Tim James: Looking for value – Italian sangiovese (and a local)
By Tim James, 3 March 2020
Tuscany’s major red-wine variety, sangiovese, is the source of some great Italian wines, most famously from Chianto Classico – and even more prestigiously from Brunello di Montalcino. It is also the country’s workhorse variety and quality varies greatly. But Italian is sexy, so one might have expected greater international penetration for the grape. And sangiovese (its name translates to the ambitious “blood of Jove”) has done rather better in this regard than that other famous Italian black grape, nebbiolo, but not immensely so.
In the new World, for example, sangiovese has gained traction and a degree of qualitative success in Australia, but pretty slowly. The grape’s history in South Africa is rather shorter, and it doesn’t seem to be making much headway here. It appears in a few serious blends, but as far as I know, the first varietal sangiovese was from the Anthonij Rupert label Terra del Capo, in 1999 and there are now fewer than 20 mentioned in Platter 2010 – and when I googled for prices I didn’t find much evidence that many of them are widely available (or even narrowly, frankly).
A mid-to-late ripener, suited to a Mediterranean-type climate and with a good natural acidity, you’d think sangiovese should do well in the Cape. But there’s not a lot of excitement. There were 35 hectares planted by 2000, and that area had little more than doubled by the end of 2018. I asked viticulturist Jaco Engelbrecht, who gets around, if he knew of interest from new wave or established wine producers in sangionvese and, to put it simply, he didn’t. “The wine is a hard sell”, he says; and there are other black grapes that seem to perform better here, giving more gratifying wines.
Interestingly enough, a small handful of modestly priced Italian sangioveses are imported (as well as some grander versions – Caroline’s Fine Wines in Cape Town would be the prime source for the latter, as something of a rare local specialist in Italian wines). So I thought this might be a good and interesting place to start having another look (as I did a year ago, in desultory fashion) for good value, and quality to interest the sophisticated drinker, in both local and international wines available for under or around R100.
I found two well-priced 2018 examples at Woolworths, one a Chianti – which was, strangely enough, cheaper than the Fantini Sangiovese from the large area (an Indicazione Geografica Typica) called Terre di Chieti, in the huge central Abruzzo region. I say “strangely“, as it might be strange in local terms to find a WO Stellenbosch cabernet cheaper than one from, say, WO Breede River Valley. In that case one might paradoxically feel a bit more wary of the Stellenbosch wine. And certainly Gran Duca Chianti (a blend which must have at least 85% sangiovese) was the least impressive of the wines I bought and sampled for this little outing. At 12.5% alcohol, it was the lightest in both colour and weight, but had some typical cherry and floral notes, with a decent acidity, a little tannic grip and a touch of youthful rawness accentuating the hint of dry, savoury, sour cherry austerity that is a welcome feature of Italian wines. Pleasant enough at R70, and obviously Italian, which is good.
Fantini Sangiovese, the Terre di Chieti wine, with more internationally stylish, less traditional packing, also has an unmistakeably Italianness about it. For R10 more than the Chianti, you get more fruit and weight; it’s smoother and rounder and easier to warm to. In the good old-fashioned Italian way, more of a wine to perform satisfactorily with food than as a solo sipper.
Another R10, bring the total to R90, will give you another Terre di Chieti, this one from Checkers: Gran Sasso Sangiovese 2018. Greater structure, character and balance, with plenty of sweet-sour cherry and tomato-leaf notes, justify the price. It’s a pretty decent wine, far from trivial, and authentically Italian. In fact, that’s what was most pleasing about these wines: their lack of internationalist gloss, their component of authenticity despite being all, presumably, mass-production stuff.
The latter element no doubt accounts, along with European Community subsidies, for their cheapness in our supermarkets. I compared them with Terra del Capo, ex Darling, at a fairly comparable R99 (the Woolworths bottling, which is presumably pretty close to the more widely available standard version). As a 2015, the Cape wine had the benefit of bottle age, but the most noticeable difference was the greater ripeness and alcoholic power – not excessive, but a declared 14% ABV was a full percentage point higher than the equivalent 13% of the Abruzzo wines. The increased richness, fruit intensity and sweetness made this a rather more generalised “red wine”, though the varietal note (notably that sour cherry and decent acidity) was not absent. It’s a wine that is arguably qualitatively superior to the Italians but is less characterful.
I actually think, having looked at these wines from a particular perspective, that I understand why sangiovese is not likely to be a great popular success here soon. It makes a more interesting wine than a deliciously approachable one – which is why at a more ambitious level it can make some truly superb, elegantly magisterial wines, though even then without the charm of, say, red burgundy. But these modestly priced sangioveses I’ve tasted – Italian and local – are all worth trying. Especially with food – they’d undoubtedly be great with pizza.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013
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