Sangiovese is synonymous with Chianti, the wine in the straw-covered flasks that became ubiquitous in Italian restaurants in the twentieth century. Among fine wine enthusiasts, Sangiovese is revered as Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy's most famous and prestigious wines. In Sonoma County, Sangiovese is a perennial comeback kid of grape varieties.
Sangiovese Key Facts
Sonoma County must be the place to grow Sangiovese, because it leads California counties in area planted with 18 percent of the total in the state. That’s only about 330 acres, however, ahead of Petit Verdot but behind Petite Sirah. More than 15 times as many acres are planted with Zinfandel.
A wild-looking vine with toothy leaves, Sangiovese produces purple clusters of varying sizes, depending on clone. Relatively late-ripening, it needs a warm climate to help temper its famously high levels of acidity.
Sangiovese: The Tuscan Connection
Sangiovese has been grown in Tuscany for as long as a millennium, and is the most widely planted winegrape throughout Italy today. Yet as recently as the 1970s, Sangiovese from some of Tuscany’s most celebrated regions wasn’t necessarily much to talk about. Tighter restrictions on blending with other grapes have improved the reputation of Chianti Classico, while so-called Super Tuscan wines blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot command premium prices just like “cult” California Cabernet.
Sangiovese in Sonoma County
Sangiovese’s late start in Sonoma County could be explained by the huge popularity that Zinfandel enjoyed among wine drinkers and Italian immigrant farmers in Sonoma County. However, according to wine historian Charles L. Sullivan, in the early 1900s Sonoma County’s legendary Italian Swiss Colony winery made its Tipo Chianti with a base of Sangiovese from vines that were imported in the 1880s from Italy (see Sullifan's book, "Sonoma Wine and the Story of Buena Vista"). Tipo, in the straw-covered, squat bottle, was a top seller nationwide for decades.
In the 1990s interest in the varietal picked up, but winemakers reported mixed results. Better knowledge of Sangiovese’s many different clones and its viticultural requirements has led to promising wines.
Bright, red cherries are typical on the nose and palate of Sangiovese wine; also, licorice, plum, and earthy and savory notes. It may be aged in American, Slavonian, or French oak, traditionally in larger casks. Sangiovese’s high acidity makes it a food-pairing natural.
Sonoma County’s Key Sangiovese Regions
A winemaker at Italian Swiss Colony, Edoardo Seghesio planted Sangiovese on his family’s property in 1910, which survives as the Seghesio’s own unique clone of the variety.
This high-elevation AVA shows promise for Sangiovese.
Wineries: Imagery Estate.
This is Zinfandel country, so why not Sangiovese? At Healdsburg’s DaVero Farms & Winery, they’re happy to show you a map that explains why Sonoma County, on the same latitude as southern Italy, ought to be growing more Italian grapes, indeed.
Facing southwest on the slopes of the Mayacamas, Sonoma Valley’s higher elevation vineyards show promise with Sangiovese, often blended “Super Tuscan” style with Cabernet.
Read more about the different Sonoma County Wine Regions.