Defending Sangiovese

A super Tuscan vertical tasting back to 1988 displays distinctive character and impressive ageability

Excerpted from the July 31, 2019, issue

It wasn’t so long ago that Chianti Classico, the historic home of Sangiovese, lost faith in its signature red grape. The regulations required it be blended with—diluted by, really—other grapes, including white varieties.

But some producers had other ideas. The Martini di Cigala family, owners of the historic San Giusto a Rentennano estate since 1914, decided to make a wine purely from Sangiovese. They called it Percarlo; the first vintage was 1983.

“Our idea was to produce a Chianti Classico from 100 percent Sangiovese, which at that time was forbidden by the consorzio’s laws,” explains vineyard manager Luca Martini di Cigala, one of six siblings who currently run the estate. “Therefore, like other wineries, we decided to produce our best wine from the denomination as simple ‘red table wine’ [today IGT].”

San Giusto a Rentennano sits on the boundary between Florence and Siena, in the southern part of Chianti Classico near Gaiole. Its past is historically significant first as a Cistercian monastery, then, during the medieval wars between Florence and Siena, as a fortress.

Today, it comprises nearly 400 acres, including 77 acres of vines and 27 of olive trees. The vineyards have been certified organic since 2006. A range of wines are made, including Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva Le Baròncole and La Ricolma (Merlot). Percarlo is the flagship, a selection from the best parcels, representing three different soil types. Roughly 50 percent is tufo and sand, giving salinity and length to the blend; 25 percent comes from clay soils, providing body; the remaining quarter is on schistous soil known as galestro, which brings elegance and finesse.

I tasted Percarlo in every vintage from 1988 to 2015, non-blind, at the office of San Giusto a Rentennano’s U.S. importer, Vinifera Wine Imports, in August 2018. All the wines for the vertical tasting came directly from the winery’s cellar, except the 2014, then the current release. The 2015 was bottled but not yet released at the time of the tasting; it was released in November 2018 ($140). The 2003, 2001, 1996, 1993, 1991 and 1988 were in magnum. No Percarlo was made in 2002, 2000 or 1989.

Despite some modernist leanings, Percarlo is a traditional style of Sangiovese, austere in youth and high in acidity and tannins. This is what allows it to age so well. It is fermented in enamel-lined cement vats, and until 2010 was aged in French barriques, 35 percent to 40 percent new, the rest second and third passage. Between the 1988 and 2005 vintages, the length of maceration on the skins ranged from 14 to 20 days. In 2006, the maceration time was upped to 30 to 35 days because Martini di Cigala noticed the longer maceration improved the integration of the tannins.

He also noticed that the use of barriques resulted in an excessive wood influence, so for the 2010 vintage, 500-liter barrels were introduced. In 2013, even larger barrels (3,000 liters) were employed. Currently, half of Percarlo is aged in 3,000-liter casks, 40 percent in tonneaux (500 liters) and 10 percent in barriques, for 22 to 23 months. About 25 percent of the oak is new.

Since 2004, San Giusto a Rentennano has also aged the wines longer in bottle, increasing the time from six to 18 months and thereby extending the total aging from three years to an average of four before release, depending on the character of the vintage.

The wines can be roughly divided into three groups. Vintages 2015 to 2010 need more time. All were outstanding, with my favorites being the powerful 2015 (96 points) and the elegant 2010 (95), with its balance of ripe cherry and wild herb flavors.

From 2009 back to 2000, Percarlo is at or reaching its peak, though the best in this group, notably 2006 (97) and 2001 (97, from magnum) can age longer. This suggests that Percarlo needs at least 10 years to reach its peak drinkability.

With the exception of the 1992, the older vintages are harmonious, complex and well-balanced with the oak. Though ideal to drink now, the best vintages, such as 1988 (95, from magnum) and 1990 (92) should be fine over the next decade. The 1999 (95), at 20 years, is beautiful now, yet should last another decade.

Fans of traditionally styled pure Sangiovese should take note that Percarlo is an excellent “Chianti Classico” that will reward cellaring. It is yet another example of winemaking that is moving away from barriques and new oak to express the Sangiovese grape and its sense of place. Credit the Martini di Cigala family for its continued search for the best expression of the estate’s terroir. And its faith in Sangiovese.