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Wine Style Focus: Sangiovese

Sangiovese is Italy's most widely planted red varietal, known as the queen of Italian reds. It has followed immigrant winemakers to California and Argentina, and it's finding its legs in Australia as well, where it's used to make reds and roses. But it is best known as the signature grape of some of Italy's most renowned traditional DOGC wines, as well as a key constituent of the new generation of "Super Tuscans."

In Tuscany, Sangiovese is the primary grape for the famous Chianti and Chianti Classico -- sometimes the bulk of a blend and sometimes constituting 100% of the must. Wines from these DOCG-protected appellations tend towards medium body with bright acid and red fruit flavors. South of Chianti, around the medieval Tuscan hill town of Montalcino, Brunello di Montalcino -- 100% Sangiovese Grosso -- receives extended maceration and 2 years of oak contact, yielding up supple, spicy, and age-worthy wines with more concentrated fruit and tannin. This leads some to compare the best Brunellos to Burgundian Pinot Noir.

Sangiovese also finds expression in the so-called "Super Tuscans" -- wines crafted, often on small estates, outside the regulations of the DOGC and labeled humbly as Vino di Tavola ("table wine"). Using forbidden varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and aging in small oak barrels gives these powerful wines elevated levels of dense fruit, tannin, and vanilla-spice character. The varietal's name comes from the Latin sanguis Jovis, "the blood of Jove," after Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods. Immortality notwithstanding, its food-friendliness is undeniable: its natural medium- to high acidity and medium body combined with a tendency towards a very dry finish allow Sangiovese to partner with a range of cuisines.

Lighter interpretations like the wines of Chianti are classic with tomato-based sauces and Neapolitan-style pizza. Burlier Brunello matches well with richer fare like baked pasta, aged cheese, and game; and the Super Tuscan blends, with their deeper notes of dark fruit and elevated oaking, can stand up to red meat, rare or crusted with herbs, from the grill or barbecue.