The other Sangiovese is white

Italy has the greatest range of grape varieties in the world: 182 types of table grapes and more than 545 that can be used for winemaking. Many of these have made Italian wine famous throughout the world, but one of them has a tradition and a story more fascinating than most. This is Sangiovese, the most widely grown red grape in Italy.

A great many myths and legends, passed down over the course of history, lie behind the origins of this grape. It seems that Sangiovese was familiar to the Etruscans and that it enjoyed a wide diffusion in ancient Italy, following all the trade routes. Some say that its name derives from Sanguis Jovis – blood of Jupiter – a name ascribed by a Capuchin monk from the monastery of Sant’Arcangelo in Romagna, right next to Monte Giove. Some maintain that the name comes instead from Sangiovannese, arguing that it originated from San Giovanni Valdarno; while others look to the dialect word Sangiovannina, on account of the fact that the grapes start to bud in late June, around the festival of San Giovanni Battista (John the Baptist, 24th June). The Tuscan agronomist Soderini, in his Tract on the Cultivation of Vines and Fruit, was one of the first to explicitly write about Sangiovese as “a juicy grape, full of wine…one that never fails”.

In general, when we talk about Sangiovese, we are talking about a family of grapes that includes a large number of clones, which have adapted themselves over the centuries to different environments. Today these clones number about 100, but it was not ever thus. Until the middle of the last century, there were only five known biotypes of Sangiovese: their bunches took slightly different forms and they evinced slightly different growth habits. Genetic studies done around the year 2000 found that Sangiovese had not originated from a wild, indigenous Tuscan grape, but from a minor variety of uncertain origins. Ciliegiolo, in fact, was grown not only in Tuscany but also in many parts of southern Italy. Only recently we have ascertained that Sangiovese’s other parent is the Negro Dolce grape from Puglia, a virtually extinct indigeneous variety.

Sangiovese is currently used in more than 243 DOC and DOCG certified wines, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it was the first love of a great many oenenthusiasts. It has the advantage of extreme versatility. In the right conditions, it produces wines of great elegance and longevity, but it also lends itself to less portentous, more everyday wines. It adapts itself to different terroirs and productive styles: it can even be used in white and sparkling wines, not to mention the sweet wines that come from the natural aging process of the grapes.

We are used to hearing that wines don’t vary stylistically. Luckily, this is not true. Winemaking technology has changed, knowledge of vinification has expanded; but apart from that, the taste of the consumer has shifted notably over time.

Something that hasn’t been adequately explored up until now is the white vinification of Sangiovese. In this oenological process, the grapeskins are separated from the must very early on, which limits if not completely inhibits the change in colour. This technique is particularly interesting in Sangiovese’s case, because it allows the grapes to keep their original flavours and aromas. They express themselves in a slightly more delicate way, keeping a lid on the powerful tannic undercurrent typical of the variety. The result is light and fresh on the tongue, and extremely pleasing. The acidity is noticeable, as are some extremely refined floral aromas. This makes white Sangiovese a wine as vibrant as it is delicate, with a tasty mineral flavour and tremendous structure and character.

A go-to example of this approach is Ruffino’s white Aqua di Venus, launched a few months ago to an immediate positive reception. This blend tells a story of the Maremma area, while giving voice to one of the most representative of Tuscan grapes: Sangiovese, just in an unusual, innovative garb, slotting in beside Vermentino and Chardonnay. It’s a meeting that makes this wine unique among its kind.

It’s clear that the market is ready for a new expression of Sangiovese. We will see what spurs producers on to the next step, the next adventure in the grape’s astonishing versatility.

In the photo: the unusual pairing of a “white” Sangiovese with marinated beef.
[Locanda Le Tre Rane - Ruffino]