In Around The World In 80 Wine Varietals, contributor Chantal Martineau unearths how a particular grape drinks differently around the globe.

Italian wine is complicated. Never mind that there are hundreds of grapes with hard-to-pronounce names indigenous to Italy and that the same genetic variety can have several different monikers depending on where it’s grown. The wines themselves are organized according to a strict hierarchy. It can be tricky for wine novices and even self-proclaimed oenophiles to decipher Italy’s complex wine classification system.

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There are more than 300 DOC wines (Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata), which is Italy’s answer to the French AOC (appellation d’origine controlée) system. These are high-quality wines associated with a specific region or village whose production must adhere to strict rules. In Italy, there are another 73 wines that meet DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) standards. This category is essentially a stricter one, reserved for wines that have maintained DOC standards for at least 10 years.

Among all this organized confusion you have Sangiovese, one of Italy’s most complicated grapes. Just to give you an idea of how revered it is, its name comes from the Latin sanguis Jovis, which translates as “the blood of Jove.” It’s the most planted variety in Tuscany and also goes into the country’s most famous wine: Chianti. There are 14 types of Sangiovese, several of which have become famous in their own right, like Brunello di Montalcino and Prugnolo di Montepulciano. Said to be a cross between the native Ciliegiolo grape and near-extinct Calabrese Montenuovo, Sangiovese is made into both blended and varietal wines. It can be both aged and drunk young. And it can be both glorious and pure dreck.

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The Sangiovese grape is thin-skinned and prone to rot in damp, cool climates. It’s also extremely terroir driven and can taste quite different from one place to the next. For example, the sandy clay soils of Chianti produce a juicy, easy-drinking pizza wine. In the limestone-rich soils of Montalcino, you can find robust, age-worthy wines, including some of the most distinguished in the country. The grape has made its way to the New World, as grapes do, including California, Washington, Chile and Argentina. For five examples of what Sangiovese can be, and where to buy a bottle, see below:

La Palazzetta Brunello di Montalcino 2007, Tuscany, Italy
Flavio Fanti farms his 18 hectares of vineyards, located on the southeastern edge of Montalcino, organically. The Brunello is aged in large French and Slovenian casks for a gentle maturation. The result is a dark brambly wine with soft hints of oak spice that won’t slap you in the face if you drink it now. Astor Wines, $40.

Frascole Chianti Rufina 2010, Tuscany, Italy
Another organic producer, Frascole makes its Chianti from mostly Sangiovese, with just a dash of both Canaiolo and Colorino, for mellowing out Sangiovese’s sharper edges and color, respectively. The wine is a DOCG and of excellent value, full of red berry and earthy notes with a pleasant floral edge. Chambers Street Wines, $13.

Altamura Sangiovese 2009, Napa Valley, California
Sangiovese was brought to California sometime in the 19th century by Italian immigrants. Altamura, run by husband-and-wife team Frank and Karen Altamura, makes a 100% Sangiovese that is rich and jammy with a lush, toasty finish. K& L Wines, $45.

Kiona Vineyards Sangiovese 2004, Yakima Valley, Washington
What does a cool climate do for Sangiovese? Well, the grape can be tricky to grow in environments that differ too much from its Italian home. Luckily, despite cool nights, the Red Mountain region gets plenty of sunshine and nearly no rain. So, this family-owned estate is able to turn out a pleasingly red-fruited wine with a bright, peppery finish. Wines That Work, $19.

Lunlunta Tercos Mendoza Sangiovese, Maipu, Argentina
It comes as little surprise that the Italian variety would migrate to Argentina, as so many Italians did. This modern winery, located some 12 miles south of the city of Mendoza, makes a 100% Sangiovese that shows great acidity and plenty of spiced, cherry fruit. Village Corner, $13.

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