One of the guests told me over a dinner hosted by Pizzini Wines at Signorelli Gastronomia in Sydney that he had collected over 100 different sangiovese wines. I said that his collection must be rich with Italian examples to which he replied that all of his sangioveses were Australian. I was gobsmacked, having no idea that so many Australian wineries made sangiovese. Anyway, the discussion has led to be a bit of detective work on my part to learn more about why this so-called ‘alternative’ grape variety has captured the imagination of Australian winemakers.
First a bit of background on sangiovese. As you are no doubt aware, sangiovese is an Italian red wine grape variety used exclusively to make Italy’s prestigious Brunello di Montalcino. It is also the dominant grape variety in other famous Tuscan wines like Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Chianti.
At the Pizzini dinner, reference was made to the so-called Super-Tuscans, a term used to describe a blended sangiovese wine that gained international attention in the 1980s. It was created in the late 1960s by a group of innovative Chianti producers who started blending sangiovese with non-Italian varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and shiraz. Some even eschewed the use of sangiovese altogether, and further broke with Italian tradition (and strict wine laws) by using ‘modern’ wine-making techniques, like ageing their wines in small French barriques instead of the traditional oak casks. (Are Super-Tuscans still Super? by Lettie Teague, eRobertParker.com, December 2006)
In fact, it was the success of high profile Super-Tuscans like Sassicaia, Solaia and Tignanello that spurred renewed interest in the wines of Tuscany and particularly sangiovese. In Australia, Penfolds was one of the first to undertake a large-scale commerical planting of the grape in the 1980s when it expanded its Kalimna vineyard in the Barossa Valley. The Penfolds Cellar Reserve Sangiovese, first released in 1998, is today one of Australia’s most highly regarded sangioveses.
Other early pioneers were McLaren Vale’s Coriole, King Valley’s Pizzini, and Mudgee’s Montrose. Today, more than 500 hectares of sangiovese are planted across the country byover 250 producers. But as wine writer Max Allen notes, while sangiovese is the most popular Italian red variety in Australia, it hasn’t yet realised its potential in terms of quality and recognition. (The Italian Stallions by Max Allen, Selector Magazine, Autumn 2011).
Most of the best examples are by the long established boutique wineries who have benefited from years of experience both in the vineyard and the winery on how to grow and treat this temperamental variety. Many of the newer entrants don’t have the background or the experience yet to create great examples of the style.
Fortunately the availability of new clones (11 were available commercially in 2011) and a more precise understanding of the importance of terroir – Beechworth and King Valley in Victoria, for example, have proven ideal – should herald a bright future for Italy’s best known grape variety in Australia.
Merrill Witt, Editor
Next: The Top 10 Australian Sangiovese Wines