Hard grind is paying off for Sangiovese

Hard grind is paying off for Sangiovese

Name: Mark Lloyd

Acclaimed pioneer of Australian Sangiovese, Mark Lloyd, of Coriole Vineyards, McLaren Vale, introduces this issue's Varietal Report, highlighting the inroads Sangiovese has made in gaining acceptance among Australian wine consumers since the Wine Industry Journal's last report on the variety in its May/June 2004 issue.

By Mark Lloyd
Chief executive and winemaker
Coriole Vineyards
McLaren Vale, South Australia

Some of my wine friends are often the brunt of lighthearted jibes about that most obsessive wine personality type - the Pinot Noir enthusiast. 'Just imagine having to do battle with all those boring enthusiasts on the intricacies of clone, berry and ferment at one of those Pinot Noir love-ins that are held around the world.'

Yet, maybe we are at a time in Australia when similar obsessiveness may push winemakers to exploit the pure difference of Sangiovese.

Sangiovese has had a slow beginning in Australia. This is summed up in Nick Bulleid's article 'Sangiovese: the hard grind begins', which introduced the Wine Industry Journal's first Sangiovese Varietal Report published in the May/June 2004 issue (Vol, 19, No. 3).

The grapes gradually increase in stature and each year, the wines develop and improve. We are hopefully past the time when winemakers desperate to get their new wines on the market dope up their Sangiovese with a slashing of oaked Shiraz (although, these wines can still get better points and reviews).

Sangiovese is difficult to grow. It can have high vigour, big bunches and significant clonal variation. It is also difficult to taste. At a table of consumers it creates a polarity of views. Sangiovese is not nearly as seductive as many varieties. It does not stand alone like Pinot Noir or Shiraz. You don't offer Sangiovese as a pre-dinner drink. It also does poorly at national wine shows which tend to support riper styles.

You may conclude that this wine is hard and dry and yet a moment later, it is seamless with food and the combination is unsurpassed. Sangiovese and the more extreme Nebbiolo, occupy a niche spot on the tasting table.

Sangiovese was first planted at Coriole in 1985. The mid 1980s was a low time for Australian red wines so there was an opportunity to look for something different. There was a chance to consider a variety that was not French, as these varieties dominated the Australian viticultural landscape (and maybe there was some political sentiment as the French were very unpopular at the time, testing atomic bombs in the Pacific with disregard for the local populations).

Sangiovese was available from a source block in the Kalimna Vineyard in the Barossa Valley with vines imported into Australia in the 1970s from Davis in California. It appeared to be a mid-season, high acid variety that may suit McLaren Vale and would certainly be a contrasting style to our major variety of Shiraz. There was a small-batch wine made at Roseworthy to try but it was too oaked to be representative of the variety.

The revolution in Italian wine quality had barely begun at that time. There were no Italian wines in Australia of note, although it was about this time that Negociants first imported Antinori's Tignanello, a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet. These wines were impressive and suggested a new experience in wine drinking.

The reputation of Italian wine was so poor that when we first introduced consumers to this new Italian variety the most likely comment was 'pass'. This was a time of traditional Italian restaurants… pasta houses with windows fringed with Italian flags. Unfortunately, these restaurateurs always purchased the cheapest wines possible and in the process ruined wine reputations.

Carlo Corino, at Montrose in Mudgee, had produced several Sangiovese wines in the late 1970s. I remember meeting a wine representative in Rundle Street, Adelaide, who had spent the day with the winemaker visiting restaurants with the new variety. She was depressed by the lack of interest and sales. Montrose didn't produce another varietal wine until 1996. People found the name difficult. 'Why don't you just call it Chianti?' was the request of many.

The negative image of the variety took many years to overcome. Its presence in Australia was confirmed in the early 1990s after a sales trip to New Zealand. 'I can't believe just how open these customers are to Sangiovese,' I commented. My host had the answer, 'We have never had Italian restaurants in New Zealand to lower the reputation of Chianti'. As traditional Italian restaurants disappeared, Italian wine styles and cuisine dominated the contemporary bistro scene and these restaurants with new customers became prepared to sell and match Sangiovese from Australia.

The other negative to overcome was Australian's love of traditional rich and ripe wine styles, for these wines were quite the reverse. Lighter red wines were not taken seriously. Of course, planting Sangiovese was just the first step. We didn't deal with the grape very well at a time when shoot and bunch thinning was unheard of. Vines were young and wines were light. Most often, doses of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz were required for colour and while still distinctive, the characteristic style was lost, particularly with a year or so in bottle.

In 1988 we made our first visit to Italy on a family holiday in a house near Radda in the magic land of Chianti Classico. We explored the region and grew more and more excited whenever we found really good wines. These wines were so enticing with their characteristic link of elegance with structure and power.

The most informative visit was a session with Giacomo Tachis, a senior winemaker with Antinori. He outlined the program that was in place to improve the genetic stock and to replant the mixed vineyards. There was a sense that this was important for national pride and that there was a common pursuit of some sort of cultural and vinous Holy Grail.

Italy still has a big claim on its 'Italian' varieties. This often makes it hard to attract importers for these wines as often the response is 'but if we want Sangiovese we go to Italy'. Hence, we are more likely to fi nd a place for a blend of Shiraz and Sangiovese which then has an acceptable Australian connection. It may be that the lesser known varieties from Italy, as they are developed in Australia, have more ready interest in export markets.

Sangiovese has proved to work well in McLaren Vale. It ripens mid to late season with good natural acidity and balance of tannin. It is also pleasingly aromatic. There are issues with clones and several new clones now make up a good percentage of our plantings. However, still the original clone on the oldest vines with appropriate thinning will produce the best wine, so cultural practices have a big impact.

Now is the time to pursue a purity of Sangiovese and to take it to greater highs. The signs are there.

The full Sangiovese Report can be found in the September/October 2008 issue of the Wine Industry Journal. To get your copy of this issue or to subscribe to the Journal please contact Winetitles on +61 8 8292 0888 or email subs@winetitles.com.au

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