Until relatively recently Sangiovese, Italy's most widely planted vine variety, was a grape in the wilderness. And whenever the name Sangiovese did appear on a label it was far from a guarantee of greatness. Rather the reverse. The most common wines that carried the name Sangiovese on the label were Sangiovese di Romagna, cheap Italian reds which were typically extremely light, pale, tart confections with little of interest to offer the wine lover.

Sangiovese is and has always been THE dominant grape of central Italian red wines. Because in the mid 20th century Chianti was frequently lightened with the addition of tart, pale-skinned Trebbiano grapes and stretched by the addition of fuller reds imported in bulk from the south of Italy and the islands, it was far from easy to determine what Sangiovese's innate qualities were. It has been only since the late 20th century, thanks to a systematic research programme by producers in the Chianti Classico heartland of the greater Chianti region, that the myriad clones of Sangiovese grown all over central Italy have been studied and assessed.

After years of research it has emerged that two of the finest clones, R24 and T19, are in fact from Romagna. A fascinating tasting of some of the most promising vine selections in 1996 with Paolo De Marchi of Isola e Olena in the heart of Chianti Classico country included a range of almost a dozen different Sangioveses. The R24 had the most sumptuous mulberry flavours whereas one selected by the University of Florence (SS-F9-A 5-48 was its romantic name) was much tarter and simpler, one from Montalcino was almost too soft and another from Corsica (where Sangiovese is known as Nielluccio, or more often in local dialect Niellucciu) was sweet and almost oaky-tasting.

Sangiovese's dominant viticultural characteristics are that it can vary as much as Pinot Noir in its sensitivity to place and that it ripens relatively late. This means that if it is planted in too cool a location it can produce wine that is tart and unripe, though warming summers mean this is less and less of a problem. The Chianti Classico research programme concentrated on trying to match suitable clones to the varied local conditions of this quite extensive region whose upper reaches were at the limit of successful grape-ripening territory. The official Consorzio (growers’ association) originally favoured a clone that produced dark, concentrated wines, but it has a relatively shallow root system and low acidity, disadvantages in today’s hot, dry summers. Many of the best producers deliberately try to have a range of different selections in their vineyards and therefore wines. 

In the bad old days, Sangiovese tended to be overproduced, which accentuated its tendency to exhibit high acid and unripe tannins. Thanks to its thinnish skins and frequent blending with white grapes, this all too often meant that the wines turned brown after only a few years in bottle.

Today, fine Sangiovese is an altogether nobler wine with real complexity and ageing potential, whatever its depth of colour and concentration. As for the elusive flavour of pure Sangiovese, it ranges somewhere between mulberries, raspberry and cherry (from cooler sites), spice, tobacco, sometimes leather and chestnuts. It tends to be savoury rather than sweet, and if not fully ripe can smell distinctly farmyard-like.

Chianti Classico may still be a blended wine, but the tendency nowadays is to make it with an increasingly high proportion of Sangiovese – often 100%. There was a vogue in the late 1970s and 1980s to minimise Sangiovese's role and blend in very obvious proportions of Cabernet and Merlot, often ageing the wine in imported French barriques rather than the traditional large, upright Slavonian oak casks known as botte.

But now that the right clones have been identified and are increasingly popular, Sangiovese is allowed to shine in all its glory without depending on make-up imported from Bordeaux. The much-amended Chianti Classico regulations now allow producers to add a total of up to 20% of other varieties, but most of the finest wines are made entirely from Sangiovese. And if other grapes are added, they are today just as likely to be the traditional and local scented Mammolo, the rather ordinary Canaiolo and/or the deep-coloured Colorino as Cabernet and Merlot. (Since 2006 white grapes have been outlawed from Chianti Classico.) 

Perhaps the most famous selection of Sangiovese was first isolated by Ferruccio Biondi Santi of the hilltop town of Montalcino in southern Tuscany in the late 19th century and, as BBS11, is the only registered clone to be named after a producer. This particularly deep-coloured, tannic selection is known as Brunello and thus Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy's most noble and long-lived wines made entirely of this local vine speciality, was born. Brunello tends to need many more years in bottle to develop than even the sternest Chianti Classico but the DOC Rosso di Montalcino identifies the earlier-maturing reds of the region. Many would argue that fine Brunellos such as Biondi-Santi, Conti Costanti, Il Marroneto, Poggio di Sotto, Il Poggione and Gianfranco Soldera represent the finest examples of Sangiovese of all.

Just to the east of Montalcino, around the town of Montepulciano, there is a similar system for the local wines, known as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, whose local strain of Sangiovese is called Prugnolo Gentile. Quality here has been improving steadily of late, with Rosso di Montepulciano playing a similar role to its counterpart from Montalcino.

On the southern Tuscan coast, Sangiovese goes under the alias Morellino and makes particularly toothsome wine in unusually acid soils around Scansano, but much of the Maremma is regarded as too warm for Tuscany’s signature variety. The Montecucco zone, for example, is too extensive and varied in terms of soils and altitude to offer consistency.

Sangiovese is still the standard red grape of the Romagna region, and it is still easy to find vapid, pale, stretched examples but producers such as Zerbina have shown that top-quality Sangiovese is also bottled in this region. The Stella dell’Appenino group of producers has helped trigger a new generation of producers interested in making fine Romagna Sangiovese with the firm stamp of terroir.

In Umbria, to the south, Sangiovese is the standard red vine and can make some delicious Montefalco Rosso, in conjunction with the tannic local Sagrantino, while as Nielluccio, the Sangiovese vine is the most widely planted vine on the French island of Corsica.

Vine growers are becoming increasingly curious and Sangiovese is now planted throughout the Americas. California had a major flirtation with it. The results have been decidedly mixed but Shafer with their Firebreak blend, predominantly Sangiovese, has managed admirable consistency.

Argentina with its considerable Italian immigrant population also has quite a bit of Sangiovese (and Nebbiolo) planted, but it is still to perform even half as well as the dominant Argentine vine Malbec.

And in Australia Coriole and Pizzini have shown that Sangiovese can thrive in such different wine regions as McLaren Vale and the Victorian Highlands.

Some top wines, apart from Brunello di Montalcino, that have long been made predominantly from Sangiovese are Flaccianello (from Fontodi, Chianti Classico), Le Pergole Torte (Monte Vertine, Chianti Classico), Zerbina Riserva Pietramora (Zerbina, Romagna), Asinone (Poliziano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano) and Poggio Valente (Le Pupille, Morellino di Scansano).