Ask a person about their favourite wine grapes and you will hear a variety of responses. Many are fans of Merlot, Shiraz / Syrah, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and of course Chardonnay; equally, many will profess to detesting at least one of these. Ask for opinions about Sangiovese, however, and you will likely be met with blank stares.

According to a highly unscientific poll of a dozen random students, Sangiovese is probably an Italian football player or fashion designer, or possibly a French artist or the Prime Minister of Spain. According to Webster1913, Sangiovese does not exist. According to a more up to date dictionary1, it is a "variety of grape used to make Chianti and other Italian red wines".

This is the first problem with Sangiovese — it is not well known by name, and does not have the image associated with more famous grapes. Although Chianti is reasonably well recognised (though not to the same extent as, say, Chablis or even Médoc), the average wine drinker does not know anything about its composition beyond it being red (and even that is not entirely correct — some Chianti includes the white Trebbiano or Malvasia Toscana grapes in the mix).

The second problem is that the grape is not especially easy to grow. It is extremely sensitive to soil variations, leading to huge differences in quality even between vines in the same vineyard. It also has problems ripening, which can lead to harsh tannins and a lack of depth.

Finally, Sangiovese is hampered by tradition. The original Chianti blend was established in the late nineteenth century by Baron Ricasoli, and it included 70% Sangiovese and around 15% Canaiolo, with much of the remainder being made up of Trebbiano. The inclusion of a white grape in the mix lead to a dampening of character — thus, for a long time, Sangiovese was considered rather bland.

Over the past fifteen years, however, Sangiovese has been used in a mix of 90% or higher in many of the super Tuscan wines. Originally labelled with the unpromising vino di tavalo denomination rather than the more usual denominazione di origine controllata, the success of these wines and the huge prices they have come to command has lead to the Italian wine regulators reconsidering the Chianti style — now, many super Tuscans are sold as indicazione geografica tipica Toscana

Following on from this success, many Australian and Californian wine makers have started planting Sangiovese, and its popularity in Italy has also increased substantially. Sangiovese is slowly starting to show up on varietals and in blends with Merlot, Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon. Although (as with other unregulated new world wines) much of it is of poor quality, some producers are making a very respectable wine from it.

Sangiovese makes a medium to full bodied and slightly bitter wine, and is often described as being spicy with a taste of strawberry or raspberry. It goes well with game and red meats, and works well with strongly seasoned or spiced food.

1: The Compact Oxford English Dictionary

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