Sangiovese, 100 Percent

Paul Blow

Well over a decade ago the first wines that sent me on the path of wine study were both made from the Sangiovese grape. One was from California—from a winery called Pietra Santa—and one was from Tuscany, Sangiovese’s ancestral home: the famous Riserva Rancia from Fèlsina in Chianti. Both blew me away with their silky textures, humming acidity, and bright, exact evocations of fresh berries. At the time I was so excited I was ready to proclaim undying allegiance to Sangiovese.

In California, though, the grape has largely been declared a failure. It’s made some decent wines in the United States but has never taken off in the way Pinot Noir and Syrah have. The wines that got me going with Sangiovese are not a complete anomaly—Sangiovese can be terrific. But two things have limited its success: the finickiness of the grape, and the undesirable blends that mask Sangiovese’s good qualities.

Sangiovese does tend to make shrill, high-acid wines with weedy flavors. Growers can confront the grape’s inherent challenges—overproduction, general fickleness—and craft magnificent, 100 percent Sangiovese wines. But in order to compensate for less well-grown grapes, blending has become popular. In the Chianti Classico region, the home of Sangiovese, laws governing Chianti have been tweaked for centuries, essentially to find ways to deal with the often-ornery grape. For a time, it was illegal to call a wine Chianti that was 100 percent Sangiovese.

Wines bearing the Chianti Classico designation can today be made from 100 percent Sangiovese but are more likely to be made with up to 20 percent of other varieties, including “international” grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Chianti rules were changed to accommodate the taste for the hugely successful Super Tuscans, and today many Chiantis have Cabernet’s purple, cassislike notes and that sleek oakiness that’s the mark of Merlot’s softness.

However familiar they taste, though, these wines are no longer expressive of Sangiovese and Tuscany. The more Merlot in them the more they lose what the Tuscans call tipicità, the sense of place that in this case can only be communicated by Sangiovese grown in the hills of the Chianti region. There are now several wines on the market made with 100 percent Sangiovese that show that when farmed carefully, the grape can be highly expressive of the Tuscan terroir. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Fattoria di Fèlsina Chianti Classico Riserva Rancia—One of the wines that got me started, this classic is made from a single vineyard more than 1,300 feet above sea level. Ample sunlight and cool breezes allow the 30- to 50-year-old vines to ripen slowly and evenly, developing a concentration of flavor rarely found with this much balance, grace, and suppleness of tannin. With a luminous ruby color and waft of spice, this is always a wine of pure joy and can age up to 20 years if stored well. Fèlsina also makes wonderful Chianti Classico and CC Riserva, both from 100 percent Sangiovese.

Terrabianca Piano del Cipresso—Terrabianca makes a number of modern-style, international wines, but this is its 100 percent Sangiovese version, 80 percent of which comes from the Chianti region and 20 percent from neighboring Maremma. As an expression of Sangiovese, it captures the brilliant color and depth of the blackberry and tart cherry fruit often found in the grape. It’s got a firm structure from good acid and fine tannin, but it’s not really a profound wine, rather just a great one for pastas, pizzas, and flavorful simple food. It’s hard to resist opening bottle number two when the last drops of number one are gone.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.