia in the far south. There it is either used in varietal wines or is blended with other grapes; it is a wonderful blending companion to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Montepulciano, and many other varieties, lending to the finished wine its trademark acidity and spicy character.
Wherever Italians go, they bring winemaking with them, and Italian immigrants around the world brought from their homeland this grape variety that is so close to their hearts. This diaspora is made evident by great wines produced in the new world, from the lush and fruit-driven Sangiovese made by Seghesio in California’s Sonoma County to the bright and bold one produced on Red Mountain in Washington by Kiona.
The cherry, dark fruit, spice and dried herbal elements found in Sangiovese mesh beautifully with a variety of foods. In Tuscany, you can barely escape the sign of the cinghiale, or wild boar, at every street corner’s butcher shop. Cured meats are an ideal choice, and the acidity of the grape makes it a phenomenal pairing for the quintessential Italian dish, spaghetti with a tomato-based red sauce.
No other grape variety bespeaks the Italian soul like Sangiovese. Its rich-but-complex flavors tell a tale of place and of personality, one that hearkens the mind to a farmer harvesting his vineyard and making the wine that his family has enjoyed at its dinner table for generations. Today, the global recognition for this great grape means that very wine can grace your own table, and you can taste what Italians have known for a very long time - that sometimes the best way to live life is slowly, and that a great wine can make the great moments last a lifetime.
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