Spotlight on Sangiovese: Mauro Vannucci Piaggia Carmignano Riserva 2003
Sangiovese is la dolce vita of Italy. It is its soul and its face, its bravura and charm and easy loveability. Even the most traditional and profound wines are loveable like a puppy. You don’t need to think to be drawn into these wines, though they reward contemplation. If Nebbiolo is the ivory tower wine representing Italy’s great intellectual tradition, Sangiovese is its art: chiseled but beautiful, opulent but intricate, communal and yet individualistic.
Unlike other great grapes, such as Pinot Noir or Syrah, it is not difficult to isolate Sangiovese’s distinctive voice. Great Sangiovese is always bitter-sweet, always hovering between fruit and savor. But it is structured and robust, with a powerful constitution for oak (much unlike Pinot or Syrah). It is too easy to call Sangiovese Italy’s Cabernet Sauvignon, because great Sangiovese does not travel well. Only Italian vineyards make Sangiovese taste good, and only in recent decades have producers started to truly tap into its potential.
Over this spotlight I have learned that the basic contrast between traditional and modern Sangiovese misses the point. Great Sangiovese simply cannot be overripe or over-manipulated. This is a grape that can stand up to a lot, but in order to be amazing, it must be allowed to sit perfectly poised between over the top and restrained. It must be vinified cleanly, but it cannot be forced into internationalism (When’s the last time you’ve seen an Italian be anything other than Italian?). You may not love Sangiovese, but it is impossible to hate.
Great Sangiovese can also be found at all price points. This cannot be said for some of the world’s, or even Italy’s, other great grapes. Clearly the best wines are being made in Tuscany, but Umbria and Sardegna also represent.
Carmignano the Small and Mighty
This superb wine is from the tiny 300 hectare Carmignano DOCG west of Florence. A Florentine region to the core, this was one of the four original production zones created by the Medici family in 1716. Because these vineyards are fairly northerly, most of the wines from Carmignano are blended in order to soften some of the hard edges of cooler-climate Sangiovese. The DOCG rules only require 50% Sangiovese, allowing many other grapes into the blend.
Piaggia started making a Carmignano Riserva in 1991 and has since vastly improved quality, using guyot trained vines planted in clay soils. The wine sees 18-28 days maceration, is fermented and aged in French Barriques for 18 months, and is unfined and unfiltered. Made from 70% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and 10% Merlot.
The nose offers darker fruits of plum and black cherry along with some chocolate and spices from the oak, but also the classic bitter cherry of Sangiovese. This is a rich wine on the palate, but I think it maintains a good amount of traditional styling. The bitter cherry, herbs, and leather make this unmistakably Sangiovese driven. Without knowing if it was oaked, I figured that it probably was but that the oak had integrated very well (turns out I was right). This wine also has surprising clarity and balance for a 2003 and is, ultimately, quite an exceptional wine.
And that concludes the Spotlight on Sangiovese. Next up? Nebbiolo.
~$80 at Kits Wine Cellar