Grape Talk: On Sangiovese

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ever since living in siena, i’ve stopped drinking sangiovese…especially anything from chianti. it all tastes bad.

for a while i wasn’t sure why, but i knew it tasted different across the ocean. people would say it was the romance of living abroad or the thrill of the moment sharing drinks with new friends. but even if i empty out my wallet for a half decent bottle, i’ve been left totally dismayed, filing away my memory of it like a fantastic dream. but i keep craving it (i’ve often felt the same way about buying a good french red).

so when i started tasting all these natural wines from tuscany, which would have been nearly impossible to do in my previous rural location 7 years ago, my heart skipped a beat. i can safely say that it is on the road to recovery and the dream is slowly becoming a reality. one day, i will drink beautiful sangiovese again, and it will be in the northeast. this is thanks to a growing group of people (younger, mostly) who are consciously contrary to sommelier societies, lists, tests, categories and competitions, and advocates for building community through genuine enthusiasm for sharing culture and tasty stuff, supporting smaller farmers who don’t give a damn about glitz and glam. they use their hands.

sangiovese is actually very sensitive and finicky- in fact i learned that it’s particularly low in anthocyanins, the natural phenolics in the skins that give a wine its color*. it seems the answer to the bad bottle question is that imported sangiovese is often blended with cabernet sauvignon and merlot (shockingly similar to a bordeaux blend), and it totally wipes out the original nuances of the grape in favor of richness, thickness and color for the american audience. but blending with lesser-known grapes like canaiolo and colorino seems to keep it pretty real (the “cibreo” is actually blended with merlot and syrah, which makes it a little more purply and peppery, but anyway).

note to self: tuscany is the bordeaux of italy, piedmont is its burgundy.

*(Bastianich & Lynch)

FOLLOW UP from a new friend on Fri, Oct 25, 2013 at 4:23 PM:

Glad that you are rediscovering your Chianti love. As interesting as the other Chiantis can be, Chianti Classico is still a lot more consistent. Here’s one I just discovered that I thought was absolutely delicious, and fairly naturally made — I’m attaching a label photo. By the way, I agree with you completely about the role of grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot. You can make interesting wines with those grapes in Tuscany, but they should have no role in Chianti, Brunello or any of the wines that are meant to exalt sangiovese.

Best wishes,
Eric Asimov

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