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posted: 2/24/2010 12:01 AM

Ancient grape still holds winemakers, drinkers interest

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Sangiovese may be an ancient grape, but through creativity in the vineyard, winery and council chamber, its wines remain modern favorites.

Sangiovese (SAHN-gee-oh-VAY-zee) grows throughout Italy and the New World, but her homeland is Tuscany, in regions including Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

The Etruscans dubbed Sangiovese sanguis Jovis (blood of Jove), and a mean-spirited blood it must have been, requiring long ripening, in warm (but not too warm) temperatures, else its high acidity and hard tannin could take the paint off your chariot.

So, in the 1890s, Bettino Ricasoli advocated the addition of other indigenous red and white grapes to soften Sangiovese's asperity (and to sop up unused grapes from his vineyards), a recipe that was written into wine law. In the 1960s, after significant oenological advancement and international dialogue, winegrowers demanded and won change. Today, Chianti and Vino Nobile may contain 100 percent Sangiovese or a dose of any approved red variety, including international grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah.

As DNA testing revealed at least 14 distinct Sangiovese clones, growers conducted painstaking experiments to match specific clones to each slope and microclimate of Italy's mountainous vineyards.

"At the end of the day, it's still Sangiovese," comments Italian wine authority Anthony Giglio. "But with more than 6,000 Italian Sangiovese-based wines, the challenge is to show customers the difference."

From extensive tasting, here are a few favorites:

Brunello di Montalcino is a recent addition to Italy's fine wine roster, first bottled in 1888. Sangiovese Grosso (locally named Brunello) reaches maximum ripeness in Montalcino's warm, dry climate; the powerful wines require long-ageing to develop velvety tannin and juicy complexity for which Brunello commands top dollar (beginning around $50.) Lighter and less-aged Rosso di Montalcino is a value option with producers such as Uccelliera offering ripe fruit in firm and complex wines (about $30).

Chianti's fortune expanded into seven subregions from its classic center; the Classico region between Florence and Siena. Now, top producers are linked to specific villages within Classico: Badia a Coltibuona (in Gaoile) is statuesque with defined acidity ($20); Borgo Scopeto (in Beradenga) offers spicy, cherry fruit ($20); Isole e Olena (in Barberino) adds Syrah for fresh fruit accented by lively acidity; their "Cepparello" is 100 percent Sangiovese aged in French oak for layers of complexity and endless finish (about $55.)

Vino Nobile di Montalpuciano promises greatness but has not reached its potential in prestige or price. Look to pioneer Avignonesi for rich fruit and fine tannin (about $30).

• Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross writes Good Wine. Contact her at