Gourmet Traveller


The streets of Castellina in Chianti, Tuscany. (PHOTOGRAPHY GETTY IMAGES)

As vineyard pests go, cinghiale, wild boar, would have to be the most unusual. And delicious – especially turned into a ragù and served with wide strips of pappardelle and a glass of Chianti, made from the very same sangiovese grapes the porcine pests were trying to pilfer.

It’s divine retribution, really. The name sangiovese famously means “blood of Jove”, which gives you a good idea of how highly esteemed the grape is in Chianti and Montalcino and Bolgheri and the other wine regions of Tuscany where it’s the prime red variety.

This is some of the most classically beautiful wine country anywhere in the world: red-tiled medieval rooftop villages perched on hilltops; horizon lines of pencil pines against the setting sun; perfectly manicured hillside vineyards; (and, if you look very carefully, shin-height electric fences to keep out the cinghiale).

Sangiovese comes in many forms here, from simple, light, cherry-juicy quaffers produced by large wineries across Tuscany, to the more precise and elegant wines of Chianti Classico, to the fuller-bodied, tannic, long-lived Brunello di Montalcino, and the more rustic, earthy Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Tuscan wine has been through a dynamic process of reinvention over the last half-century. The revolution began with the release of Sassicaia, a wine made not from sangiovese but from the French grape, cabernet sauvignon. This led to a wave of so-called Super Tuscans across the region: red wines produced from other international varieties such as cabernet and merlot, sometimes single varieties, sometimes blended with sangiovese. During the 1980s and ’90s, Super Tuscans were all the rage, but in recent years the pendulum has swung back to sangiovese, and more and more producers now take pride in focusing on the traditional Tuscan grape.

Tuscany may be the most famous wine region in central Italy, but it’s far from the only one.

Sangiovese is also grown in Emilia-Romagna, to the north, and it produces lovely red wines. But the best wine to drink with an antipasto platter laden with regional specialities, such as slices of prosciutto and chunks of well-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, is Lambrusco. Forget any bad memories you may have of cheap, sweet Australian-made “Lambrusco”. The real thing, drunk with relish by the locals here, is usually dry, often pale-pink rather than deep-purple in colour, with a fabulous tangy freshness and savoury quality.

They grow sangiovese in Umbria, too, and the Lazio region around Rome, and in Abruzzo to the east. But the wines made from this grape rarely match the best of Tuscany – or the best made from other red varieties indigenous to each region.

In Umbria, for example, the sagrantino grape produces famously intense red wine: deep, dark purple in colour, and with fabulous, tongue-gripping tannins. In Abruzzo, the montepulciano grape (not to be confused with the town bearing the same name in Tuscany) makes some of Italy’s best-value red wines, full of flavour and fruit, with supple tannins and a fleshy texture.

And when in Rome, it makes sense to drink red wines made from the local cesanese variety: the grape’s earthy flavours are wonderful paired with a plate of braised trippa alla Romana.