While it's true that this temperamental grape will forever be the poster child for great Tuscan wines, Sangiovese is no stranger to North America. Italian immigrants brought the grape to California in the late 19th century, and it is thought that Thomas Jefferson had his European contacts make it part of his ill-fated vineyards. In California, the grape led an obscure life, usually being one of many varietals used in 'field blends'. In mid 20th century Italy, Chianti wines were made to be cheap and drinkable – a wine for the masses.
Fast forward to the late 20th century. Until the 1990s, most Chianti brought into the United States was packaged in those funky shaped bottles covered in peasant straw. Sadly, those wines became better known for low price rather than quality and flavor. Thankfully, that's all changing.
In some ways Sangiovese is the 'hot climate' cousin of Pinot Noir: it's thin-skinned, slow to mature, late to ripen and temperamental in the vineyard. In the winery, it needs tender loving care, never develops a deep color, and is often a medium-bodied wine when not blended. And yet, when everything works just perfectly, the results are glorious. .
In the 1980s Tuscan winemakers, frustrated with 100-year old Chianti blending regulations decided a change was necessary to improve the quality of the wine and its image around the world. Challenging the old Chianti formula (70% Sangiovese, minimum 10% Trebbiano or other white grape, and up to 20% Canaiolo or Colorino), Tuscan winemakers began blending Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. These wines could not legally be called 'Chianti,' so they were instead labeled 'vino da Tavola' -- table wine -- the lowest wine category.
When producer Piero Antinori released his 1971 Tignanello, the era of the Super Tuscan wine had arrived; suddenly vino da Tavola was a badge of honor and a quality wine. The international success of his wine prompted other Tuscan producers to release their own Super Tuscans, and bowing from pressure, the authorities changed the blending restrictions on Chianti. Now Chianti can be 100 percent Sangiovese, or even contain up to 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.
The fame of the Super Tuscans and the overall improved quality of all Chianti wines brought renewed interest in the Sangiovese grape. Winemaker in California and Australia began experimenting with wines made from various Sangiovese blends and even wines that were 100 percent Sangiovese. Some of the best California experiments come from Napa Valley and San Luis Obispo.
While some say that the New World Sangiovese-based wines will never exhibit the subtlety and finesse it expresses in the soils of Tuscany, early trials have shown some encouraging results. Ultimately, that is the 'git' of Sangiovese. Many Italian winemakers refuse to call it a varietal grape because it is so reflective of where it is grown. Sangiovese may be the ultimate chameleon of wine grapes.
Sangiovese does well in hot, sunny vineyards, especially when planted with a northern and eastern exposure to provide a cool-down from the heat of the day. This way the grape is able to retain acid levels despite the extreme heat In Texas, many producers believe that the future of winemaking in the Lone Star State will be wines made from Mediterranean grapes, given the climatic similarities between Texas and parts of France, Spain and Italy. Varieties such as Pinot Grigio, Mourvedre,Syrah, Tempranilo , and of course, Sangiovese, are being tested in various vineyards around the state.
Over a dozen Texas wineries produce Sangiovese-based wines, but only a few winemakers have passionately pursued the grape from the inception of their winery and vineyards. Gary Gilstrap, owner/winemaker at Texas Hills Vineyard in Johnson City, believes that Sangiovese has the ability to become a regional strength for Texas' wine reputation. The Gilstraps passion for Mediterranean style grapes has according to Gary, “made the winery become sort of a focal point for local growers.” Kathy Gilstrap provides grape seminars to educate growers on the benefits of these grapes. Texas Hills Vineyard produces a Rostado di Sangiovese ( sweet rose'), and a Super Texan Sangiovese blend.
Alamosa Cellars owner/winemaker Jim Johnson is also a long-time advocate of Mediterranean grapes, even prior to establishing his own vineyard and winery. A U.C. Davis graduate, Johnson worked for several major wineries in California before coming to Texas and serving as winemaker for a number of Texas wineries before starting Alamosa Cellars. Johnson works almost exclusively with warm-climate grapes, and has a special place in his heart for Sangiovese, blending it sometimes with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Malavasia. Alamosa Cellars produces a Sangiovese, and a sangiovese-based Sweet Rose`.
A little closer to Austin, winemaker Chris Parker at Flat Creek Estates shares Johnson's passion for warm climate grapes. The vineyard is planted with classic Italian varietals such as Sangiovese, Primitivo (Zinfandel), and Pinot Grigio. Parker's Super Texan has garnered awards including a Double Gold at the 2005 San Francisco International Wine Festival, a Bronze in 2005 at the Lone Star Texas Competition and a Bronze at the Texas Open.
Photo Courtesy of Swirll
Driftwood Vineyards also offers a Super Texan, and has varied the specifics of the blend over the years, experimenting for the perfect match-up. Other Texas wineries such as La Diosa Cellars, Brennan Vineyards, Llano Estacado and Wichita Falls Winery and Vineyard produce a 100 percent Sangiovese wine. Sangiovese blends are being created at Circle S Vineyards, ('Magia di Amore' – a Super Tuscan-style blend), Grape Creek Vineyards, San Martino Vineyards, and the Winery in Grand Prairie, who oddly enough, produces a wine they call 'Chianti'.
From the experiments done in the New World, it's clear that a whole new phase of Sangiovese-based wine has begun. It will be interesting to see how Texas winemakers, as well as those in California and Australia make the grape their own, based on terroir, blending practices and fermentation choices. While these wines may fall short of the Italian Sangiovese profile, results from wines such as Llano Estacado's now famous 'Viviano', a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, have proved that the grape has a solid future in Texas.