Tim Atkin: on Toscana’s Sangiovese

Tim Atkin MW’s theme at Vini Italiani’s Sangiovese evening was ‘embrace the diversity, even the difficulty of Italian wine’.  The list of indigenous varieties might seem endless, the DOCs may be ever expanding, the rules complex and seeming designed to provoke rebellion in a naturally individualistic people, but it’s worth it.  Rather like the temperamental Sangiovese grape itself, which demands the right site (especially good drainage) and endless attention in the vineyard, the results can be remarkable – pale in colour, challenging in its acidity and tannins but refreshing, excellent with food, ageable if of a certain quality, expressive of place (‘somewhereness’, Matt Kramer’s definition of terroir).  The selection of wines on the evening gave an excellent introduction to the various styles in Tuscany and, as it happens, was nicely complementary to the recent blind tasting at Overton where we were treated to old vintages.  Here Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Carmignano and one of the rebellious superstars of Chianti got their proper share of the limelight. 

Tim sets out the economic importance of this variety:  of the supposed 80,000 hectares of vineyard in Italy (including some phantom vineyards which are registered Image 3for the purpose of getting EU distillation money), Sangiovese is planted on a huge 70,000 ha.  Toscana alone accounts for 40,000 of this, though the variety is present in 17 of Italy’s 20 regions.  There are also plantings in Australia (Mudgee, Mclaren Vale, probably both too hot, and the Limestone Coast), Argentina (planted by Italian immigrants for cheap wine), South Africa (a tiny amount) and California (Antinori tried and gave up at Atlas Peak but cool Santa Barbara has good Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, both fully paid up members of Italy’s awkward squad, being determined non-travellers. 

If Sangiovese is a rather queasy traveller, what the tasting rightly showed was the diversity of styles within its Tuscan stronghold.  Warm, extracted and fuller bodied in the Maremma, light and refreshing in Chianti Classico, sterner in Montepulciano, taut and ethereal at a star estate near Radda in Chianti. 

Wines tasted

Bellamarsilia, Morellino di Scansano DOCG, 2010 – organically grown, innocent of any oak, ruby in colour with the pink tinge of youth; simple cherry fruit, medium-plus acidity, medium ripe tannins: simple, well made, drinking pleasure

Le Cinciole, Chianti Classico DOCG, 2008 – from Panzano, one of the very best sub zones, pale ruby, modest cherry nose but then very attractive cherry and sour-cherry fruit, savoury, light in the mouth, very good acidic and tannic attack

Dei, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, 2008 – richer fruit than the preceding Classico, quite austere even if by Montepulciano standards this is modern and approachable in style.  Balanced and classy.

Il Mandrione, La Corsa, Maremma Toscana IGT, 2008 – from fruit grown at coastal Orbetello and vinified in next door Lazio, this showed prune, oak and leather notes with a soft palate if with balancing acidity.  Unusual and atypical attempt at a 100% Sangiovese wine from the coast which came out somewhat like the Syrah which is increasingly grown all over the region. 

Montevertine, Toscano Rosso IGT, Montevertine, 2009 – the youngest and by some margin the best wine of the evening: brilliant medium-minus crystal-clear ruby in the glass, superb refreshing red fruits and subtle oak ageing affects on nose and especially palate; subtle, richness without effort … a great wine to, well, drink for its poise and well hidden intensity. See my post on the levels of obsessive commitment which goes into making of these paradoxically simple but great wines.

Il Sasso, Mauro Vanucci, Carmignano DOCG, 2006 – a very good example of this tiny 110 ha region of many aristocratic estates 15 km west of Florence. The distinguishing mark is the minimum 20% Cabernet, established here the best part of a century before it made a splash in Bolgheri.  Deep ruby, aromas of ripe red and some black fruit, French oak and a well covered 14.5% of alcohol.  Still Tuscan it its fine acidity and tannins but only just.

San Fillipo, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, 2007 – a slightly reductive nose (I prefer my onion and garlic aromas from the plate rather than the glass!), but then classic savoury fruit, quite intense, a relatively soft palate from the attractive, early drinking, 2007 vintage.  Classy, even if it didn’t quite provide the climax to the evening that everyone was hoping for. 

The other gem of the evening was Tim Atkins relaying the Tuscan consultant Alberto Antonini’s approach to making a Sangiovese based wine:  bleed the vats of 20-30% of the juice to increase concentration (and make some rosé as a bonus); high fermentation temperatures of 30-32 degrees for colour extraction; maximise contact with the skins (punch down regularly, 10 days maceration time), barrel ferment for better integration of oak; age for 18-24 months in barrels, bottle after 3-5 years – an expensive, demanding approach to Tuscany’s signature grape.  It would be interesting to conjecture which of the above wines comes closest to this approach. 

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