Over the weekend my husband and I enjoyed a bottle of Quartetto Sangiovese 2000. I use the word ‘enjoy’ with an element of surprise, because we had pretty low expectations for this 11 year old bottle from the Clare Valley. Although fairly light in colour, it still had an earthy fruit character, a bit of acidity, some tannins and the familiar savoury and restrained spice notes that are the hallmarks of Italian Chianti. It went really well with spaghetti bolognese on a cold winter’s night!

Quite a few Australian wineries make a sangiovese and a few, notably Coriole, Castagna, Pizzini and Chrismont, produce highly acclaimed wines from the cornerstone grape of Italian Chianti. But this noble grape of Tuscany is still very much of a niche variety  in Australia. In fact, James Halliday notes that plantings of the grape peaked in 2001 at 600 hectares, and have been on a slow decline ever since (510 hectares in 2008). (James Halliday, The Australian Wine Encyclopedia, Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books 2009)

Sangiovese is a wonderfully food friendly wine, so the dearth of Australian sangiovese is probably not the result of a reluctance on the part of wine drinkers to embrace the style. Rather, experience has shown that sangiovese is not an easy grape to master in the vineyard. It is, in fact, a prime example of a grape that is particularly sensitive to the nuances of terroir. For the most part, only Australia’s boutique winemakers have the time and perseverance to stick with a grape that demands a lot of love and attention.

McLaren Vale based Coriole was the first winery to introduce the variety to Australia in 1985. (Coriole also makes a great chenin blanc – another variety that has had a spotted history outside of its home country. See Chenin Blanc: A Worthy Alternative to Sauvignon Blanc). The warm, maritime climate and terra rossa soils over hard capped limestone of the Coriole vineyards have proved ideal conditions for a variety that is high in natural acidity and demands well drained soils and extended sunlight to ripen properly.

The team at Coriole are also very hands-on both in the vineyard and in the winery. Yields are strictly controlled, and each block of fruit is processed separately before blending. The 2009 vintage marked the 23rd release of a wine Coriole refers to as “a quiet achiever on the Australian table” and Gary Walsh of The Wine Front describes as “a fabulous bargain” (retails for around $22) and “…the best release to date:”

Smells like Sangiovese. Blood plum, cherries, bitter chocolate and a little leather and fresh mint. Correct weight and form – just medium bodied with lightly raspy kitten’s tongue tannin and fresh acidity – but not too much. Has fine balance and good length. Works equally well with food or on its own. A great synergy of variety and region – it tastes like both. Terrific. (The Wine Front, 3 January 2011)