Sangiovese Clones: Why Care?

I don’t know about you, but clones matter to me. Especially sangiovese clones.

Why? Because they’re key to understanding the future of Tuscany’s flagship wines—Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino

When I first started learning about Tuscan wine, it was taught that there are three types of sangiovese: sangioveto in Chianti; prugnolo gentile in Montepulciano; and brunello or sangiovese grosso in Montalcino.

But that never jibed with what winemakers told me. They pooh-poohed the idea, saying sangiovese was a chameleon grape that adapts to its environment. Take a vine from hot, dry Montalcino and plant it in the cool, clay soils of Montepulciano, and you end up a creature of a different color.

So, I was happy to get this sorted out during a Tuscan Wine Masterscertification program offered by the consortiums for Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and taught by venerable wine whizzes Mary Ewing Mulligan MW, Ed McCarthy, and Tom Maresca at the International Wine Centerin NYC.

In a nutshell, we can forget about that triad of sangioveses. (Point of fact: In Italy’s official grape registry, brunello has quietly slipped off the pages and disappeared into the night.)

What shapes today’s thinking is 30 years of clonal research on sangiovese, spearheaded in the 1980s by Banfi, an American-owned behemoth winery in Montalcino, the Chianti Classico consortium, and the universities of Florence, Perugia, and Milan. That research has clarified the picture—and made it far more complicated.

Sangiovese turns out to be a “population” or family of highly adaptive grapes. There are two biotypes: Tuscan and Romagnan (from Emilia Romagna). Both contain many clones, i.e., plants that are genetically different and behave differently. The Tuscan biotype comprises 57 clones; the Romagnan 13.

Farmers had long noticed extreme variation in sangiovese vines, not just from one locale to another, but even within the same vineyard. Researchers aimed to rationalize these differences. They looked at dozens of clones’ berry size and weight, ability to accumulate sugar, coloring matter, ability of tannins to form chains and ‘soften’, aromas, and flavors—all of which vary enormously from clone to clone. Even the clones themselves are variable; more than most grape varieties, sangiovese adapts to different environments. (Unlike nebbiolo, sangiovese doesn’t mutate in the field; it adapts. So there’s an even more genetically unstable grape out there.)

Why should you care? For starters, the changes wrought by this research have already reached your glass. Take color. Sangiovese is known to be a thin-skinned variety without much pigment. Tilt the glass and there should be enough transparency to read your notes through the wine. But lately I’ve been noticing some deeply pigmented sangiovese wines that look more like purple barbera than the classic transparent garnet of sangiovese. I suspected some merlot or colorino might have been thrown in (an illegal practice in Brunello, of course). But it’s more likely that the growers were using one of the newly commercialized sangiovese clones that have emerged from this research.

Mary Mulligan recalls a similar experience with Castello di Volpaia’s Chianti Classico. “I’d always loved its crispness, precision, and focus,” she says. “I’d imagined it was due to Volpaia’s higher elevation.” But when tasting recent vintages, she found a different wine altogether. “It seemed fleshy and full-bodied. I thought there was some merlot in it. But it turned out that it was a different clone that had been planted about 15 years ago” which was finally making its way into Volpaia’s top wines.

Banfi is taking the lead in blending clones. I’ve seen their scientific charts profiling the 17 clones they’ve chosen as best-suited for their microclimate and preferred style of Brunello. One offers more violet aromas, another greater acidity, another deeper color. It’s possible to engineer wines this way—and Banfi does, creating their Brunellos from a blend of sangiovese clones.

Are engineered wines bad? Are they any different from traditional blending? These are questions that are starting to circulate in wine circles. But one thing’s certain: sangiovese growers and vintners now have a much bigger tool kit to work with, and customers are seeing the results in an ever-wider array of sangiovese wines.