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Food-friendly Sangiovese wines deliver diversity
By John H. Isacs

MY criteria for picking the eight best varietals for sensational summer drinking was based on the ability of the grape to make lively and refreshing wines that pair well with a host of popular summer foods.

It’s little surprise most of the champs of summer are white wine varieties, but I also wanted to include three red grapes that make light, fresh reds and also super rose wines. Grenache was covered a few weeks ago and Pinot Noir, which will be featured in a few weeks, were obvious choices. Picking the third red wine variety wasn’t so easy.

There were three very deserving candidates — Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Barbera. I adore all three varieties and choosing one was like picking a favorite child.

So I decided to taste several examples of deliciously quenching rose wines from each variety and I still couldn’t pick a winner. The final discriminator was which of the three deserving varieties made the freshest red wine that’s most suitable for summer drinking. One word kept coming to mind, Chianti; so therefore Sangiovese had to win.

Sangiovese vines(09-02-15-24-50).jpg

Earliest cultivators

Sangiovese is an ancient grape that many believe is a mutation between native varieties from the southern Italy region of Calabria and the Tuscan Ciliegiolo grape. More recent DNA tests indicate genetic relation to several other native Italian varieties.

The earliest cultivators were the Etruscans who lived in central Italy in pre-Roman times. Despite having a culture that lasted only a few centuries, the Etruscans were the original gourmets of Italy and some speculate their hedonistic gluttony directly led to the decline and fall of the empire.

Long before the Romans learned the art of multi-day epic feasts, the Etruscans were experts in epicurean excess holding days or even week-long feasts where revelers would eat and drink until passing out. Upon awaking, they would start again. Service was often provided by sparsely clothed or naked servants and slaves.

The modern name of the variety derives from the Latin word sanguis Jovis or “the blood of Jove” and most likely refers to the ruby red color of wines made from the grape.

The first documented mention of Sangiovese was in the late 16th century by the writer Ciriegiulo. By the Renaissance the grape was well established in many parts of Tuscany and neighboring regions. The great noble families of Tuscany like Strozzi, Ricasoli, Mazzei, Antinori and Frescabaldi were champions of the Sangiovese grape. They created some of the world’s earliest wine brands under their family names.

Styles and qualities

Sangiovese, like many grapes, expresses itself in many ways. In its youth it tends to be fresh and fruity with plenty of strawberry, red cherry and other red fruit and sometimes floral qualities along with good acidity and herbal spice elements. More mature examples may exhibit plum, bitter cherry, leather, tobacco and other earthy sensations.

Overall, Sangiovese wines have good fruitiness and acidity but there exists an extremely wide range of Sangiovese wine styles from the light weight fresh Chiantis to the concentrated and complex Brunello di Montacino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti Cassico and even Super Tuscans. But let’s focus on the lighter side of Sangiovese as these fresher wines are more appropriate for summer drinking.

Chianti wines have a fascinating history — at times proud and avant-garde and at times shameful. The first mention of Chianti was in the 15th century in a Mazzei purchase document. Then in mid-19th century, the great iron baron Bettino Ricasoli created the formula for Chianti Classico.

Chianti and Chianti Classic wines ranging from eminently drinkable to formidable we’re produced through these times but so was the infamous straw bottle Chiantis.

These cute little bottles hid a nasty secret inside, an insipid low quality wine. The damage to the Chianti brand was severe. But starting in 1966 with the implementation of the DOC regulations and later DOCG designation, the quality of Chianti wines improved dramatically.

In Tuscany and all over Italy producers became more careful in selecting better quality, low-yield Sangiovese clones for their soil and climate and much better care was taken during the winemaking process. As a result, today you are much more likely to find very pleasant, easy-drinking fresh Chianti wines than ever before. The best producers are Mazzei, Ricasoli, Strozzi, Carpeneto and Castello di Queceto.

Another increasingly good expression of the Sangiovese grape are the Sangiovese di Romagna IGT wines. There are also some fine New World producers like Segheshio, Shafer and Swanson in California and Coriole and Pizzini in Australia.

Pink is also a stylish color for this week’s featured grape. Better examples of Sangiovese rose wines are fresh and expressive little charmers.

From Italy, I recommend
Rosato Sangiovese Sicily
wines as well as the Alexander Valley Vineyards Sangiovese Rose from Sonoma County, California, and Yalumba Y Series Sangiovese Rose from Australia.

Summer foods

Light Sangiovese reds are very food friendly and this is especially true with many of our favorite summer dishes. For example dishes with tomatoes or tomato sauce are excellent partners as the intrinsic acidity mirrors the acidity in the tomato creating an overall harmony in the palate.

Rose Sangiovese complement a wide range of seafood while chilled Chianti or young Sangiovese IGT reds also work well with grilled tuna, salmon and cod.

Both Sangiovese rose and light reds are ideal to foil the heat of summer nights while you enjoy an evening barbecue. Actually almost anything you choose to throw on the grill should work well with these friendly summer wines.

Sangiovese at a glance

Thin-skinned, early-budding and slow-ripening red wine grape

Color: Light to medium ruby red, sometimes purple

Aromas & flavors: Strawberry, cherry, tobacco, herbs, spices

Mouth feel: Acidic, astringently tannic

Key descriptor: Fresh


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