What you need to know about Italy's biggest-selling grape?
Sangiovese is Italy's numero uno grape.
Forget about across-the-board quality, or mystique, or any other subjective, debatable factor you can think of, and just focus on volume. No other grape variety, red or white — and there are hundreds of Italian grape varieties — is grown or made into more wine in Italy than sangiovese, the red grape whose name translates to the "blood of Jove." You may remember him as Jupiter, the Romans' numero uno god (pardon me, my Latin is rusty) and their answer to the Greeks' Zeus.
You may also remember sangiovese as the wheelhouse, principal grape variety of Chianti, that once-forgettable red wine whose bulbous, straw-wrapped bottles used to get stocked in pizza parlors and red-sauce restaurants across America in the same numbers as paper napkins. That wasn't just Chianti to many Americans back then — that was Italian red wine.
Long before "reduce, reuse, recycle" was a thing, those bottles got stuffed with candles and displayed on shelves in those restaurants, or on the bricks-and-boards of overcrowded college apartments. Wax was dripping down the straw even before the last drips inside those bottles had evaporated. That was sangiovese. If you ever tried a sip of it back then you might remember it as rough, uninspiring and even bitter. It's better now, and has been for years, especially in the Chianti Classico subregion.
Nestled in the larger Chianti region between Florence and Siena, the area known as Chianti Classico was declared by the Grand Duke of Tuscany as Italy's first legally protected wine region 301 years ago. Other grapes besides sangiovese are permitted in Chianti blends but all Chianti winemakers rely heavily on sangiovese — the way sandwich makers rely on bread. The flavor descriptor that gets repeated most often for sangiovese is "cherry," but it's usually not a ripe, jammy cherry; it's more of a sour or tangy cherry. You also might experience savory notes of tomato and/or tea leaves in sangiovese, plus some possible combinations of plum, violets, herbs, earth, licorice, leather, tobacco, mocha and minerality.
The grape variety usually produces wines with high acidity, medium to full body and medium to high tannin. This is not so much an easy-drinking, fruity wine as it is a good accompaniment to food. This is wine for red-sauce pastas, and pizzas, and roasted or grilled meats.
It is a late-ripening grape that loves some heat, which is why the warm Tuscan sun suits it so well, and why that part of central Italy is its undisputed home base. There, in addition to Chianti Classico, two other spots turn out some of the world's best versions of sangiovese-based wines: Brunello di Montalcino (which is made of 100 percent sangiovese) and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (another sangiovese-heavy blend).
Brunello di Montalcino, aged significantly before release and further ageable and age-worthy in bottles, is often earthy, complex and powerful. Pricey, too. Think of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano generally as somewhere between Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino, both in style and price. All three are DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) wines, which means they are among the finest that Italy produces. For more accessible and affordable versions of those two "Monts," try Rosso di Montalcino and Rosso di Montepulciano, both DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wines.
That's a lot of sangiovese and a lot of "Monts." The way to keep your Montalcino and Montepulciano straight is to remember that "Brunello di" has four syllables, and so does "Montalcino," which means they go together. In the same regard, "Vino Nobile di" has six syllables, and so does "Montepulciano," which means they go together.
Just don't confuse Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (which is sangiovese-based wine named for the Tuscan village of Montepulciano) with Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (which is wine based on the montepulciano grape variety and made in the Abruzzo region, east of Rome). If "Montepulciano" comes first, as it does in Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, it refers to the grape. Which means it's not sangiovese.
So three of your top sangiovese-based wines are Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino, but we could not wind down a sangiovese conversation without a mention of the wine style known as "Super Tuscan." This is a style that was developed in the 1970s. Convinced that the rules of Chianti were too strict and limiting to their craft, winemakers in and around Chianti started blending their sangiovese with cabernet sauvignon and merlot (and other grape varieties) — hinting at a sort of Bordeaux-style blend — and they were pleased with the results. A new renegade style was born, and today some Super Tuscans are among the most sought-after and expensive wines produced in Italy. Some of them have phased out sangiovese altogether, but other Super Tuscans still proudly include the blood of Jove in their blends.
Sangiovese runs the gamut from light and easy, to complex and brooding, and it comes in prices that mirror that range of styles. It's an easy style to get to know because it is widely available. Work your way through Chianti and its subzones and move on from there, eventually going beyond Italy to New World styles of sangiovese. You can still plop candles in your empty bottles and feel good about that, as long as you don't mind that the bottles aren't all wrapped in straw anymore.