For Australia’s National Day

If you’ve ever opened a bottle of Chianti, then you’ve tasted the grape variety Sangiovese with its typical flavours of bitter cherries and herbs.  It’s the No1 variety in Italy in terms of area and it’s far more widely planted than just in Chianti; it’s found throughout the regions of Emilia Romagna, Umbria and Marche but its home is, I suppose, in Tuscany (think Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano as well as Chianti). 

Outside Italy, though, Sangiovese is far harder to find.  To me, that’s surprising considering the number of families of Italian origin who have emigrated and settled in many different countries across the world.  They’ve planted a couple of thousand acres in Argentina and a little in California (notably Antinori’s Atlas Peak) but, beyond that, very little.  Although I recently found a bottle from Australia made by an ex-Italian family, now living in Victoria’s King Valley, who have imported a range of vines – not just Sangiovese but several other Italian varieties, too – which they grow and use for all their wines.

Pizzini’s Pietra Rossa Sangiovese (Wine Society, £18) is more Brunello than Chianti in style, rounded and full of lovely fresh plum and cherry flavours with a hint of spice.  The wine has spent 14 months in barrel, with a proportion of that in new oak, but I found no overt oak flavour, just a savoury, harmonious mouthful.  The 2019 vintage is still quite tannic so needs decanting and pairing with chunky flavours.

The King Valley is not well-known (although it is the home of the famous Brown Brothers company) but it is an interesting area, a good couple of hours drive north-east of Melbourne.  The key for vine growing here is the closeness to the foothills of the Australian Alps where the heat of the growing season is offset by the altitude.  This allows the grapes to ripen fully yet still retain that essential freshness that showed well in Pizzini’s wine.

A little bit of Italy in Australia and perfect for celebrating Australia’s National Day (26 January).

Chianti: love it or hate it?

24 Ricasoli winesFor me, the answer for many years has been ‘both’. Chianti is an enormous area and produces a vast quantity of wine ranging from the outstanding to the barely drinkable. So, how do you distinguish one from the other? There’s no simple method – Italian wine laws are massively complicated – but some knowledge of the best areas and the good producers has usually led me in the right direction. But a recent short break visiting some vineyards there showed that the whole thing is now becoming even more of a nightmare!

The word Riserva on the label of a bottle of Chianti indicates wines from selected grapes that have had longer ageing to produce a more complex and harmonious wine. These wines often come from a single estate and so the term Riserva can be a good guide to the best wines. But now, one part of the Chianti region, the part known as Chianti Classico has, controversially, come up with a sort of super Riserva to be known as Gran Selezione, where the wines have had extra ageing and all the grapes must come from a single estate. Spot the difference? No, nor do some of the producers we spoke to, who are refusing to use the term, while others are busy relabeling their Riservas as Gran Selezione.

And, if that isn’t complicated enough, some producers are adding a small proportion of Cabernet or Merlot grapes to the main Chianti grape, Sangiovese and ageing their wines in small French oak barriques. Others insist that only traditional local grape varieties should be blended with the Sangiovese and the wine aged in very large old oak or chestnut barrels. Both are quite within the rules of Chianti but, having tasted examples of each, I can say that these decisions make a real difference to the taste and character of the wine, yet there is no indication on the label which you’re getting. So, a system that Jancis Robinson MW once described as ‘that glorious confusion’ has been made worse, not better.

But we did taste some lovely wines during our trip and I’ll tell you about them next time.