ITALY’S WINE REGIONS HAVE THEIR SPECIALITY GRAPES, BUT ONE GRAPE UNITES THE COUNTRY: THE MIGHTY SANGIOVESE
Sangue is the Italian word for blood and the origin of the name of Italy’s vinous beating heart, sangiovese, which is found growing in large numbers across much of the country. And while often it is the base of generic reds, wines to wash down local dishes, at its finest, as in the great wines of Tuscany, sangiovese is an aristocratic beacon of Italian wine, and one of its finest jewels.
For centuries sangiovese has been revered throughout Italy. While the grand and aristocratic nebbiolos of Barolo and Barbaresco rise from a handful of hillsides close to Turin in northwestern Italy, and deeply flavoured primitivos and nero d’Avolas are found in the sun-drenched south, it is only sangiovese that flourishes nationwide. Not only is the grape able to withstand a wide variety of climates and conditions, it is also a delicious and food-friendly red.
Sangiovese is also a chameleon. In the flatter and warmer southern climates it crafts juicy, fruit-filled wines with moreish, savoury red fruits, often reminiscent of red cherries. But travel north into its Tuscan heartland and sangiovese’s savoury personality comes to the fore. Baked earth, tobacco, Italian herbs and faint charcuterie scents are wound up in layers of dark and red cherry fruits. And despite their generosity there is always an acid-driven backbone complimented by sinewy tannins which makes this one of the world’s great food wines, tremendously versatile with a vast range of dishes and cuisines.
It is in the hills north of Siena in Tuscany that the most famous sangiovese is found: in Chianti. Its distinctive black cockerel emblem is recognised throughout the world as are its juicy, bright garnet, scented wines. Chianti and its prestigious sibling Chianti Classico have gone through a metamorphosis over the past two decades. Gone are the kitsch wicker-based bottles, replaced by hearty, generous and pleasurable reds, especially in the Classico zone – wines with density and richness of fruit but also with bright acidity and generous tannins.
But if one wine were to represent sangiovese at its inimitable best, it would have to be the Brunellos sourced from the low hills around the medieval citadel of Montalcino. Perched high above the local countryside, Montalcino is a stark and historic town – its 13th-century fortress marking its strategic importance. While the quality of wines from Chianti has been recognised for centuries, it is only for 150 years that Montalcino, made solely from the Brunello clone of sangiovese, has been fully appreciated.
Initially Brunello di Montalcinos were tremendously rare, with very few wineries in operation and irregular bottlings – the historic Biondi-Santi estate bottled Brunello in only four vintages between 1888 and the end of World War II. In the 1960s only 11 producers were bottling wines exclusively made from Montalcino. These wines were not only rare but also very different from Chianti and almost all other dry wines around the world due to long oak ageing, some wines having spent up to a decade in barrel before bottling. Today Brunellos are still an uncommon sight, with total production only a small fraction of Chianti.
Among those historic wineries is Col d’Orcia, named after its location on a hill overlooking the Orcia River, which first showcased wines at the Siena Wine Exhibition of 1933 under its former name, Fattoria di Sant’Angelo. As was common at the time, the property was planted with a range of crops – wheat, olives, tobacco and grapes. But as Brunello’s fame has grown more and more vines have been planted.
Although a historic producer in Montalcino Col d’Orcia also has modern elements to its grape growing and wine production. Col d’Orcia has always been managed with a strong belief in protecting the local environment. In 2010 this lead to the complete conversion of all crops on the property to organic farming methods. And that same dedication to quality is also seen in the cellar across the range.
While in some ways production is traditional with ageing in large format Slavonian oak, more modern French Oak barriques are also used. Col d’Orcia also produces wines made from non-traditional Tuscan varieties such as pinot grigio, chardonnay, merlot, cabernet and syrah for its extended range. This attention to detail combined with a foot in both modern and traditional Brunello di Montalcino makes wines from this property worth seeking out.