A Guide to Pairing: Sangiovese

Sangiovese, Chianti, Chianti Classico, Brunello, Super Tuscan…

A bit about Sangiovese:

  • Known as “The Blood of Jupiter” (Latin: sanguis Jovis).  Full stop.  Pretty epic.
  • Much like Pinot or Nebbiolo, Sangiovese is a terroir star!  Although plantings outside of Italy are practically non-existent at this stage, each region of growth takes on unique characteristics that define each version of this grape, best shown by comparing the 14 clones of the grape currently grown in Italy
  • Sangiovese is a cross of the ancient Tuscan grape Ciliegiolo, and the nearly-extinct Calabrian grape Calabrese Montenuovo
  • The highest regard of the Sangiovese clones goes to DOCG Brunello di Montalcino (100% Sangiovese – no blends allowed!), however the IGT Sangiovese-based Super Tuscan blends have made quite the domestic and global impact as well, with prices and reviews in some cases rivalling Brunello

That said, let’s talk food (think like a chef):

Now, we’re not here to talk pricing, we’re here to talk food and wine!

While the regional clones exist, and each can speak to its own nuance, there are general items regarding all Sangiovese that offer guidance for food pairings: lighter-bodied, higher acid, cherry-like flavors, and earthy tones. Sounds kind of Pinot Noir-like, yes?  Yes!  Although there is no genetic linkage between any of them, Sangiovese is more Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo-like than other red grapes, insomuch as: lighter bodied, higher acid, unable to be color-stable for extended aging (turns a brick color) and highly-susceptible to terroir.  The other item of note that ties Sangiovese into this sort-of-family that we’ve created, is its incessant need to be alongside food.  A great Chianti Classico, a great Brunello di Montalcino, an epic Super Tuscan blend all have one thing in common aside from being world-class wines…they’re better with dinner!  All this said, the dishes you’d pair with Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo may not be the same as a Sangiovese due to unique secondary and tertiary flavors each grape or growing region exhibits.

Like other chameleon grapes, and probably more so than most, you’ll definitely want to know what’s in your bottle before bringing it to dinner.  If you’re just joining us in this series, as a bit of catch up, 2 bottles are better than one. Why? One for you to enjoy on your own, the other to pair with dinner!  You’ll always want to know what’s in the bottle before serving, and no better way than to know for yourself – winemaker tasting notes be damned!

So as a general rule of thumb, all expressions of Sangiovese will be higher on the acidity scale (great for cutting rich food fats), have overt cherry flavors (which go great alongside pork, turkey, and chicken), some subtle tomato flavors (stewed, roasted, sun-dried, leaf flavors – all great for pairing with numerous foods and preparations), and earthy tones (which much like Pinot, makes for great food pairings and depth of flavors).  Most expressions are oak aged, so there’s an impact of barrel character too, generally translating as body, barrel spice, and flecks of vanilla or other enrichening aspects that oak brings to lighter-bodied red wines (again, see: Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo), but each vitner has different cooperage at different ages and thus offers differing levels of barrel character to each wine (the majority of producers utilize neutral oak barrels, so the impact isn’t as extreme as a first passed barrel Napa or Bordeaux wine may experience for example), hell, even each vintage within the same winery has subtle nuance from one vintage to the next – such is the excitement of wine.

Compare AND contrast:

Ok, so for comparable flavors, you’ll want anything dredged in a cherry sauce or reduction, like, cherry sauce pork or chicken, as it’ll align with comparable flavor profiles. This said, the wines produced from Sangiovese are dry, sometimes very, very dry, so any sweet items like cherry pie are out of the question due to the wine’s high acidity and dryness coming off as highly astringent against sweet flavors – you’ll want to stick to the savory use of the cherry flavor profile when comparably pairing.  Also, anything tomato based. Ratatouille, shakshuka, any tomato-based sauce (for pasta or pizza), sun-dried tomatoes, gazpacho, bruschetta, etc.  All highly accentuated by some form of Sangiovese.  Basically, if your Sangiovese tastes like it, it’ll pair well with it, sweet stuff aside.

Contrasting flavors equally shine, and are at no loss for things easily found in the culinary world.  Grilled meats, especially game meats, contrast excellently alongside Sangiovese-based wines, the fattier, the better (we’re looking at you, duck).  As well, aged cheeses like pecorino go excellently with this type of wine, utilizing the high acid to cut the cheese’s rich fats.  Vegetables are another winner with Sangiovese; grilling or roasting vegetables to impart bolder flavors makes for excellent company with these wines.  Gnocchi with brown butter and sage is enough to induce anyone’s hunger, and there is nary a better pairing than Sangiovese, taking up a bit of the palate real estate that the simper preparation of this classic dish leaves to be filled in while slicing through the dumplings in herbed butter sauce.  A Sangiovese has never shied away from a charcuterie plate either; tuscan cured meats, salami, prosciutto, calabrese, you name it, all sliced by the wine’s signature acidity.  And, if you want a little piece of Sangiovese’s home, try a Tuscan vegetable and bean soup for a real winner in the pairing category.

Get weird:

Sangiovese and steak.  Yeah, we know, why would you dare encroach upon the sacred space reserved for Cab, Merlot, Malbec, etc. with a Sangiovese and steak pairing suggestion?  Well, it’s a bit weird off-hand, but follow us on this one…it’s actually quite simple and logical really:

There’s a T-bone steak (porterhouse cut – a.k.a. the thicker, the better; you’ll want 2″-3″ to make this pairing as close to traditional as possible) you can make, get, find, cook, however you see it fit, called Bistecca Alla Fiorentina (traditionally it has to come from a very specific breed of cattle, but we’re out here in CA and not willing to search the globe for a cut of Chianina Tuscan cattle – do they even export it?).  It’s painfully simple: olive oil, salt and pepper on a super thick cut T-bone, grilled hotter than sin, over live charcoal or wood fire.  The kicker here is to cook the steak as hot as possible while keeping it rare to preserve the natural beef flavors.  Still seem like a pretty normal steak?  Yeah, and that’s ok. The Florentines pride themselves on simple, delicious flavors – no gartro-science crap going on there, just tried and true delicious recipes from naturally flavorful ingredients.  So the purview here is a deliciously simple steak, not a simple delicious steak – a big difference; high-level grill flavors that only charcoal or wood can provide, with delicate steak umami that only rare steak can offer, from a cut that is traditionally marbled and perfectly fat-capped, all sliced by vibrant acidity with accents of cherry, tomato, herbs (like oregano), and allow the softer meat fibers (in rare state) to interact on the palate harmoniously with the softer tannin from this wine.  It’s not uncommon to have a deliciously simple steak served with oven roasted cherry tomatoes in olive oil and herbs.  This weird pairing essentially makes the wine your tomato, if you will.  And truth be told, we’d choose wine over tomatoes any day given the choice between the two (can’t catch a buzz on Tomato water…just sayin’), but bonus points if you go for broke and do the tomatoes on the side of the steak and a Sangiovese.  Ok…stomachs are growling, enough blogging, time to cook.

So there you have it, our guide for pairing Sangiovese.

How about you though? For our other guests, please feel free to share your pairing suggestions for Sangiovese in the comments below.

Cheers!

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