Sangiovese: history and legend

One of the most important grape varieties of Italy, the word Sangiovese embodies some of the complexity – or versatility, perhaps – in a character that is as mysterious as its name. Such is the history surrounding this grape that it was cited at least as far back as Pier Soderini in the 1500s, but given the vast job we would have in combing the annals of Sangiovese references, we will limit ourselves to the most common theories regarding its name’s origins.


One widespread, if unproven, opinion is that the word Sangiovese is linked in some way to blood: Sanguis Jovis – Blood of Jupiter. Otherwise, we have to seek its origins in toponomy – Monte Giove lies near Sant’Arcangelo di Romagna – or in linguistic derivations from various locales. It seems that some parts of Tuscany still refer to the “uva sangiovannina” – literally, the grape of the young St. John.


Rather more fascinating, however, are the studies that advance obscure Etruscan origins to the name Sangiovese, as the Etruscans’ love of wine is well documented. Comparing different areas and various points of linguistic assonance, one can arrive – with a certain amount of willpower – at the Romagnol-tinged dialect word “sanzves”. Even here, the desire to see a mythical origin to the name tends to cloud historical truth, but we like to think that the Etruscans, whose linguistic legacy remains embedded in the oral tradition of central Italy, held this generous grape as close to their hearts as we do.


It’s the evolution and corruption of language, however, that points us towards a more concrete theory, though no more certain. In its more rustic forms, the grape is variously known as Sangioveto, S.Gioveto, Sangioeto, San Zoveto and even Sangiogheto. From here, some would point to the hilly gioghi area around Marradi and see the origins of the name therein.


What is true is that countless Sangiovese clones, each differing just a little, have been identified over the centuries. It is now rather outmoded to lump them into two large families, Sangiovese Grosso and Sangiovese Piccolo, both of which have seen their definitions stretch to include all sorts. In Montepulciano, the grape is known as Prugnolo Gentile, which goes into the local Vino Nobile; in Montalcino, it becomes Brunello, and Morello or Morellino in Maremma, hence Morellino di Scansano. So many identities clustered together into a single soul.


At the end of this history, we know about as much as we did before. We have learned so many curious little things, but remain in the dark as to the name. At least we know where the grapes themselves come from, and whenever we see S.Giovese written on a menu, we can indulge our imagination a little.


There’s still a huge amount to say about the story of Sangiovese. But that is indeed another story.

A red grape, practically black, round; not especially large but with a tough skin…it tends to grow in abundance and almost never is there a year in which it fails…it makes for richly colored and spirited wines…it is often blended with other grapes, giving strength and body to weaker wines


[Giovanni Cosimo Villifranchi, Oenologia Toscana” 1773]