I love Sangiovese because it’s difficult and very Italian.
Difficult because, like the irregular vines themselves, Sangiovese wines are all over the place: harsh to elegant, rough to smooth, severe to voluptuous, sweet-feeling to dry as terra cotta. Italian because so many classic tomato-based dishes and salumi cry out for it.
Last month, with the first vine shoots bursting from their buds, I drove to Tuscany to meet a trio of new-generation Chianti Classico winemakers.
What the three have in common is that they all launched wineries in the past decade or two—making them mere adolescents in the wine world. All three are up-and-comers whose wines stood out in recent Wine Spectator blind tastings.
Stylistically, they either make their wines with 100 percent Sangiovese (allowed in Chianti for the past 25 years) or blend it with up to 20 percent of other Tuscan natives—rejecting the previous generation’s trend of blending with international varieties such as Cabernet, Syrah or Merlot.
They have all converted their estates to organic farming, use careful and gentle cellar techniques, ferment their wines on indigenous yeasts, and age them in large casks. In general, they are part of a generation that is improving on tradition by using local grapes with more care, hygiene and precision than their forebearers.
“Our generation is really sensitive to Sangiovese. We are Sangiovese proud,” says Angela Fronti, 40, the petite, extroverted whirlwind and winemaker who oversees everything from vineyards to winemaking to sales at Istine, in Radda in Chianti.
“Sangiovese is wild. It is a very honest grape,” she adds, standing at the bottom of a gentle vineyard slope in nearby Gaiole. Called Vigna Cavarchione, the site consists of about 15 acres of east-southeast-facing hillsides that make one of her three single-vineyard bottlings (Chianti Classico Vigna Cavarchione 2017, 93 points, $45). “If you manage your vineyard well, you can have a great wine. If you don’t manage it so well, you will have a bad wine.”
Fronti’s Istine has been built on the success of her family—proud peasant farmers who, from the late 1950s, built a thriving agricultural services business in the area by tending to others’ vineyards and olive groves.
“I am proud of my family and their success through work,” she says. “It allowed me to do what I love.”
In 1982, her father and uncle bought their first land, on the high southern slopes below Radda known as Casanova dell’Aia and planted 11 acres of vines. Her father made wine and sold it in bulk, while investing in more of the local stony acreage to plant more vineyards. In 2002, he bought Istine, a windswept ridgetop and farm hamlet.
By 2009, Fronti was working as an enologist 50 miles away in Cortona and helping her father on weekends to make what was destined to be their first estate wine. Three years later, she came home and took over Istine full-time, bottling the first Chianti Classico and turning her focus to the vineyards and the future.
Family and friends counseled her to keep her wine lineup simple and stick to an estate blend for Chianti Classico and a longer-aged riserva.
Instead, in her first full vintage, she made four reds, including single-vineyard wines from her Istine and Casanova dell’Aia vineyards.
“The vineyards were so different and so far apart, so I vinified everything separately as a way to understand my vineyards,” she says. “I bottled some of the wine separately, and I said, ‘If nobody buys it, I will drink it with my friends.'”
The wines sold out in two months.
Her winery is housed in rented space in a former clothing factory near Radda, where she annually produces about 8,000 cases of wine from 50 vineyard acres. She makes Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico riserva and three single-vineyard Classicos: Southeast-facing Cavarchione is the darkest and densest. Largely north-facing, high-altitude Vigna Istine produces the brightest and most elegant wine (2017, 93 points, $45), and the clay-rich, southern-exposed Casanova dell’Aia is the most red fruit–forward.
She also makes a white from Trebbiano, a Sangiovese rosato and a delicious and on-trend vermouth (from rosato) with a Piedmont distillery.
And there’s a little Merlot from just over an acre her father planted at Istine in 2002, with the idea of blending it with Sangiovese. “It makes sense,” she says. “At the time, everybody was planting Merlot.”
Fronti never had any intention of blending her dad’s Merlot into her Chianti Classico. (In recent years, she has planted some local Canaiolo and Malvasia Nera, just in case they could be useful one day.) Instead she bottles it separately as a single variety, making 200 cases of Merlot “550” (for the 550-meter altitude of the Istine vineyard).
“Merlot is easier. I can make a beautiful Merlot,” Fronti says with matter-of-fact confidence. “But I get much more satisfaction from Sangiovese.”