Is Sangiovese the greatest grape? Try a glass, or two

As most of my readers know, I will be leading a small group of wine aficionados through Tuscany, Italy during the harvest of its signature grape, Sangiovese.
Tuscany is a maze of different microclimates with seven distinct districts.  It’s like you placed all the major wine making areas in California in a tight cluster with their own climactic kingdoms, all growing Sangiovese. 
Italy itself is a vast garden of grape varietals with over 2,000 native wine grapes that came from a long history of settlers from other lands that brought their vines with them to plant in this wine paradise. 
Today, Italy is the largest producer and exporter of wine in the world, with the U.S. its largest importer.  But big is not the Sangiovese story.  Growers on average farm on just 2.5 acres and operate old-world equipment with historic techniques as shown in the photo of the wagon, storage jugs and press.
The American appetite for Tuscan Chianti reached its peak in the ‘60s when, wrapped in quaint, ubiquitous straw bottles, it was the darling of mindless wine drinkers. Tuscany was churning out wines that were watered-down with little regard for quality.
When California Italians emerged as the new world quality wine makers, old world Italy had to dramatically change for the better, and they did.  The government, with the cooperation of the larger wineries, raised the standards to the highest quality possible and by the late 1970s the revolution to fine wine was well under way.
Leading wineries, for the first time, were allowed to blend their wines and called them “Super Tuscans.”  Antinori was the first with his Tignanello, a wine of 85 percent Sangiovese, with the balance of Cabernet and Cab Franc.  Piero Antinori is the wine “maestro” that I studied under with a Wine Spectator video course where I earned my Wine Connoisseur certification.
“I feel a special bond with Tignanello,” he is fond of saying.  “It represents a major point of departure for my winery, my family and I, and sparked the beginning of the Italian wine renaissance.”
Other world-class Sangiovese based wines that I recommend are Banfi Wines Summus, a fine wine blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Syrah in the Montalcino estate and Banfi Brunello Di Montalcino, a Sangiovese clone aged for four years; Fontodi Chianti Classico with 100 percent Sangiovese, a classic Tuscan wine; and Barone Ricasoli Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico, from a family that dates back to the 11th century. 
Franceso Ricasoli is credited with working with the Italian government on higher standards for Sangioivese wines that became Chianti Classico. All these classic Tuscan wines give us rich notes of black berry fruit, earthiness, the high grades of minerality, excellent food friendly acidity and silky tannins that benchmark all Sangiovese wines.
Sangiovese’s name comes from early Roman Empire times.  The literal translation means “the blood of Jove,” the Roman version of Jupiter.
The blood of Sangiovese ran thick in Italian immigrants as they flooded California in the late 19th century.  The early Seghesio family is credited with growing it in Sonoma, the first in California.
A rising star in Tuscany is Agricola Fontanelle with the three Rosati bothers that contribute to Sangiovese-based wines that are turning heads. 
They also cultivate high quality olive oil and an “heirloom” breed of pig.
They use small oak barrels and age the wines for 24 months. 
The best example now released is the 2007 Ri.Va.Le. Chianti ($15) distributed through Quigley Fine Wines in San Diego.
Today, two California wineries produce Sangiovese wines to try:  Niner Wine Estates in Paso Robles and their 2008 vintage ($24) with winemaker Amanda Cramer.  It packs a strawberry taste with a touch of spice and lovely acidity that mates with Italian hard cheese. 
At South Coast Winery, master winemaker Jon McPherson makes his Sangiovese in the hills of Temecula with a style more like Brunello.  The current release is still 2006 ($34). Age and French Oak barrels are key to the refined acidity of this Sangiovese.
Is Sangiovese the greatest grape?  It’s worth a glass or two to find out for yourself.
Wine Bytes
— San Diego Wine & Culinary Center has a Caymus & Groth Wines Tasting July 29 from 6 to 9 p.m. in cooperation with Alternative Wines.  $45 per person with finger foods.  Call (619) 231-6400 for an RSVP.
— Holiday Wine Cellar in Escondido has a Frank Family Wines event July 30 from 2 to 4 p.m.  Fee of $10 in advance.  For your glass call (760) 745-1200.
— Pala Mesa Resort in Fallbrook is offering half-off Fallbrook Wines by the glass or bottle on Fridays.  The Food and Beverage Director recommends the Syrah. Call (760) 731-6806.
— Stuart Cellars in Temecula Wine Country welcomes the seventh annual Futures Barrel Tasting event July 30, from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Sample 10 wines plus gourmet food for $70.  RSVP at (951) 676-6414.
— Enjoy a gourmet Winemaker Dinner at Orfila Winery Escondido Aug. 4 from 6 to 8 p.m. $85 per person.  Details at (760) 738-6500, ext. 22.
— La Costa Wine Company presents its Cakebread Wine Tasting Aug. 5 from 5 to 8 p.m.  Cost is $25.  Call (760) 431-8455.


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