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Sangiovese - can't travel, won't travel?

Published:  14 June, 2019

It’s long been held that the variety behind Chianti Classico is incapable of adapting to anywhere beyond Italian shores, but Australia’s ever resourceful producers are proving this wrong.

Growers in New Zealand, California and Australia continue to prove that you can coax class and finesse out of Pinot Noir, even without the backdrop of the Cote d'Or. The tired cliché of Pinot Noir's inability to travel has been resoundingly put to death.

Yet Italy's signature grape variety, Sangiovese, has arguably seen no equivalent success. Or, at least, recognition. Like Pinot Noir, it is very sensitive to its environment, but is also capable of producing structured wines of real intensity and elegance - one would think that Sangiovese is an obvious candidate for being sent abroad. However, of the approximately 70,820 hectares planted worldwide, the vast majority of Sangiovese remains in Italy. Sangiovese is less abundant than even Mourvedre – hardly a globally renowned variety.

But is this because Sangiovese can't cut the mustard in 'foreign' climes?

California is one of Sangiovese's colonies outside of Tuscany, although at least one winemaking family isn't convinced that Sangiovese can rise to the occasion on this terroir.

The Antinoris invested in Napa Valley in the late 1980s. Their estate, Antica Napa Valley, was to be a flagship New World terroir for growing Sangiovese – a different expression to Tuscany, of course, but every bit as valid. Yet after years and years of experimentation, they decided to pull up their vines. So what went wrong?

“In the beginning, we planted Sangiovese, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and other varieties,” explains Albiera Antinori.

She continues: “For a number of reasons, mainly the difference of terroir, it was quite difficult to obtain Sangiovese wines with both depth and elegance. So in 2008, we replanted our Sangiovese at higher altitudes on the sides of the hills of the estate, to see if it would benefit from a different position. Ultimately, however, it was not satisfactory and most of the new vineyards have been replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon, which actually gives us a lot of satisfaction.”

The Antinoris probably know more about growing Sangiovese than any other winemaking dynasty, so their experiences and opinions cannot be dismissed. But if, as Albiera suggests, Sangiovese really only produces a worthy, elegant expression in its native homeland, why do producers in Australia persist in growing a variety that lacks the marketing clout of Cabernet Sauvignon?

“In the early days (late 1990s) Sangiovese was particularly difficult to sell in Australia – no surprise as it was virtually unheard of. Now its quite a different story with dozens of producers making very decent versions from a plethora of regions right across Australia,” says Rollo Crittenden, owner of Crittenden Wines.

“Our wines rarely have the depth of colour and concentration you might expect from a Chianti Classico but they invariably show bright cherry and berry flavours and the firm savoury tannins which are synonymous with Sangiovese,” he adds.

Greenstone Vineyards is another important outpost of Sangiovese in Australia.

“Our vineyard was planted in 2003 by original company founders and previous owners Alberto Antonini (funnily enough – formerly of Antinori), David Gleave MW and Mark Walpole who recognised Heathcote as a perfect place to plant Sangiovese,” says Simon Lee, sales and marketing manager at Greenstone.

He adds: “Whilst it has nowhere near the market share of other notable red varietals, it’s still a good seller for us. Our vineyard is also recognized as one of the better-known sites producing top quality Sangiovese, which helps.

“We do, however have some challenges to overcome in hotter years. Quercitin precipitation (a bitter flavonol) can be synonymous with the variety and sometimes a challenge given our climate.”

Meanwhile, the trade remains largely in favour of New World expressions of Sangiovese, albeit it is widely recognised that no grower has, or perhaps can replicate the majesty of top-end Brunnello or Chianti.

“Sangiovese grown outside of Italy does not resemble the great wines of Tuscany - they certainly lack the incredible sense of terroir that Tuscany provides,” observes Zach Jones, Wine Director at Pacific Standard Time restaurant, Chicago.

“That said, I wholeheartedly disagree that those grapes are entirely unsuccessful outside of Italy. Rootdown (a wonderful, small natural producer) makes a fantastic version from Jane's Vineyard. And Rootdown is not alone - we're seeing more and more Sangiovese produced in Northern California. Again, these wines would never be confused with a Super Tuscan or Brunello, but they are beautiful wines off the cork and are ready to drink now.”

Jones underlines the point that in California at least, politics is also responsible for the relatively small amount of Italian grapes transplanted to the west coast, and grown successfully.

“One thing to remember is that many of the original vineyards planted on the west coast and specifically in California were planted by Italian immigrants,” says Jones.

“While those grapes largely fell out of favour in California for the French transplants like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, they remain a crucial part of the history of California's viticulture.”

Will we see a resurgence of Sangiovese across California in the years to come? Probably not, but as wine curiosities go, New World Sangiovese is surely worth a look, despite the less than promising experiences of the Antinoris.

A recurrent gripe of the trade is the tedious dominance of four to five French varieties on supermarket shelves. Producers such as Crittenden and Rootdown, who persist in growing this niche – and not necessarily bankable – export, are providing a welcome antidote to our often ubiquitous wine choices.