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The Dark Truth about Pure Sangiovese

Posted: Aug 18, 2008 1:58pm ET

I have recently read a number of comments on the Internet about Sangiovese, and how it can’t make dark-colored wines with ripe tannins and full body. But it just isn’t true.

Sangiovese can and does make wines with a depth of color, fruit and tannins, and anyone who says it can’t just doesn’t know what they are talking about. Everything from new vineyard plantings and clonal selections to rotary fermentation tanks and micro-oxygenation has led many Tuscany producers to make deeper, darker and better Sangioveses.

For example, one of my top wines of the year from Italy, so far, is a pure Sangiovese from the hills outside of Florence – the 2006 Bibi Graetz Testamatta. Here is the tasting note: "Offers beautiful blackberry, coffee bean and chocolate aromas with toasted oak undertones. Full-bodied. with supervelvety tannins and a follow-through that lasts for minutes. There's so much milk chocolate and fruity character on the finish. This is so layered and mind blowing. A fabulous pure Sangivoese. Shows the great quality of the vintage. 98 points."

“What’s impressive about the 2006 Testament is that it has such structure and richness with Sangiovese,” says Bibi, the 30-ish winemaker and creator of the wine. His first vintage was in 2001.

Graetz achieves the concentration primarily in the vineyard. He uses mostly old vines and keeps grape yields down to a minimum, usually much less than a kilo per vine. This means that what is left on the vine ripens to the best possible levels and contains a serious concentration of flavor components as well as polyphenolic compounds, to ensure rich tannins and dark colors. Moreover, his winemaking is equally hands-on, with fermentations done in small open-top wood vats, caps pushed down by hand, and finished wine aged in well-selected new French oak barrels. It’s a combination of details followed at the highest level in both the vineyard and cellar.

There are numerous other Tuscan producers achieving similar levels of quality through such methodology, including both small and large wineries in just about every major winemaking area. The proof is already in the bottle and barrel, especially with the two excellent 2007 and 2006 vintages.

Still, there are disbelievers. They say that any Sangiovese that’s rich and structured can’t be pure and they are most likely blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. I am not saying that this doesn’t happen in Tuscany. And we all know that many producers legally add French varietals to their Sangioveses, whether in Chianti Classico or making an IGT. But it isn’t necessary, if Sangiovese is grown and produced properly.

“Why would I want ruin a perfectly good Sangiovese with Cabernet or Merlot?” asks Bibi.

Of course, he’s being humorous. But he has a point, too. That’s why Brunello should be pure Sangiovese, in my opinion. But that’s another debate.

This all sort of reminds me of Burgundy in the 1980s, when a number of young wine producers began reducing grape yields with their Pinot Noir and using such techniques as cold maceration of the grapes before the fermentation, among other things, to achieve darker colors and firmer tannins. At the time, some critics said that their wines were “atypical” even “adulterated.”

But times have changed and dark-colored red Burgundy is now more than accepted -- it's even preferred by many. The same is true with Sangiovese from Tuscany. It's just that a few of the vocal minority haven’t figured it out yet.

Robert Horvath
August 18, 2008 2:42pm ET
James,I just received the new issue of the Wine Spectator and I am shocked that the 2006 Fontodi Chianti Classico was not reviewed. Fontodi is one of the most famous and I look forward to the new vinatge and your comments.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  August 18, 2008 4:30pm ET
James,I think the concern should not be whether or not the wine is darkly colored but what is the concentration of flavors, the ripeness of tannin, and the body of the wine. Color, as long as it is pure seems like a secondary consideration. -- I guess the other concern would be at what lengths does a producer need to go to achieve these things and what are the consequences of doing so. You mentioned Burgundy in the 1980s -- the consultant Guy Accad came to prominence then and some of his techniques for producing darker and more concentrated wines led to wines that didn't age as well as the "lighter versions." Some of what he did in the vineyard was great - but adopting new methods can have unintended consequences as well.Adam LeeSiduri Wines
Dominic Passanisi
Los —  August 18, 2008 6:56pm ET
I, for one, have no desire to taste a Sangiovese that is reminiscent of milk chocolate. And if it has to be Frankensteined into acquiring that taste and texture with rotofermentors and Micro-ox....*shiver*

If you listen closely, you can hear Bartolo Mascarello shouting from the great beyond..."No barrique, no Berlusconi!"
Kevin Harvey
August 18, 2008 11:03pm ET
Dark Sangiovese raised in new barrels just sounds like an everyday Cab wannabe to me. The greatest Sangiovese are not trying to be Cabernet. Instead, they embrace the beautiful complexity of the grape when grown on great sites (Soldera should be the beacon) and new oak barrels only serve to mask and muddle what makes these wines special.
James Suckling
 —  August 19, 2008 7:31am ET
Robert. Relax. I reviewed the Fontodi but we didn't publish all the notes!
James Suckling
 —  August 19, 2008 7:33am ET
Kevin. You are welcomed to your opinion, of course. And Soldera made some excellent wines in the 1980s. Unfortunately, his wines now are extremely high (too high for me) in voltaile acidity; so I am happy that they do not serve as a beacon for Sangiovese. Moreover, I never said they had to be as dark as Cabernet...
James Suckling
 —  August 19, 2008 7:34am ET
Adam. Amen. Good points, which I wholeheartedly agree with.
James Suckling
 —  August 19, 2008 7:38am ET
Dominic. I never said everyone has to use these methods, nor that Sangiovese has to be dark colored to be excellent. But I was just pointing out that some excellent Sangioveses are dark colored, particularly from lower grape yields. Bartolo was quite the character and he made some amazing wines. Unfortunately, a number were less successful due to his unclean cellar. Did you ever visit him?
Robert Horvath
August 19, 2008 11:03am ET
James,Can you tell me when you are planning on publishing the notes on Fontodi Chianti Classico? I am just anxious.
Jim Mccusker
Okemos, MI —  August 19, 2008 11:36am ET
James - As a consumer I'm a great believer in people just drinking what they enjoy. The debate over what constitutes a "true" expression of a given varietal is important for the professionals, for amateur enophiles such as myself seeking to become more educated about wine, and, of course, those wonderful folks at the TTB whose lives (at least recently) seem keenly focused on whether 1% of Cabernet is sneaking into those Brunellos (and thereby saving humanity in the process). At the same time, that expression also should reflect the vision of the winemaker. I think all of this ties into Adam's comments: it's really about balance, concentration of flavors, and, ultimately, the sheer enjoyment one gets out of sharing a wonderful bottle of wine with friends and family. Just my two-cents (and since I spent some time at work writing this, let's use Euros). Cheers.
Bradley Wright
Cincinnati, OH —  August 19, 2008 11:39am ET
James, you always provide such great content in both your WS articles and blogs! Thanks!I do find myself agreeing with some of the other posts. I too am concerned as it seems more and more Italian producers are falling into the "fruit bomb" trap. The fact that Italian wines, for the most part, tend NOT to be overextracted and overoaked is what draws me to them. Don't get me wrong I am all for using new technology to make a better wine, just so long as the character of the grape and its terroir are not compromised.
Ben Brady
Des Moines, Iowa —  August 19, 2008 11:46am ET
Mr. Suckling - kudos on your responses to the various concerns over darker, more cab-esque Sangiovese. It's great to see the back-and-forth. I have to say that I agree with some of the detractors in that I am scared at the homogenization of what is supposed to make a great wine anymore. Body, color, and concentration seem to have replaced complexity and elegance as wine's desirable qualities. Why on earth would I need a darker, more structured Sangiovese? The world is awash in an ocean of hyper-concentrated wines that can often (certainly not always) suffer from a serious lack of balance. This isn't really a jab at your blog (I greatly appreciate your opinion and your palate) but a concern at the movement toward what I would call concentration over quality.
David Drozdror
Henderson  —  August 19, 2008 12:14pm ET
James. Last Wed I drunk with Bibi his colare 04 and Testamatte 05(with many more others italian wine such as valdicava madona 99, valdicava 99, casanova 99, tua rita ridegafi 03 and 05 and 6 different barolo). They both were unbeliveble. I wasn't aware of the person or his wine before but I am gladd I had the chance to sit down with him and drink those wines. It look like he will be one of the next superstars from Italy. Can't wait for the 06 to be relased.
Scott Oneil
UT —  August 19, 2008 1:21pm ET
Great blog on an obviously engaging, even controversial issue. I bought the Testamatta on pre-arrival after reading your tasting note in the Insider's issue. I'm excited to see so many, top-notch pure Sangiovese-based wines (Testamatta used to be a blend, right?) being produced outside of BdM, and I hope for more. I buy them precisely for the reason of enjoying different styles, which is why I'm pleased that some producers are making a darker Brunello or Sangio-IGT. I tasted the '97 Siro Pacenti BdM recently and was blown away: not a 'fruit bomb,' not a Cab wannabe, but a dark, complex, highly aromatic, gorgeous Brunello. The wine world is large enough for everyone to do their own thing and still get along.
Albert Jochems
The Netherlands —  August 19, 2008 3:20pm ET
As a big fan of Sangiovese based wines I can only appreciate the various incarnations it comes in. Even when they come from the same region. Its hard to image that the Soldera or Biondi Santi Brunelli are made within a few kilometres distance from the likes of Valdicava and Siro Pacenti. All four of them are superb wines in their own right.

But I find it remarkable that many of the pure Sangiovese based IGT wines (e.g. Flacianello, Torrione and Fontalloro) are all of the dark coloured kind. There does seem to be a bit of a 'engineering for a particular market' element in this. I do like these wines. But I also appreciate the delicate and complex character of some of the 'lighter' produces of the same grape.BTW, doesn't the same apply to Nebbiolo?
Richard A Eckert
Encinitas, CA —  August 20, 2008 4:38pm ET
I appreciate most of the comments, but I believe that blending is seldom appreciated. With certain harvests an unblended wine may be ideal, but I think I tend to enjoy wines more when winemakers try to get the most they can our of the wines they have available to them, blending were that provides a richer taste and maybe producing several several blends from their cellars to suit a variety of palates. I think we all have at least slightly different preferences, and I'd hate to sacrifice the ability to get what I like to some "expert's" palate.
Jeff Perry
San Francisco —  August 21, 2008 6:27pm ET
"I have recently read a number of comments on the Internet about Sangiovese, and how it can¿t make dark-colored wines with ripe tannins and full body." They gotta be kidding. Have they never had a Brunello? These folks don't get it, and should buy something else. Leave Sangio to those who love it for what it is. Next thing you know they'll be saying Dauvissat and Raveneau should add new oak to their Chablis. Sheesh!
Dan Murphy
Tampa, FL —  August 23, 2008 10:12pm ET
How can one seriously say this if one has ever tasted a Brunello? Or one of the great Chiantis from Fontodi or Felsina? Screaming out to the world "Look at me, I am an idiot" seems like a poor way to get attention.

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