The rapid rise of Sangiovese in India

Once the Sangiovese bug bites you, it’s hard to get rid of it. The surge in its popularity in the past few decades, through the reinvention and rapid rise of Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a clear indication that its popularity is spreading, and is infectious. India has been growing and making exemplary Sangiovese wines for a decade and a half, and the level of their success is unprecedented.

Sangiovese (the name derives from the Latin, sanguis jovis or the blood of Jove) roselike a phoenix in the early 1980s. Its previous reputation was that of a jug-wine served at trattorias and cafes by the litre, or a touristy, spritzy wine placed on every table in strawcoverd flasks that you’d drink and forget. It was only after Italian winemakers embraced modern winemaking techniques that Sangiovese rebuilt itself from the ashes of ignorance and past mistakes. Careful clonal and site selection, the use of barriques, blending with international varieties and aiming for low yields, all aided in making it not just the top varietal from Tuscany, but a dominant Italian superstar that has found a home in Australia, California, South America, and India.

India’s love story with Sangiovese began in 2006 when Yatin Patil, founder of Reveilo Wines, planted the first cuttings from Italy. “We studied the climate, temperatures, soils, and cycles of our plots, based on which our Italian winemaker suggested a few varieties. Sangiovese was one of them, and since it was among my favourites too, we had to plant it,” says Yatin.

Fratelli Vineyards followed suit and planted the varietal in Akluj in 2007. Alessio Secci, co-founder and winemaker says, “Our reason was simple; Sangiovese is the grape of Tuscany and the late Piero Masi hailing from Chianti Classico had widely acknowledged expertise over the varietal. Even if there was no certainty of success, we were keen on trying it. Piero found the terroir of Akluj similar to Montalcino. It’s at an elevation of 650 meters, land-locked without the influence of the ocean with identical soil and climatic conditions. Sangiovese can withstand heat and is water resistant, which works for our vineyards.” In this sense, Sangiovese is an obliging grape. It mirrors where and how it is grown, delivering wines that range from fun and juicy to complex, age-worthy reds.

KRSMA Wines also experimented with the varietal in the Hampi hills. KRSMA’s Sangiovese, introduced in 2012, soon became one of their most loved expressions. I was taken by surprise when I noticed it in Esquire Network’s TV series, ‘Uncorked’ which follows six sommeliers as they prepare to take the Master Sommelier exam. KRSMA was the wine that completely throws off the tasters in a blind tasting, and leaves them amazed by its quality and Indian origin. Uma Chigurupati, founder and viticulturist at KRSMA says, “Sangiovese is a popular grape, it doesn’t need any introduction, and is easily accepted by consumers. For us, alongside Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese was among our first choices as it works well in Indian conditions. It shows the minerality of our region exceptionally well. However, given our droughtprone vineyards, Sangiovese had to be uprooted and isn’t in production for now.”

Sangiovese enjoys high acidity and tannins but delivers a fugitive colour. Indian winemakers have been successful with balancing Sangiovese, which even Chianti producers often struggle with. “Sangiovese is a light variety and tends to oxidise easily, unless there are high tannins. To get good colour from Sangiovese is difficult. Interestingly, we got it at Nashik which surprised them when we sent it to Italy,” recalls Yatin.

“Sangiovese in India develops a thicker skin,” notes Alessio, “thus delivering high colour and tannins. However, we need to take care of the heat experienced here in our vineyards, lest it loses its beautiful aromas.” Even if one doesn’t achieve great colour in the reds, Sangiovese makes worthy rosé wines. Alessio says, “Our MS Rosé is 100% Sangiovese, showcasing the vineyard’s
expression. Very little work is done on it in the winery. It uses fruit from our own vineyards, and we make it in a refreshing, floral, fruit forward style intentionally. We must’ve done something right since it stands tall as the most awarded rosé from India.” Fratelli, as of now, is the sole Sangiovese-based rosé winemaker in the country.

No other winery has exploited a varietal the way Fratelli has exploited Sangiovese. And so they should, given their Italian-accented wines and the experience of the Piero-Alessio duo. Fratelli produces five variants, from a unique Sangiovese Bianco to their iconic Sette. When the late Kapil Sekhri, co-founder of Fratelli, was presented with a white Sangiovese by a producer in San Gimignano, he was inspired to plant the varietal in India. Grapes are harvested early for high acidity and put through the usual white winemaking process. I admire the Sangiovese Bianco and would highly recommend decanting it before drinking. It’s amongst the most potent white wines produced in India. Leave it in the cellar for a few years and it’ll develop smoky, crusty, complex notes like a decent Chablis!

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Fratelli’s classic Sangiovese red is inspired by the Chianti Classico style, made to show varietal character, haunting aromas, and signature ‘black tea tannins’. MS Rosé stands out for its commendable balance of freshness and complexity. The MS Red is a blend of 75% Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Shiraz. Even though it sees no oak, Alessio shares that it was made to replicate a Chianti Classico Riserva, and it shows complexity, homogenisation from supporting varietals, and charm that grows with age.

And then there’s Fratelli’s crown jewel, Sette. Its success can be gauged from the soaring demand it enjoys — from 5,000 bottles released in the first vintage to 80,000 bottles now — all the while maintaining the quality it’s known for. “Finding balance in the vineyard, identifying the right parcels, and harvesting selectively is tricky, but that’s what makes it a Sette,” affirmed Alessio.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese are fermented and aged separately, and then blended to show vintage influences. It rests for at least 12 months in barrels, an additional three months in tanks after blending, and a further three months in the bottle before it reaches the shelves. “Without Sangiovese there’s no Sette,” Alessio declares.

So, with all these varied styles, what does the future hold for Indian Sangiovese? What should we present to the world as our expression of the varietal? There is some consensus on that amongst winemakers.

Manjunath from Grover Zampa believes, “Making 100% Sangiovese is difficult. The rosé wines are good, the blends are better.” Grover Zampa recently released their super-premium range called Signet, among which a fivevariety blend called Signet Spectrum features Sangiovese as well.

Fratelli produces five styles, from a unique Sangiovese Bianco to their iconic Sette

Yatin of Reveilo concurs with the necessity of blending the wine. “We tried barrel fermenting our Sangiovese, but couldn’t agree about it at the time. Sangiovese, as shown by the Italians, can grow into a premium range like Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti. However, it needs blending.” Alessio agrees.

“The Sette style, blended and aged, has the maximum potential. It promises approachability, drinkability, complexity, and the age-worthiness that all great wines have. It’s the future grape for premium quality wines in India,” he declares.

There’s more promise to the varietal than just this. My most preferred wine from Fratelli’s arsenal was the now discontinued Vitae Sangiovese, a single vineyard, varietal Sangiovese, made in a Burgundian Pinot Noir style. It was a light, pale-coloured beauty, that arrested your attention from the first sniff, displaying mouthwatering acidity and supple tannins, with a burst of red berry flavours.

“Vitae was the right wine at the wrong time,” Alessio remembers with a smile. He asserts that he hasn’t given up on that wine yet and will attempt to revive it some time in the future. Alessio also notes that the one style that hasn’t been tried but that he would definitely like to try soon, is a dessert wine. Occhio de Pernicie is an Italian red sweet wine made much like a Vin Santo where grapes are dried and fermented in barrels, and left to age for a minimum of six years. Ageing a sweet wine in India for over half a decade is unheard of but a red, sweet wine would be delicious. I say, “Let’s do it Alessio!”

The Chigurupatis at KRSMA are also inclined to revive the Sangiovese varietal in their vineyards. Reveilo hasn’t yet produced a blended wine, but at my last visit to their winery I was offered a surprise — a glass of wine still in its nascent phase. It was definitely a blend and I would’ve happily packed a few bottles to take home. Is there a premium blended wine coming from Reveilo soon? We’ll wait and watch.

Manjunath wouldn’t reveal much about the Spectrum blend but from experience I can confidently say that once Grover Zampa adopts a grape variety they study it thoroughly. Now that Sangiovese has made it to their super-premium range, we’ll definitely see more of it. From an abject failure to a revival driven by ambition and determination, Sangiovese has risen like no other Italian varietal has, and it now stands among Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Nebbiolo and Merlot, as a global classic.

British wine writer, Oz Clark notes, “Sangiovese shows real class — imbued with Florentine arrogance and an austere haughty beauty that makes no effort to seduce, instead demanding that you make the effort to understand it.”

Sangiovese is a wine for someone who has the patience to understand the variety, treat it with care, mould it with intent, marry it with a good wine partner, and let it age until it reveals its true character. If you have the patience, Sangiovese is there for you.