In ten years we have never focussed on Italian wines in our lists, but on a trip to Tuscany last autumn I underwent a Damascene conversion. I made two great discoveries: fi rst, that Sangiovese is a great grape; and second, that Tuscan wine needn’t be horribly expensive to be awfully good. This overcame my long-held prejudices (based, I am ashamed to say, on consumption in my youth of too many coarse, thin, acidic and tannic examples) against the grape. So I returned in February on a typical SVS wine hunt: I started with the big annual fair in Montalcino, the aptly named Benvenuto Brunello, drove east to nearby Montepulciano, north into the Chianti Classico zone, and then west to the coast.
There is a fascinating dialogue going on in Tuscany between Sangiovese and the two principal French interlopers, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (along with Syrah and even some Pinot Noir). During the last two decades the Bordeaux grapes seemed to be taking over. Chianti (and even Brunello di Montalcino) was being adulterated with Merlot and Cab; and all the critical running was being made by the so-called Super Tuscans such as the Cabernet-based Sassicaia and Solaia, or the Merlot-based Masseto. However, in recent years Sangiovese, a grape pretty much unique to central and southern Italy, has made a huge comeback. This follows a greater understanding that it is a very fi ckle grape to grow: it needs heat (almost all Sangiovese is grown south of the Arno), but it doesn’t like humidity, so it prefers south-facing slopes and the ventilation from wind which altitude brings; it needs a long growing season, being early to bud but late to ripen; it demands very calcareous soils to give its best; and it needs low-fertility soils to avoid excessive yields. Secondly, there is more appreciation that one needs the right clones of Sangiovese, with a move away from the bigger, over-productive Sangiovese Grosso.
The big volume Sangiovese-based wine is, of course, Chianti. There’s no question that a lot of Chianti is still not much fun to drink: we do commend ours. With Chianti Classico one is on surer ground. This much smaller DOCG, only delimited in 1995, occupies the rolling and often wooded hills between Florence and Siena. Many of the vineyards are quite high - up to 700m. -and that brings finesse and freshness to the wines. Further south in Montepulciano, and especially Montalcino, protected by Monte Amiata, the climate is warmer and Sangiovese shows more power and higher alcohol levels.
So what are the virtues of this Tuscan grape in the glass? For me, Sangiovese is comparable to Pinot Noir as a truly great food wine. It has many similarities: pale colour; red and black cherry fruit; highish acidity, and splendidly Pinot-like aromatics. But wholly distinctive to Sangiovese is that it often fairly swiftly develops a particular savoury fl avour: sometimes this emerges as notes of grilled meat, gravy and cooked mushrooms, but at a subtler level one could compare it to umami, the Japanese term for the fi fth basic taste (after sweet, sour, bitter and salty). This savouriness makes Sangiovese a truly wonderful partner to most meat dishes - whether the local Chianina beef, hare or wild boar, or the more mundane meats we consume here.
Several local growers I met think Tuscany’s fascination with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is over: they anticipate the withdrawal of some over-priced super-Tuscans. But there’s no doubt that the Bordeaux varieties can produce delicious wines in the right sites, notably on the coast near Bolgheri. Sadly I found that the wines I tasted from growers there with vines on the slightly dull coastal plain did not meet the required SVS price-to-quality ratio. However, just north of Bolgheri is the little-known DOC of Montescudaio, where I found some wonderful Mediterranean Merlot and Cabernet at half the price.
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