Would the real sangiovese please stand up!

Trying to get a handle on the region's pernickety premium grape variety

Sangiovese is Italy's most widely planted red grape and its spiritual home is Tuscany, where it is the principal constituent of Chianti (but often blended with other red grapes, canaiolo, colorino and international varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and even syrah).

But this is a grape that has many different clones and goes by different names. It is the grape behind such great wines as Brunello di Montalcino where it is called brunello (and must account for 100% of the wine). In Montepulciano (the place, not to be confused with the grape of the same name from Abruzzo!) sangiovese is known as prugnolo gentile and must make up at least 80% of the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wine.

We learned from the producers that we visited that sangiovese is a capricious variety, highly sensitive to where it's grown and with a propensity to change and adapt to its surroundings.

3rd generation Francesco Rippacioli is a fascinating host Third-generation Francesco Rippacioli is fascinating on the nature of the sangiovese grape

Francesco Ripaccioli of Brunello di Montalcino producer Canalicchio di Sopra explained the grape's tricky nature to us when we visited with our group of members in the autumn.

Buyer Sebastian Payne MW had explained to the group that the style of Francesco's wines was not dissimilar to red Burgundy – erring on the side of red-fruit character with a delicate lightness of touch.

Francesco, admitting to being a big Burgundy fan, felt that there was a connection between the grapes behind these wines, saying that: 'three of the world's best red wines (in his opinion) are made from three of the most problematic grape varieties – pinot noir, nebbiolo and sangiovese.'

Going on to explain that because the grapes are not constant or homogenised you end up getting a greater variety: 'These grapes are more fickle than other grapes and susceptible to their terroir and to weather conditions so they give a greater expression of where they are grown. This is why you get such a wide variety of styles as we have many different soil types and vineyard expositions.'

Paolo de Marchi Sebastian Payne MW with Paolo de Marche, 'he always has something interesting to say'

Later on Paolo de Marche of Chianti Classico estate Isole e Olena would tell us more about sangiovese's fickle nature. Paolo is widely regarded (along with others, such as Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi) as being one of the people behind Chianti's revival of fortunes. He has spent years studying the sangiovese grape, painstakingly taking cuttings from the best vines to replant them on (massal selection). Importantly though, he recognised the significance of clonal variety in the vineyards, saying that by using massal selection he has managed to create great diversity of plant material.

'Sangiovese isn't genetically that strong,' Paolo explained, 'It isn't like cabernet sauvignon, for example, that gives a strong identifiable character no matter where it is planted, sangiovese, is less easy to pin down, it's more variable and sensitive to its surroundings, this is its beauty... think of it like the Alps, with lots of smaller peaks waiting to be explored rather than the Himalayas with its huge summits!'

Paolo's family, originally from Piedmont, bought the two neighbouring estates of Isloe and Olena in this remote part of Chianti in the 1950s. Like many estates, it had once been share-cropped but due to war and industrialisation, it had been abandoned for the cities.

It wasn't until 1976 that Paolo took over the estate and he had to start practically from scratch with very little money. 'The first years were all about survival,' Paolo told us. 'I had to borrow money from the banks to try to rebuild the tumble-down houses and replant the vineyards.' It wasn't until 1987 that Paolo planted his first vines, a project that is still ongoing, as is the up-keep of the tumbled down properties on the estate. Though trained in oenology, Paolo said that he didn't really learn about winemaking until he got his hands dirty and got stuck in. It was good timing for him as he was able to plant wisely and slowly and learn from the mistakes of others.

Isole e Olena villa The villa at Isole e Olena. Paolo de Marchi's family bought up the abandoned estate comprising two hamlets, Isole and Olena, in the 1950s. Paolo came here in the 1970s and it has been his life's work to restore the estate and plant his vineyards, 'the early years were just about survival,' he told us

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