Feb. 24 2010 12:00 AM

Unlike in the United States, many wines in Europe are not identified on the label by grape variety. Yet regional grape selection is typically controlled by rigid government regulation. Have you ever ordered Chianti at an Italian restaurant? If so, you’re drinking the product of Sangiovese grapes, the most widely planted variety in Italy, and the principal variety in Tuscan red wines. Other Sangiovese-based Italian wines include Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino and Nobile di Montepulciano.

Wine quality and flavor profiles vary widely with soil type, climate, clonal selection, vineyard management and wine-making techniques. Sangiovese makes a great food wine characterized by bright red berry flavors and a solid acid backbone. In recent years, vineyard land planted to Sangiovese in California has increased significantly, frequently producing wine that is darker, rounder and riper than its Italian cousins.

My last column suggested tasting by the glass as a great way to explore wine, and that pricier wines are not necessarily more appealing to the palate. This was well illustrated during a recent blind tasting by the Greater Lansing Vintners Club of 10 Sangiovese-based wines with shelf prices varying from $10.49 to $63.69. When “favorite wine” votes were tallied (keeping in mind the tasters did not know which wines were in which glasses), a resounding 17 of 47 tasters selected 2004 Pietra Santa Sangiovese from the Cienega Valley of California’s Central Coast, with a sale shelf price of $15.99 at Goodrich’s Shop-Rite’s wine shop. Fruit forward and complex with moderate tannins and just the right balance of French oak, it had a softer profile than many of the other wines, probably because its acidity is softened by an 18 percent dose of Merlot in the blend.

The second place wine, which received 11 votes (23 percent), was my personal favorite, and may be a more versatile food wine. The 2005 Castellare Chianti Classico ($23.99) with 5 percent Canaiolo in the blend presents a bit of vanilla in the nose and concentrated ripe fruit, moderate acids and a long, lingering finish.

Two wines not in the tasting also deserve mention. Venge Vineyards 2005 Sangiovese is superlative Napa Valley juice. Ruby colored and effusively aromatic, it is concentrated and ripe, with toasty oak, a touch of leather and a smooth, viscous mouth feel that belies the fine acid backbone.

Vino Noceto winery in California’s Sierra Foothills is a premier producer of Italian varietals and old vine Zinfandel. Its 2004 Sangiovese Marmellata is a bright, translucent ruby wine that shows notes of cherry, raspberry and earth and has an ethereal mouth feel, as the wine seems to absorb directly into the tongue. More classically “Chianti” in its presentation, it is a wine of finesse, pleasing acidity and modest tannin.

Paired with mushroom marinara sauce over angel hair pasta with fresh grated Romano, the wine became rounder and softer, yet provided a palate cleansing acidity when sipped between bites.

Sangiovese is among the most versatile of food friendly wines. A natural with Italian foods, it matches well with a wide variety of meats, cheeses and sauces.

In vino vertias.

(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Association. His column appears monthly.)

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