No one looked, no one asked, when Sangiovese frolicked in the hills of Tuscany with childhood friends, Canaiolo, Malvasia, Trebbiano and Colorino. It was a simpler time. Sure, there were reports of Sangiovese co-mingling with the Cabernets, Sauvignon and Franc, near Florence. Florence was more liberal, less discriminating in who they chose as their partners. But in the rugged country, it was loyalty to long time workmates that cast the pattern. And then along came Tachis.
Chianti was boring. Property values made walking away from historic estates a realistic alternative. Head to Florence, embrace the 20th century, have some fun along the way; that was the pattern. No one wanted to stay back at the farm.
But Sangiovese couldn’t go. Rooted to the land, and as with so many marauders over time, overcome by the international army that was hitting the shores of Tuscany.
At first it was an uncomfortable fit. Cabernet Sauvignon was so assertive. Merlot was so strong. Cabernet Franc was so opinionated. Sangiovese was diminutive by comparison. Light in color, high in acid, with a faint tinge of cherry. It was an unsettling time.
Meanwhile, back in Tuscany, confusion reigned. Was Sangiovese to be trothed to Cabernet? To Merlot? To Syrah? To multiple partners? Every year it would be a new partner, a new combination. Tuscany was a virtual orgy, with intertwining vines producing light grapes, dark grapes, tannic grapes, fruity grapes. And the mainstream wine, Chianti, was lost in an odyssey of discovery and exploration for which there was no map or no destination.
Deeper into the Tuscany countryside there were some Sangiovese who went it alone. In Montalcino, living a monastic life, with little pleasure and no partners, save for those who led a dual life away from the eyes of the villagers. Back in the hills, there were indiscretions; Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot would pop up and take Sangiovese by force. It was murmured by the gossipers in the little hillside town, but they would get shushed and told not to tell lies. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” was the mantra. And so they lied down and had their way with Sangiovese.
On the east coast, there didn’t seem to be the conflict. Sangiovese paired with Montepulciano, was accepted by all as a good partner. Sure Montepulciano was the dominant one, all rich and fruity and strong. But Montepulciano also lacked something, maybe balance. Sangiovese gave Montepulciano the possibility for longer life, more character, and companionship.
The landed classes on the Tuscan coast saw Sangiovese as the rag-tag little sibling, not up to their standards, not traveling in their section of the coach. And so they ignored Sangiovese, used Sangiovese, took advantage of Sangiovese and then pushed Sangiovese to the back of the bus, after they’d had their way. All in the name of making wine more internationally acceptable. It was as if Catherine de’ Medici found a favorite French sculptor and brought him back to finish a chapel began by Michelangelo. It seemed incongruous.
For a while it seemed as if the experiment would work. The new blends were well received in America, in Germany, in Russia, even in Denmark. But like stretch pants with stirrups, mullets and Lionel Ritchie music, they weren’t meant for the longer haul. Eventually, as with all trendy things, people would be attracted to beefy red wine from Napa, or newer offerings from South Africa or Chile. It wasn’t something built on the perspective of millennia that Tuscany, and Italy had built their culture around. Piero Manzoni thrilled the cognoscenti in Milan, but Leonardo da Vinci would keep them coming back for more.
Which left Sangiovese at a crossroads. Still with no lack of sex appeal among wine lovers, even with multiple partners and all the transgressions, Sangiovese longed for re-invention. A pattern more towards St. Lucia than Jeanne d’Arc. Not to burn, only to be sullied. Could Sangiovese rise above the defilement? Would there be life after all of this?
“Alle belle donne le piu volte toccano i brutti uomini,” the old Italian saying goes. Beautiful women generally fall to the lot of ugly men. Why would Syrah want to come to Italy? Or Merlot? Or the Cabernets? So Montepulciano and Canaiolo would have to share Sangiovese with them? Perhaps. But I think Sangiovese has some say in this; this is not a passive bystander.
I think Sangiovese, even with all the transgressions, all the forced couplings and the shotgun marriages, is strong and well, and has, survived all of them. Maybe Sangiovese is still looking for the love of one’s life. And maybe, just maybe, Sangiovese loves the duel of sex, as much as the rest of us.
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