One of the original ‘alternative’ varieties trialled in Australia, Sangiovese was planted with great hopes for a glorious future. It has turned out some seriously good wines but this great grape has taken a little while to gain its feet in Australia. Over 40 years on, the variety is finally beginning to shine, and adventurous wine drinkers are discovering a whole new world of Sangiovese’s exotic, evocative flavour and flair ... Australian style.
From the pretty hills of Tuscany
Sangiovese is the famous grape of Tuscany. The name is derived from the Latin ‘Sanguis Jovis’ – blood of Jove – after the mythical Roman God of Jupiter. The haunting wines it is capable of creating are legendary. Like Pinot Noir, the grape reflects the terroir in which it grows, and the resulting wines run the gamut from the famously ethereal, high-toned, cherry-violet-spice examples in Chianti, to the intensely dark, tannic style of Brunello di Montalcino – and everything in between.
An uncertain new home in Australia
Despite its Italian renown, Sangiovese was not planted in Australia until the early 1970s. Penfolds trialled it in the Kalimna vineyard in South Australia’s Barossa Valley using clones from the University of California at Davis, and Carlo Corino at Montrose in Mudgee established some trial plantings as well. However, it was Mark Lloyd of the renowned Coriole Vineyards in McLaren Vale who really made Sangiovese his own. In 1985, Lloyd was seeking to make something completely different to Coriole’s signature Shiraz. Cabernet and Pinot Noir were already de rigeur, and Lloyd specifically wanted something ‘non French’.
The Lloyds were not Italian – at the time, they had never even been to Italy. But McLaren Vale was home to many Italian growers, and when the Lloyd family bought the property in the ‘70s, their intention was to produce a number of agricultural products, operating in the Italian ‘fattoria’ model. So choosing an Italian style was not so unusual (though it wasn’t exactly usual either). There were a few other reasons that Lloyd settled on Sangiovese. It was a mid to late season ripener, had good natural acidity, and grew well in warm, Mediterranean climates. Also, cuttings from Penfolds’ Kalimna block were readily available.
One of Australia’s first alternative varieties
Sangiovese was one of the first original ‘alternative’ varieties in Australia, and it is an indication of its acceptance that it is no longer considered ‘alternative’ (though it is still considered ‘Italian’). But in the early days, not only was Sangiovese considered an alternative variety, it also helped create the emergence of the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show. By 1999, a range of other producers had taken on the Sangiovese challenge – enough for Jenni & Bruce Chalmers and Dr. Rod Bonfiglioli from the Chalmers Nursery, and Stefano de Pieri of Mildura to plan and hold a ‘Long Italian Lunch’, which also incorporated the inaugural Australian Sangiovese Awards. 28 Australian Sangiovese or Sangiovese blends were entered in the Sangiovese Awards. A Coriole Sangiovese blend was announced the winner, a proud Mark Lloyd taking home the prize.
Australian Sangiovese’s time to shine
It has taken a great deal longer than anybody thought it would, but slowly, Sangiovese is beginning to shine. Not only have the best clones been identified, but winemaker and growers are also working out the best regions for the variety as well. In the Barossa, there’s Penfolds’ Cellar Reserve Sangiovese. Other Barossa players producing powerful examples include Saltram, Langmeil, Hewitson, Torzi Matthews and Mad Dog Wines.
In McLaren Vale, Primo Estate, Chapel Hill, Zerella Wines and Hugh Hamilton all show the region’s huge potential with Sangiovese. And, of course, there’s Coriole, now with over 30 vintages under its belt. In the early days, Lloyd added Cabernet and Shiraz for colour and depth, but felt it didn’t show the true expression of the grape. Three decades of experience in the vineyard and winery has given him the ability to produce a 100% Sangiovese of immense quality and style that stands completely on its own, and Coriole continues to top the Sangiovese charts today.
In Victoria, the King Valley is definitely king when it comes to Sangiovese, and the Pizzini family are virtually Sangiovese royalty, having grown Sangiovese grapes for Garry Crittenden in his early exploratory adventures with Italian wines. These days the Pizzinis have not one but six Sangioveses on their books, ranging from the lovely Rosetta sangiovese rosé through to the flagship Rubacuori Sangiovese (Stealer of Hearts), made only in the best vintages. More approachable Sangioveses include the Nonna Gisella, Petra Rossa and Forza di Ferro. Other regal King Valley Sangioveses to look out for include Chrismont, Sam Miranda, Dal Zotto, Politini and King River Estate.
The grape seems to be impressing in all corners of Victoria. Beechworth is where Brokenwood goes to source their Sangiovese … a bright, juicy, maraschino cherry-rich example. Brokenwood sources fruit from the Indigo Vineyard, which also makes its own fine Sangiovese. Castagna is a biodynamic producer, creating truly dynamic wines … the La Chiave is a rich and powerful expression of the style. In Heathcote, outfits like Tar & Roses, Condie Estate and Greenstone Vineyards have been working hard with their Sangiovese – with exceptional results. The Pyrenees provides a class act from Mitchell Harris the Yea and Yarra Valleys triumph too with Sedona Estate and Stefani Estate.
Just add food …
Like most Italian wines, Sangiovese really comes into its own when paired with food. The tangy acidity of Sangiovese goes particularly well with tomato-based Italian dishes, but the savoury notes and grippy tannins pair well with roasted, grilled and barbecued meats, making it the ideal match to a whole range of cuisines. These days, restaurant-goers and wine drinkers are much more open to a range of styles when food and wine matching, which has certainly served Sangiovese well … indeed, lighter-bodied Italian reds in general are now being easily accepted (even sought out) as ideal dining partners.
What’s next for Sangiovese?
Sangiovese is really only beginning to hit its straps in Australia now, but the next generation are already shaking up the Sangiovese scene. Lovers of the cult-like Yarra Valley Pinot Noir that William Downie creates may want to transfer their allegiance to Sangiovese because Downie seems to have transferred his! He’s teamed up with Jason Searle at artisan outfit Save our Souls to create a minimal intervention, textural, savoury, sultry, silky Sangiovese. Says Downie: ‘I think Sangiovese is incredibly well suited to the Yarra. I think it works better than any other grape…’
Scott & La Prova is situated in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills, but Sam Scott travels far and wide to satisfy his ‘addiction to Italian savoury tannin’. His rustic Sangiovese comes from two vineyards in his own Adelaide Hills backyards but he still calls it a ‘journey’, proving that it’s not an easy grape to master. But master it he has.
Adam Foster and Lincoln Riley at Foster e Rocco are causing cross-cultural chaos (in a delicious way) by taking Sangiovese and turning it into a light, juicy, early-drinking style they call ‘Heathcote’s answer to Beaujolais’, describing it as having ‘energetic wild red berry fruit and fine, prickly tannin of youthful sangiovese, but tucked into a ballet slipper rather than a dirty work boot…’ They also produce a powerfully complex Sangiovese of traditional expression which is ‘in it for the long game’, released at 3 years, but designed to cellar for a further 10.
An exciting journey
Sangiovese has had a tricky start in Australia … but winegrowers and winemakers have worked hard to get the variety right – the right clones, the right growing conditions, the right regions and the right treatment in the winery. The pioneering Sangiovese winemakers who perservered with Sangiovese are looking quietly pleased with themselves (and a little bit relieved). New winemakers taking on the Sangiovese temptation are teasing out its tightly-held charms (and creating new ones at the same time). And wine drinkers are in the enviable position of discovering the many different faces of this noble grape, now just reaching its full potential, in a variety of expressions and styles.
Sangiovese has proved a long and rocky road for wine producers, but for wine drinkers, the best part of the journey is still to come. Enjoy the ride!
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