I have to admit that the range of home cooking in my apartment is pretty limited, particularly on weeknights when the ingredients of time and proper planning tend to be lacking. My boyfriend's go-to dish is "Chicken a la Frank's"—basically a chicken breast dropped into a pan with some Frank's hot sauce. Sometimes there's oil involved, sometimes there's butter, but more often than not, there's a frantic phone call to me with the smoke alarm blaring in the background.
When backup is inevitably required, I usually opt for simple, tomato-based pasta dishes. And what better to bring to a table of simple Italian cooking than rustic Italian wine? Enter Sangiovese. Fortunately for us, enjoying this wine doesn't have to mean blowing the budget.
Where It's Produced
Sangiovese is the most widely planted red variety in Italy. It pops up in many different forms—from single varietal to blended to dessert—sangiovese is one versatile grape. The only problem is that you need to know how to read the label to get a sense for what you're dealing with.
For this piece, we focused on wines from Tuscany known as Chianti, looking for good values under $20. While many of these wines are 100% Sangiovese, at minimum, you might also find 75% Sangiovese blended with approved reds, such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot or canaiolo. Back in the day, up to 30% white grapes were allowed in the blend, but that practice has been phased out in recent decades.
Some bottles of Chianti will have Classico on the label, which designates that the grapes came from the original 4 villages officially recognized as producing Chianti in 1716. Another common finding on a Chianti label is Riserva, which means that the wine has been aged longer, for a minimum of 27 months.
If you're looking to splurge, you can find well-regarded sangiovese-based wines from Brunello di Montalcino for around $50 or more. And for something sweeter, you can try Vin Santo or Occhio di Pernice, where the water in the grapes is allowed to evaporate, concentrating the sugars.
Of course, Sangiovese isn't only found in Italy—you also might find bottles from California, and increasingly, Australia.
What to Expect
What can you expect from your typical bottle of Chianti? For starters, these wines tend to be medium to full bodied and very dry. They are typically around 12% to 14% ABV. While you'll get some red fruit flavors, Sangiovese is distinguished from other wines by its savory, herbal hints as well.
As with many Italian wines, you will find prominent acidity at its backbone. If you have the time, decanting or pouring the wine into glasses on the earlier side will help the wine taste its best. Serve these wines just below room temperature, at 60°F-65°F, ideally with food. Pasta with tomato sauce, pizza, and other dishes from Italy are natural accompaniments. Some Chiantis have a bit of smokiness that pairs well with grilled meats. And of course, hard cheeses and charcuterie work well if there's no time to cook.
We tried 12 widely available bottles, and we've split up our favorites into lighter and fuller-bodied options for you to consider next time you'd like to try Sangiovese.
Lighter Bodied Winners
Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2009 ($18) has earthy aromas leading into bright cherry flavors. While the wine was relatively light, its savory side—which reminded us of mushrooms—balanced out the fruitiness. Consider this wine with meaty lasagna or pasta with a mushroom sauce.
But you can do well even if you spend less. Consider Cecchi Chianti DOCG 2010 ($11), which offers a savory, even meaty scent. The underlying juice has a nice dry minerality with enjoyable hints of cranberries.
Fuller Bodied Winners
Most of our tasters loved the Villa Nozzole Chianti Classico DOCG 2009 ($19) for its delicious flavor and concentration. Although this wine has a surprising 15% alcohol, its flavors are well integrated. Deep cherry aromas lifted out of the glass and hinted at the sweeter dark fruit in the liquid. The prune-like notes in this wine work well with a salty Parmesan or Manchego, or even a rich stew.
At $8 a pop, Bolla Chianti DOCG 2011 is a steal. Deep, dark cherry flavors and a little smoke gave good balance to this wine. Try this fuller bodied option with a weekday pizza dinner.
Recommended with Reservations
Though we'd point you toward the readily available options above, some of our tasters also liked Spalletti Chianti DOCG 2009 ($15). This wine offers an initial burst of acidity followed by some sweeter spice. It's lighter in body, and offers a tinge of bitterness on the finish, which cleanses the palate as you bite into that pizza you should definitely order for dinner tonight.
Some tasters also enjoyed the dry and well-structuresd Rocca dell Macie Chianti Classico DOCG 2010 ($16), which starts out with meaty, lightly fruity aromas (like Thanksgiving turkey, smothered in cranberry sauce), and offers prominent, tart acidity, along with some herbs—the anise and menthol notes in this wine would pair will with a rosemary-rubbed chicken or pork loin.
Are you a fan of Chianti and Sangiovese? Which are your favorite budget bottles? Let us know in the comments below.
About the author: Seema Gunda is an avid wine traveler, collector, and student with a background in chemistry and a day job in consulting.
All wines were provided as press samples for review consideration.