top of page

Sangiovese: The Tuscan Grape with Calabrian Ancestry

Sangiovese is virtually synonymous with Tuscan red wine.  So, its a huge surprise that Sangiovese may not actually be a native Tuscan variety, in fact, it may be rather far from it.  This thin-skinned, finicky grape has an ancestry emerging from a chance natural crossing of two unlikely parent grapes far from Tuscany well over 1,000 years ago.

Ampelographers (grape researchers) have been using DNA sequencing technology to explore the lineage of wine grapes over the past few decades.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of grapes have been sequenced, providing an enormous data set to examine not only where various traits lie in the grape gene sequence, but also to identify parent-child relationships from the DNA evidence with remarkable accuracy.  With this data at their disposal, determining the ancestry of the world’s most important wine grapes has been a focus of research.  In 2004, Sangiovese’s DNA was researched uncovering a highly unexpected secret.  Sangiovese probably did not emerge in Tuscany.

Careful analysis of the DNA evidence and historical research on where the candidate parent grapes were being cultivated in antiquity, in close enough proximity to result in a natural crossing, led researchers to an unexpected conclusion.  Sangiovese more than likely emerged in Campania near Naples as a chance natural crossing between a widely planted (at the time) Tuscan grape called Ciliegiolo and an obscure grape that was brought to Campania from Calabria in the middle ages called Calabrese di Montenuovo, not to be confused with the grape variety called simply "Calabrese" (aka Nero d’Avola).

While some scholars believe that Sangiovese may have been cultivated by the Etruscans (around 700 BCE) or during Imperial Roman times (31 BCE - 476 CE), the first documented mention of Sangiovese in Tuscany appears in 1600 in a treatise on viticulture written by Giovan Vettoro Soderini.  In his essay,  Soderini refers to the grape as “Sangiogheto.” The context of the essay suggests it is the same grape cultivated by Christian monks of the time.  Legend has it that the grape acquired its popular name “Sangiovese”, which translates to “The Blood of Jove” (Jupiter), as an arbitrary response to a visitor's question posed to the monks of Sanarchangelo di Romagna Monte Giove who asked the name of the wine they were drinking.  Within the monastery the monks simply called it “Vino” but presumably they felt the visitor would prefer a more important sounding name so they responded “Sangiovese” in honor of the monastery’s local landmark — Monte Giove or Jove (Jupiter) Mountain.  “Sangiovese” stuck and remains the most common name for the grape to this day although it is regionally known by many other names and nicknames including Brunello, Prugnolo Gentile, and Nieluccio just to name a few.

While Sangiovese may not have emerged in Tuscany, it appears to have been brought to the region soon after it was discovered. How Sangiovese came to dominate the Tuscan red wine landscape likely has to do with terroir.  Sangiovese is a thin-skinned, finicky grape prone to mildew and bunch rot.  It is an early budding and late ripening variety requiring a long, warm, dry growing season.  Sangiovese also favors limestone, volcanic, and stoney galestro (schist) soils with excellent drainage on south and southwest sloping hillsides.  Protected from the rain and hail from the Monte Amiata range to it's west, Tuscany has these features in abundance making it an ideal home for Sangiovese’s particular demands.  In this habitat, Sangiovese responds quite sensitively to small variations in terroir ranging from fruity and lively wines to deeply colored, heady aromaed, age-worthy wines such as Brunello di Montalcino.

Today there are more than 600 distinct clones of Sangiovese that are categorized into two braod groups - a large berried group called Sangiovese Grosso, and a smaller berried group called Sangiovese Piccolo.  Because clones from the Sangiovese Grosso group are used to make some of the most famous and luxurious Tuscan wines such as Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, there is a perception that the Grosso group is superior to the Piccolo group.  This is not the case.  Selection of clones from either of these groups is highly driven by matching each clone's characteristics to the specific terroir features of the vineyard and the style of wine the producer intends to make.  Both Grosso and Piccolo categorized clones are capable of producing high quality, age-worthy wines with exceptional character.

The scope of Sangiovese-based wines in Tuscany is broad and understanding the details of each is valuable to setting expectations of each wine’s unique style and character.  We’ll discuss some of the most celebrated Sangiovese wines as a series beginning with Chianti in my next posting.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page