When it comes to Tuscan wine, Sangiovese is king. Although the grape appears in many appellations of the region, that doesn’t mean all Tuscan reds taste the same. On the contrary, the region demonstrates just how different Sangiovese can taste from one appellation to the next. Terroir, climate, tradition, blending, and aging all affect the characteristics of Sangiovese wines, leading to endless exploration for Sangio lovers.
While they share certain similarities with the other noble Italian grape, Nebbiolo, the classic characteristics of Sangiovese are distinct. Regardless of where they are bottled, all wines made from Sangiovese will have some, if not all, of these qualities. Flavor-wise, Sangiovese is defined by ripe and tart red fruit, particularly sour cherry; savory herbs like fennel, rosemary, and thyme; other non-fruit notes like tomato, iron, and balsamic; and distinct clay or dark rock minerality. Structurally, it can be anywhere from medium- to full-bodied but always has characteristically high acidity.
From there, it’s anyone’s game. Who are the key players? Your guide is below.
Chianti is the largest and best-known Sangiovese-dominant wine region, but its styles are diverse. Though it covers about one-third of Tuscany, overlapping several other famous Sangiovese-based regions, most of Chianti is located toward the northern side of Tuscany. As a result, it tends to exhibit more of Sangiovese’s characteristic acidity and less of its body. Chianti must always be made with at least 70 percent Sangiovese, but styles can range anywhere from medium-bodied and fresh to dense and oak-aged. Many are suitable for drinking young, so Chianti does not have long aging requirements.
Chianti Classico DOCG
While technically one of Chianti’s sub-regions, Chianti Classico has it’s own DOCG appellation and a strong wine identity. The region’s boundaries cover the historical heart of Chianti, and there is generally a more consistent level of quality within Chianti Classico. Compared to the average Chianti, Chianti Classico has more potential to age and can be as high in quality as excellent Brunello di Montalcinos, particularly in riserva and the new gran selezione categories.. Chianti Classico must also have a higher proportion of Sangiovese in its wines: 80 percent at minimum.
South of Siena lies the region that typically produces the highest-quality, fullest- body, and longest-lived Sangiovese wines. The Montalcino region covers an area that is now about the same size as nearby Montepulciano, but the best vineyards are located on hills, particularly those directly surrounding the town of Montalcino itself. Galestro soils dominate these higher-elevation vineyards, whereas lower-elevation vineyards generally have more clay mixed with marine sediments. Sangiovese’s clone, Brunello, which means “little dark one” in the local dialect, must comprise 100 percent of Montalcino’s two principal appellations, both of which cover the same area: Brunello di Montalcino DOCG and Rosso di Montalcino DOC.
The formula for Brunello di Montalcino DOCG was created in the 1860s by Biondi-Santi, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the appellation started gaining widespread recognition. Generally full-bodied, tannic, and complex, Brunello di Montalcino is often likened in style to Barolo and is generally considered to be the key region of central Italy. Because Brunello di Montalcino can be so aggressive in youth, it has the longest aging requirements of any Sangiovese-based region in Tuscany: four years for normale and five years for riserva, with two years in oak for both categories.
Brunello wines still have a great variation in style, particularly when it comes to oak aging. Modern versions aged in new French oak can be rich, toasty and concentrated, while traditional versions aged in large, old oak often have more of an emphasis on non-fruit flavors and earth. Regardless, Brunello is generally elegant, aromatic, and extremely long-lived.
The Rosso di Montalcino DOC serves as a kind of “baby Brunello” appellation, also required to be entirely comprised of the Brunello clone of Sangiovese and covering the same exact area as Brunello di Montalcino. However, Rosso di Montalcino wines are often made from younger vines less suitable for the bold Brunello di Montalcino, and they have shorter aging requirements: only one year, with six months in oak. This essentially allows vintners to make use of their younger vines and to bring in profits from the Rosso wines while the Brunellos age in the cellar. That said, some Rosso di Montalcinos — particularly ones by top producers — are very high in quality, with the body and structure of their big- brother Brunellos combined with increased fruit and freshness.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG
Want proof of just how confusing Italian wine can be? Consider the principal red wine from Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Completely unrelated to the Montepulciano grape, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is, in fact, made with Sangiovese. Its name refers to its location: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano must be made from Sangiovese grapes grown on the hills surrounding the town of Montepulciano. The local clone is Prugnolo Gentile, and it must make up at least 70 percent of the wine.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano must be aged for at least two years (three years for riserva), including 12 to 24 months in oak. The tradition here is to age the wines in large old barrels, rather than new French oak, but there are always exceptions. In general, however, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wines can range in style from everyday, easy-drinking wines with more complexity than the average Chianti, to rich, structured bottles more akin to Brunello di Montalcino.
Located west of Florence in the Montalbano hills, the small Carmignano region overlaps with a sub-region of Chianti called Montalbano, but the wines in this DOCG are markedly different. Even though both Carmignano and Chianti Montalbano wines are based on Sangiovese, Carmignano wines must have 10 to 20 percent of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc blended into the finished product, along with at least 50 percent Sangiovese. This is because Carmignano was actually a grape nursery in the 1700s, bringing Cabernet plantings to its vineyards.
Carmignano is generally made from Sangiovese planted on the east side of the Montalbano hills, which has less sandstone and produces a more intense version of the grape. Therefore, while Carmignano tends to be drinkable like Chianti, it also has darker fruit and more structure. Carmignano wines must be aged for approximately 18 months, with eight months in oak or chestnut. Riserva versions must be aged for three years, with 12 months in wood.
Morellino di Scansano DOCG
Located southwest of Montalcino, quite close to the Tyrrhenian coastline, Morellino di Sansano is the primary Sangiovese area in southern Tuscany’s large Maremma region. The entirety of Maremma actually used to be swampland until it was drained in the 1930s; so, while there are rolling hills in Morellino di Scansano, they are gentler and have a balmy, Mediterranean-influenced climate.
Here, Sangiovese is known as “Morellino,” hence the region’s name; as in Montalcino, it translates in the local dialect to “little dark one.” Morellino is more plush and juicy, the acidity softened by dark, drinkable cherry fruit. Despite being the most southerly Tuscan DOCG based on Sangiovese, Morellino wines have complex tasting notes beyond rich fruit. They maintain freshness and are suitable for youthful consumption, as evidenced by regulations that allow Morellino to be released a mere six months after harvest. Riserva versions show more structure and depth, and must be aged at least two years before release.