Sangiovese means blood of Jupiter and it is one of Italy’s most famous grapes. Most important in Tuscany it is the base for some of Italy’s most famous wines: Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino. It is also often a component in Super Tuscans, a now infamous group of wines that operate outside of Italy’s wine laws and more often than not blend the famous Sangiovese grape with the non-Italian varietal Cabernet Sauvignon. Sangiovese is also grown outside of Italy in numerous places including a still relatively new foothold in California. But in fact the second largest planting of Sangiovese vines is in Mendoza Argentina. However, while Argentinean Sangiovese is well made it is much more suited to the local palate rather than aligned with the profile global wine drinkers have come to expect from the grape. And therefore unfortunately rarely found outside the country.
While many wines are 100% Sangiovese or close to it, including most of Italy’s famous, it is also often blended with other, typically heavier varietals, like in the case of the Super Tuscans. Part of the magic of Sangiovese is how well it blends with many different varietals. The key of course, as with all blending, is to make sure that the blend is enhancing the flavors of the Sangiovese instead of overwhelming it.
Sangiovese is a rather difficult grape to work with, like pinot noir it is prone to mutation, which means that there are a number of different clones of Sangiovese all with unique flavor profiles. That said there are some common flavor characteristics associated with Sangiovese across all of its clones. The most important of which is acidity. In its native home of Tuscany while the days may be warm the nights cool down significantly which helps the grapes retain their natural acidity as they ripen. Most Sangiovese wines tend to be medium bodied with notes of bright red fruit like cherry and raspberry. They also have notes of earth, truffle and spice and older wines can take on nuances of coffee and leather. All of which compliment the core of acidity that is synonymous with the varietal.
It is these characteristics that make Sangiovese such a natural match for food, and especially Italian cooking. It’s medium bodied so you don’t have to worry about it overwhelming your meal, it tends to have pretty balanced levels of tannins which keeps your options of what you can serve with it much broader, and it has that powerful backbone of acidity which is what makes your mouth water and demand another bite of food. Sangiovese and tomatoes is a classic wine pairing, the tomatoes natural acidity can stand up to that of the wine. Acidity is a great match for food but you also need to match acidity with acidity. Pairing is all about balance. Of course having a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon is going to change the flavor profile of the wine and your food pairing will have to change with it. With these wines you want to lean towards heavier dishes that are more traditional matches for heartier reds. But you can still pick heavier dishes that have a bit of a kick. Sangiovese is extremely well suited to accommodate a wide array of herbs and spices that would otherwise be at odds with a straight Cabernet Sauvignon. In other words, play around.
Italians love food and wine but their meal time is not serious, it is about friends and family and laughter and Sangiovese is the perfect compliment for that.