Sangiovese is the most widely planted red grape in Italy and also among the most versatile.
It reigns supreme in Tuscany, where sangiovese (translation: blood of Jove or Jupiter) is the primary grape for four distinctly incredible wines: Chianti, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile Montepulciano (not to be confused with the southern Italian varietal and wine Montepuciano D'Abruzzi).
Sangiovese is also used to craft iconic Super Tuscan wines, mostly from Bolgheri, where it is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah.
So how can the same grape produce uniquely different-tasting wines?
It's all in the varietal's multiple clones and, of course, the terroir (land, soils, climate, elevation), which influences the vines, vineyards and grape.
The fascination with sangiovese hits its peak in making Tuscany's most revered wine, Brunello di Montalcino. These ageworthy, full-bodied and powerful wines are produced from a series of clones developed in the mid-19th century by Ferrucio Biondi. He expanded upon the scientific vineyard work of Clemente Santi at the small, elevated Il Greppo estate, where the Biondi-Santi family operation still exists and the Brunello Biondi-Santi clone (BBS II) was originated.
Unlike Chianti and Chianti Classico, which are blended with other local varietals, Brunello di Montalcino is 100 percent sangiovese.
The vineyards where Brunello ("the little brown one") ripens are special, too. They are located on steep, sun-drenched hillsides (up to 1,8000 feet above sea level) around the walled, medieval town of Montalcino. Here the soils contain limestone, clay, schist, volcanic soils and small plots of crumbly stones called galestro.
Brunello produces lavish, fleshier wines with deep aromatics and complex flavors of black cherry, raspberry, blackberry, chocolate, violet, tar and leather.
Regular Brunello must be aged for five years before it can be released; riservas are aged six years.
These wines can be expensive and are considered a favorite of Old World collectors fond of the velvety, savory Brunello, which can last up to 30 years or more.
Biondi-Santi Brunello is one of those rare gems. Tradition is important to this seventh-generation, family-run operation, where modern equipment is combined with concrete tanks and large Slavonian oak barrels dating back to the 19th century to make the wine. Excellence demands that if the quality isn't up to Biondi-Santi standards, the vintage is declassified and a Brunello is not released.
At a recent tasting at Grill 23 in Boston, I met Tancredi Biondi Santi who was showcasing the 2012 Annata Brunello ($194) and the 2011 Riserva ($594) released earlier this year. The family rarely discloses annual production but it's small. Tancredi said only 40 cases of each will make it to America. He also broke out a 1997 Biondi-Santi Brunello, announcing that the family will be releasing a library wine each new year going forward as a "re-introduction" of this iconic operation.
While Biondi-Santi is out of my price range, I was captivated by Tancredi's telling of his family's role in creating Brunello's elegance and prestige. In fact, in 1980, Brunello di Montalcino became the first wine to claim Italy's highest DOCG classification, largely because of Biondi-Santi's drive for setting high-quality standards. So, when it came time to sample these rare wines, I knew they were going to be special. They did not disappoint.
Here are my tasting impressions of these fine wines.
Biondi Santi Annata 2012: The aging potential is 30-40 years for this delicious Brunello, produced from vines that are 10 to 25 years old. Aged 36 months in oak and 12 months in bottle, Annata is crimson in color and raspberry fragrant. The tastes are complex and magnified by sour cherry, raspberry, violets, wild herbs and white pepper. You can feel the depth and structure of this brilliant Brunello, which will hits its peak in about 2026.
Biondi Santi Riserva 2011: This wine has the potential to mature for 70-80 years. The Riserva is produced from vines 25 years or older -- a rigid Biondi Santi standard -- and is aged 36 months in oak and 24 months in bottle. This exhibited a smoky flavor on top of the deep black cherry, orange peel licorice and tar traits that kept building like a superb three-act play. It's the definition of finesse. Most tasters agreed it was very approachable now, although its prime is still years away.
Biondi Santi Brunello 1997: There is no price attached to this long-lived wine, but it will probably command upwards of a week's pay. It created a big "wow" effect from tasters, including me. It's two decades old yet still amazingly bright, fresh and juicy. I detected sour cherry, licorice and breath mints in its flavorful depths. Silky, elegant, delicious and still going strong.