The Blood of Jupiter: going to the roots of Italy's most famous wine grape
Wartime punctuates so many of the great wine regions of Europe, and indeed the world. Some of the most profound wines I have drunk were from the Domaine de Bargylus near Antioch in war-torn Syria. I was privileged to encounter them for the first time over supper several years ago with the Saadé brothers, Karim and Sandro, who also own Château Marsyas in Beqaa, Lebanon. Orthodox Christians making wine in a country riven by theological divisions, and especially fundamental Islamism, must tread carefully. The vineyard is 900 metres up in the hills and secretively guarded. The grapes are smuggled over the border to be turned into wine in Lebanon. It’s incredible what lengths we can go to in the pursuit of making great wine.
The Second World War got in the way of many a winemaker, typically because they themselves were called up to fight. Sometimes their property was commandeered by enemy forces, and this was the fate of Tenuta Pandolfa astride the Rabbi river in Predappio, Emilia-Romagna. Its heritage runs deep. As legend has it, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, known as the ‘wolf of Rimini’ and notable enough to have a painting of him by Piero della Francesca hanging in the Louvre, resided here before his sacking of the Fiumana castle in 1436. From 1626 till 1941 it was in the hands of the Marquis Albicini, then it passed to Giuseppe Ricci, a local entrepreneur.
Giuseppe’s custodianship was interrupted by the Nazi soldiers who occupied it after Italy surrendered to the Allies, and the property damaged during an offensive by Polish troops during the Battle of Bologna in April 1945, locals taking refuge in the abundant cellars.
Since then, Giuseppe Ricci and his descendants have painstakingly and lovingly restored Tenuta Pandolfa to its former splendour. The wines are made by his great-grandson, Marco, and named after his daughter, Noelia, who replanted vineyards here in the 1970s and laid the groundwork for a winery.
Their main cuvée is simply called ‘Il Sangiovese’ (£18) because Marco wants you to experience the purest form of Sangiovese, a grape whose origins can be traced to this very area of Predappio. Now there are claims and counterclaims aplenty for the origins of Sangiovese, and in a country with such varietal diversity as Italy, for many other grapes besides, but they are almost impossible to prove – and therefore disprove!
The grape’s name supposedly refers to sanguis Jovis or “the blood of Jupiter”, so-called by monks from nearby Santarcangelo di Romagna near Rimini. Genetic profiling by José Vouillamoz in 2007 established that Sangiovese is a natural offspring of Ciliegiolo, a central Italian variety found mostly in Tuscany, and an obscure grape from the Napoli area called Calabrese di Montenuovo, suggesting a distant southern Italian origin.
Nevertheless, Predappio has long been famed as the source of some of the finest Sangiovese, and for a variety with so much clonal variation due to its long history of cultivation, it is certainly a feather we can confidently pin to the region’s hat. Indeed, ‘Sangiovese di Romagna’ is reliably viewed as one of the superior expressions.
So, Marco wants to show us this august grape in its most elemental form, eschewing the oak barrels typical of Tuscan examples like Chianti or Brunello. Predappio’s climate is basically continental, with variations as you climb the hills (this is around 300 metres above sea level) due to altitude and cooler winds from the Adriatic Sea, an unhindered 50km away, which also depresses humidity and therefore disease risk.
Making a wine only in stainless steel tanks is a sure-fire way of projecting its primary characteristics and this for me is what you get with Il Sangiovese – a pure, fundamental yet still intricate flavour profile. The bigger, oaked examples will demonstrate earthier, darker flavours like herbs, truffles and spice, and Sangiovese’s hallmark cherry flavour in those instances will lean towards the black cherry rather than the red. This gives you the latter, with bright, crunchy, sour red cherries, cranberries and redcurrants. The structure is supple, even light on the mid-palate, but retaining the firm tannins that are so typical of Sangiovese.