The changing faces of Sangiovese

18Mar Posted by Jo Lory

Sangiovese is Italy’s most planted grape making up around 10% of vineyards. It’s thought to have originated in the south – a cross between the ancient ciliegiolo grape and Calabrese Montenuovo, an obscure variety found in Campania. Sangiovese was first grown in the Apennine monasteries in the between Romagna and Tuscany and eventually made its way into both regions.

Despite being considered a ‘noble’ variety, able to convey a clear message of origin and originality right into the glass, Sangiovese doesn’t have anywhere near the widespread appeal or recognition of Pinot Noir, another grape synonymous with terroir and sublime quality when planted in the right place. To be fair Sangiovese hasn’t always had great PR – the name isn’t mentioned on the label of the best examples. Even in its heartland of Chianti its distinct personality is often blended away or masked by heavy handed use of new oak. Its character diluted in the clones that were much planted in the 70s and 80s, which produce quantity over quality.

Walter Speller and Jane Hunt MW want to change opinions and shine a light on the changing approach to the varietal in Italy over the last 10 years. With this in mind they brought an impressive collection of producers to London at the beginning of March for Sangiovese Reset. This included Giorgio Melandri owner and winemaker at Mutiliana a project focusing on the potential of Sangiovese in Modigliana’s different sites and soils. Giorgio and Walter Speller gave a masterclass: A New Generation Sangiovese from Romagna at the tasting.

In Romagna 15 sub-zones have been identified based on the soil types which run in broad bands as you move inland from the coast: sand near the sea; a layer of clay as you start to go up the hills; chalk; and finally marl and sandstone. With more meticulous farming we’re just starting to see how these soils and microclimates influence certain characters in the wines. According to Walter and Giogrio the sand sometimes gives salty characters, the chalk more floral wines and the marl and sandstone a citrus elegance and a savoury longevity.

Walter Speller described Sangiovese as being in a “Post-modernist phase”. In the recent past there was an overzealous use of new oak barriques, along with the use of selected yeasts and filtration, and this led to a “sterilisation of wine”. In addition, high yielding clones have been grown on trellises giving poor quality material to work with. Walter feels that producers need to look back pre WW1, before phylloxera, to rediscover original winemaking techniques.

We tasted two of Giorgio’s wines in the class both from the outstanding 2016 vintage. Modigliana has three valleys – Ibola, Tramazzo and Acereta – that climb up the Apennines from the town and give their names to three distinctive wines. Woodland around some of the vineyards keep the summer days cooler and regulates the water supply. Some of his vines are above the fog line so grapes ripen later into the autumn.

Ibbola from Mutiliana comes from a plot of mostly sandstone with a small amount of marl at 500 metres above sea level. The site is surrounded by woodland which cools the microclimate, typically resulting in long hang times and later ripening. All his wines are fermented and aged in concrete vats which allow the character of the grapes to shine through. The wine is fresh and quite shy initially on the nose with a herbal streak which Giorgio says he finds typical of the area. It tastes of fresh currants and blood orange, with very fine tannins – this wine has the bones to last.

Tramazo comes from a higher plot at 600 metres, soils are also marl and sandstone but with a percentage of clay. The wine has a fresh sappy nose, with a bit of bell pepper and sage. It’s juicy with a slight vermouth quality.

You can find out more about the Mutiliana project on our website.

Vigna Barbischio, a Chianti Classico Riserva was also on taste at the event. This textbook Chianti made by Maurizio Alongi has a spicy nose, vibrant cherry fruit on the palate and crunchy tannins. Drop us a line if you’d like to taste this or any of Giorgio’s wines.