With Sangiovese, our options are limited.
Often, we are left with a vast majority of Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and a fringe portion of Nobile di Montepulciano in addition to a few outliers defying local consorzio rules such as Montevertine and Soldera, plus a few adventurous growers in California and Australia.
The sour cherry flavours of a Sangiovese with its wilted floral nose for me is what sets the Italian grape different from a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Nebbiolo for instance. In its spiritual home of Tuscany, Sangiovese’s quality seems to be preordained in the order of the more fleshed Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico, and then the more approachable Chianti.
You would be hard-pressed to find wine professionals, let alone wine consumers who managed to put Vino Nobile di Montepulciano in the line-up. If by a stroke of luck, the noble wine produced in the hilltop town of Montepulciano next to Montalcino, is mentioned, it most definitely would trail in the preordained ranking.
That is of course the perennial assumption that permeates the marketing language surrounding Sangiovese and its most prized and expensive wine, Brunello.
Unlike Brunello, a newer invention in Italy’s wine history that was born with an anarchic hero at Biondi-Santi, which is to say that its allure is more tantalising and in today’s marketing terms “sexier”, Chianti or Nobile would unfavorably pale in comparison to the more modern wine despite their blue-blooded long history. What’s more, Chianti’s dusty straw basket certainly did not exactly conjure up a contemporary image that would beckon eager and younger drinkers.
Hong Kong tasting
But results from a recent blind tasting with leading sommeliers, writers and educators in Hong Kong following my experiment in New York in May proved assumptions are often misleading.
When presented with six different 100% Sangiovese wines from 2014 vintage, the tasters are instructed to rank the wines in order of their preferences irrespective of prices. Same as New York, no two tasters’ results are exactly the same, and in some cases, what was believed to be Chianti turned out to be Brunello or a Chianti Classico a Nobile.
This goes out to say that styles for Nobile or Chianti have evolved as much as Brunello has, and in the words of JC Viens, veteran wine educator and Vinitaly Academy Italian Wine Ambassador, “the wines are similar to each other” following the tasting.
Same as New York, Banfi remains a polarizing wine in the mix. The American-owned Italian winery is credited for popularizing Brunello in its most profitable market in the US, but at the same time, the wine straddles two ends of the spectrum.
The 2014 Brunello was picked as a favourite by JC Viens, and Derek Li, group sommelier of JIA Group. The same wine however failed to impress Sarah Wong, wine columnist at South China Morning Post, and Aki Wong, co-founder of Vinotopia and Master of Wine student.
Viens described the wine as elegant with fruit concentration that “matches the power of its tannins”. In the same vein, Li agreed it’s a big and powerful wine with density and masculinity. However, for Aki, the wine’s finish seems “short” and “body is quite harsh”. Adding to the insult, Sarah Wong observed it’s rather muted to the extent that it seems there’s “nothing on the nose.” Its short finish and structure were also noted by Reeze Choi, head sommelier at PIIN restaurant, who picked it as his second to last wine.
Different from New York, Banfi doesn’t seem to suffer the ‘mass producer’ image problem that was observed among tasters there. In Hong Kong, there was no one who was aghast at its top ranking and asked not to publish the ranking at least.
Aside from Banfi, Altesino’s 2014 Brunello came out on top in two blind tasting results for Anty Fung, Master of Wine candidate and general manager at Hip Cellar, and Aki Wong. Equally, Casanova di Neri, the more modern and concentrated version of Brunello, was favoured by Reeze Choi and Sarah Wong of SCMP.
Compared with the other five wines in the blind tasting flight, Sarah praises the Casanova di Neri wine of having “more staying power”.
It’s worthy to note that even with the five Brunellos in the flight, there’s a varied range of styles from the more light-bodied Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona to the more concentrated and extracted Casanova di Neri.
Interestingly, the most affordable and least known wine in the mix, a Vino Nobile from biodynamic producer Avignonesi, was a surprise. In two instances, it came out as No. 2 for Reeze Choi and Anty Fung, and was picked as No. 1 wine by Leo Au, head sommelier at Café Grey at the Upper House, trumping the pricier and sexier Brunellos. In New York experiment, the Nobile was favoured by three tasters as well.
Leo Au lauded the wine’s structure, focus and craftsmanship, while Reeze Choi who picked the wine as his second favourite noted that the wine is more delicate, more refreshing with well-polished tannins. Anty Fung added the wine is a more traditional style of Sangiovese and has “a distinctive character” that is clear and transparent.
Perhaps one most unifying finding in both New York and Hong Kong tastings is that Caparzo’s 2014 Brunello ended up trailing the pack in many cases, critiqued for its greenness, muted nose and slightly diluted body, as judges speculated that it might have something to do with grape selection in a wet vintage like 2014.
The tasting is not a proof that goes out to conclude that Brunello is hyped or inflated. For many wine lovers, Brunello has a special place for all the good reasons. When it’s done right, the wines are supple, layered, juicy and have a long ageing potential.
What the results from both Hong Kong and New York have proven though is that when it comes to Sangiovese – regardless of labels and assumptions – a true wine lover can be as thrilled by drinking a humble Nobile as he is drinking a Brunello. Or in some cases even more, as the results have shown.
That’s what also makes blind tasting exciting when pitting lesser appreciated wines with established brands: the great upset, the surprise, and the Long overdue re-evaluation that comes with it.
The six wines tasted in alphabetic order:
Altesino Brunello di Montalcino 2014
Avignonesi Vino Nobile 2014
Banfi Brunello di Montalcino 2014
Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino 2014
Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino 2014
Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino 2014