The grape is late ripening but retains its acidity and can be successfully grown across mainland Australia. It doesn’t create an alcoholic monster; but can if you want it too.
IF THERE is one grape variety destined for success in the next decade it deserves to be sangiovese. Its history in Australia might be best described as a case of ‘always the bridesmaid and never the bride’. The grape never seems to have hit the popularity that it has in Italy. Considering it is regarded as the Tuscan red and that it has been growing in Australia since the 1970’s the plantings still remain small. Yet it has one big Aussie tick in its favour. In the arvo, reno, smoko and Scomo world we inhabit, I’ve noticed it has been shortened to ‘Sangio’ (groan).
The grape is late ripening but retains its acidity and can be successfully grown across mainland Australia. It doesn’t create an alcoholic monster; but can if you want it too. It is best described as medium bodied and tannins range from medium to high, which makes it a flexible match at the dining table especially with fattier meats (slow cooked Lamb or equally Bistecca alla Fiorentina) or pan-fried dishes with tomato based sauces such as a veal scaloppini. It can be simple, fresh and fruity displaying red or black cherries, but it can also take ageing in oak for a more savoury style. It’s approachable when young but can last a decade in some instances as the fruit, tannins and acidity are perfectly balanced to age gracefully. The grape has pedigree with the wines of Brunello di Montalcino commanding some of the highest prices in Italy. Recently San Giusto a Rentennano Chianti Classico was ranked the 3rd best wine out of 100 in 2019 by Wine Spectator Magazine, two points behind the No 1 wine – Chateau Leoville Barton. Incredibly, there were three Chianti’s in the top twenty wines. Overall, I have described a versatile grape variety that can make a number of different styles. Ask Pizzini in the King Valley, they produce six different styles!
There are 116 clones on the National Register of Grape Varieties in Italy, but you will be relieved to know that Sangiovese Grosso and Sangiovese Piccolo are the two major ones. Grosso being the better of the two, but it can be a vigorous plant, so hard pruning and bunch thinning might be required. Grosso is the one found mostly in Tuscany whilst Piccolo is more commonly found in Emilia Romagna. On the downside, due to a weak colour pigment, it tends to suffer from oxidation and can display an orange rim.
The grape goes under a number of names such as Brunello, Morellino, Prugnollo Gentile and Nielluccio, the latter being the name given to it on the French island of Corsica. Sangiovese parents have been identified via DNA as Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montenuovo which originated from Calabria. The name sangiovese comes from the Latin Sanguis Jovis – blood of Jove (Jupiter) which might indicate its use in the Roman era.
Like every other variety sangoivese has had to cope with the effects of global warming. In Montalcino the 2017 vintage was one of the hottest on record with temperatures reaching the high thirties and rainfall was unheard of. This is after the spring frost had taken its toll earlier in the year. Hot summer weather conditions stop photosynthesis and result in green characters with unripe tannins. Oak treatment in Italy, like elsewhere, has swung full circle with new French oak barriques being once popular but some are now returning to traditional large formats Slavonian or chestnut oak botti.
Unlike Italy, the practise of blending other grapes with sangiovese has not caught on in Australia. Regions such as Chianti and Carmignano allow between 10 and 20% cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Chianti uses native grapes as well, namely canaiolo and colorino. In the past white grapes were added to Chianti at the detriment to the quality of the wine, but this has been outlawed since 2006.
Australia’s first commercial crop was produced at the Montrose Winery in Mudgee by legendary winemaker Carlo Corino. At the time the Montrose Winery was owned by the Transfield group but after a few changes of ownership it disappeared as a winery and is a label only belonging to the Oatley Family. Carlo Corino was a graduate from the Institute of Oenology at Alba in Piemonte and served some time working for Noilly Prat, the Vermouth makers. He also worked in a local winery in Alba and was associated with the ‘re-birth’ of Arneis. Upon his arrival in Australia in 1976 he set to work managing the local varieties as well as planting Italian varieties. Legend has it that Carlo brought vine cuttings of sangiovese, nebbiolo and barbera back from Italy hidden in his suitcase. He established a hectare of each variety at Stony Creek, 20km north-east of Mudgee at an elevation of some 560 metres. Under the Australian sun the vines flourished, and he successfully launched two brands. Monticello was a blend of nebbiolo and barbera, while San Marco used pinot noir and sangiovese. Twenty years ago, I tasted the 1985 Monticello and as a fifteen-year-old wine it was still youthful. Unfortunately, no San Marco survived so that blend is consigned to the pages of history. When Carlo left in 1989, he went on to assist the resurgence of Sicilian wines with Planeta. Sadly, Carlo died in Italy in 2017, but he is remembered fondly by the Mudgee community and there is a trophy awarded in his honour for the best red wine at the annual Mudgee Wine Show.
In South Australia, Mark Lloyd from Coriole established a sangiovese vineyard in 1985 from vines imported from UCL Davis in California in the 1970s. It’s here in the McLaren Vale that the variety has consistently produced good wines, but other outposts such as the Hunter Valley, Orange and Beechworth also have great examples.