Once the Sangiovese bug bites you, it’s hard to get rid of it. The surge in its popularity in the past few decades, through the reinvention and rampant rise of Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, is a clear indication that the bug is spreading, a bug that we’d nobly accept. India has been growing and making exemplary Sangiovese wines for a decade and a half now, and the train of their success is gaining unprecedented speed.
The Tuscan superstar rose like a phoenix in the early 1980s. Earlier, its reputation was that of a jug-wine, served at trattorias and cafes by the litre, a touristy picnic wine sold in straw-wrapped flasks, a sporty, funky, spritzy nectar that you’d drink, regret, and forget. It’s only after new age Italian winemakers embraced modern winemaking techniques that Sangiovese rebuilt itself from the ashes of the past mistakes and ignorance of handling it with intent. The use of barriques, blending it with international varieties, careful clonal + site selection, aiming for low yields, all aided in making it not just the top varietal from Tuscany, but a dominant Italian superstar. And that’s earned it its travelling rights to Australia, California, South America, and India.
India’s love story with Sangiovese began in 2006 when Yatin Patil, founder of Reveilo Wines, planted the first cuttings from Italy. “We studied the climate, temperatures, soils, and cycles of our plots based on which our Italian winemaker suggested a few varieties. Sangiovese was one of them, and since it has been amongst my favourites too, we had to plant it”, says Yatin. Fratelli Vineyards followed suit and planted the varietal in Akluj in 2007. Alessio Secci, co-founder and winemaker says “our reason was simple, it’s the grape of Tuscany, and Late Piero Masi hailing from Chianti Classico has famed expertise over the varietal. Even if there was no certainty of quality, we were keen on trying it. Piero found the terroir of Akluj similar to Montalcino, it’s at an elevation of 650meters, lacks ocean influence but has identical soil and climatic conditions, it can take heat, is water resistant, which works for our vineyards”. And in that sense, Sangiovese is easily the most obliging grape. It mirrors where and how it was grown, delivering fun, juicy, wines to complex, age-worthy reds given its handling, something that’s turned around its fate in Tuscany.
Hampi Hills based KRSMA Wines also toyed with the varietal. Their varietal Sangiovese, introduced in 2012, soon became one of their most loved expressions. It took me by surprise when I noticed it in American-based Esquire’s Master Sommelier series ‘Uncorked’ as the wine that completely throws off all the tasters in a blind tasting, and further surprises them about its quality and Indian origins. Uma Chigurupati, founder and viticulturist at KRSMA says “Sangiovese is a popular grape, it doesn’t need introduction, and is easily acceptable by consumers. For us, alongside Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese was amongst our first choices as it works well in Indian conditions. It shows the minerality of our region exceptionally well. However, given our drought-prone vineyards, Sangiovese had to be uprooted and isn’t in production for now”.
Indian winemakers have also been successful with balancing Sangiovese, which often even Chianti producers struggle with. Sangiovese means the ‘Blood of Jove’ and I’m confident it’d be deep and thick. It enjoys high acidity and tannins but delivers a fugitive colour. With focused site and clonal selection, some additional TLC, and unhindered warmth Indian vineyards enjoy, India packed Sangiovese’s biggest sorrows away. “Sangiovese is a light variety and tends to oxidise easily, unless there are high tannins. To get good colour from Sangiovese is difficult. Surprisingly, we got it, sent it to Italy, and they were surprised”, recalls Yatin. “Sangiovese in India develops thicker skin, thus delivering high colour and tannins. We need to take care of the heat it gets in the vineyards otherwise it can lose its beautiful aromas”, Alessio adds
Yet, if you don’t achieve great colour, Sangiovese makes worthy rose wines. Alessio says, “Our MS Rose is a 100% Sangiovese showcasing the vineyard’s expression. Very little work is done on them in the winery. It uses fruit from our own vineyards, and we intently made it in a refreshing, fruit-floral forward style. We must’ve done something right that it stands tall as the most awarded rose from India”. Fratelli is the sole Sangiovese-based rose maker in India. However, Yatin and Manjunath V, VP viticulture at Grover Zampa, agree with him on making brilliant roses with the varietal.
No other winery has exploited a varietal the way Fratelli has exploited Sangiovese. And so they should, with their Italian-accented wines and Piero-Alessio duo’s experience. They produce five variants, from a unique Sangiovese Bianco to their iconic Sette. “No doubt we have the most expertise of Sangiovese in India. And the five styles show both, what we know, and Sangiovese’s versatility”. Late Kapil Sekhri, cofounder of Fratelli, was presented a white Sangiovese by a producer in San Gimignano, Italy, inspiring him to make one in India. Grapes are harvested early for high acidity and put through a usual white wine process. You have to try it to understand it. I admire this wine and highly recommend decanting it before relishing it. It’s amongst the most dynamic white wines from India, leave it in the cellar for a few years and it’ll develop smoky, crusty, complex notes like a decent Chablis! Their classic Sangiovese is inspired from Chianti Classico style, made to show varietal characters, haunting aromas, and its signature ‘black tea tannins’. MS Rose stands for its commendable balance of freshness and complexity. The MS Red is a blend of 75% Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, and Shiraz. Even though it sees no oak, Alessio shares that it was made to replicate a Chianti Classico Riserva, and it shows complexity, homogenisation from supporting varietals, and charm that only grows with its age. And then there’s the crown jewel, Sette. Its success can be gauged from its soaring demand – from 5000 bottles in the first vintage to 80,000 bottles now – all this while maintaining the quality it’s known for. “Finding balance in the vineyard, identifying the right parcels, and selective harvest is tricky, but that’s what makes a Sette”, Alessio adds. Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese are fermented and aged separately, and then blended to show vintage’s influences. It rests for at least 12 months in barrels, additional 3 month in tanks after blending, and 3 months in the bottle before it reaches the shelves. “Without Sangiovese there’s no Sette”, Alessio declares.
So with all these varied styles, what does the future hold for Sangiovese, what would we present to the world as our expression of the varietal? There’s some consensus on that amongst winemakers. Manjunath says, “making a 100% Sangiovese is difficult, rose wines are good, blends are better”. Grover Zampa recently released their super premium range called Signet. Amongst them, a five variety blend called Signet Spectrum features Sangiovese as well. Yatin also agrees, “We tried barrel fermenting our Sangiovese, but couldn’t agree with it at the time. Sangiovese, as shown by the Italians, can grow into a premium range like Brunello di Montalcino and Chiantis, However, it needs blending”. Alessio too concurs, “the Sette style, blended and aged, has the maximum potential. It promises approachability, drinkability, complexity, and age-worthiness that all great wines have. It’s the future grape for premium quality wines in India.”
There’s more promise in the varietal than just this. My most preferred wine from Fratelli’s arsenal was the now defunct Vitae Sangiovese, a single vineyard, varietal Sangiovese, made in a Burgundian Pinot Noir style. It was light, pale coloured beauty, that arrested your attention from the first sniff, displayed mouthwatering acidity, supple tannins, with a burst of red berry flavours. “It was the right wine at the wrong time”, Alessio remembers with a smile. He shares he hasn’t given up on that wine yet and will attempt at reviving it sometime in the future. Alessio also shares the one style that hasn’t been tried but he would definitely try soon is a dessert wine. ‘Occhio de Pernicie’ is an Italian red sweet wine made much like a vin santo where grapes are dried and fermented in barrels, and left to age for a minimum of 6 years. Ageing a sweet wine in India for over half a decade is unheard of but a red sweet wine would be delicious, I say let’s do it Alessio!
The Chigurupatis at KRSMA also indicate reviving the varietal in their vineyards. Reveilo hasn’t yet produced a blended wine but at my last visit to their winery I was offered a surprise, a glass of wine still in its nascent phase. It was definitely a blended wine and I would’ve happily packed a few bottles. Is there a premium blended wine coming from their arsenal soon? We’ll wait and watch. Manjunath wouldn’t reveal much but from experience I can confidently say once Grover Zampa adopts a variety they thoroughly study it. Now that Sangiovese has made it to their super premium range, we’ll definitely see more of it from them.
From an abject failure to a revival driven by high ambition and extreme seriousness, Sangiovese has risen like a no other Italian varietal has, and it now stands amongst Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Nebbiolo, Merlot, as a global classic. As Oz Clark puts it, “Sangiovese shows real class imbued with Florentine arrogance and austere haughty beauty that makes no effort to seduce, demanding you to make efforts to understand it”. It’s a wine for someone who finds pleasure in pain, the pain to understand the variety, treat it with care, mould it with intent, marry it with a good partner, and let it age into a wise soul before judging it for its true character. If you have the patience, Sangiovese is the one for you.
First published in Sommelier India Wine Magazine, October 2022