In the wine world, Italy is known for its abundance of indigenous grape varieties - nearly 400. Of all those, sangiovese rises above in quantity, as Italy's most planted variety, and in quality (except for nebbiolo). The sangiovese grape is most responsible for the great wines of Tuscany.
The Tuscan hills seem to have been created to nurture this grape to its essence. High-quality wines made with sangiovese typically exhibit deep, bright cherry aromas and flavors with firm, dry structure and earthy qualities.
Chianti is the most famous rendition, usually supplemented with other grapes, such as the native canaiolo and colorino, but also sometimes cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Basic Chianti, such as the 2014 Ruffino ($10), may include 30 percent other grapes but is a good everyday wine.
For a little more money, it's worth stepping up to Chianti Classico, made with grapes from the heart of the Chianti region. The 2014 Cecchi Storia di Famiglia ($22) has a traditional style; it's 90 percent sangiovese supplemented only with native varieties and aged in large casks. It's richer and firmer.
And if you like that, venture on to Chianti Classico Riserva. With a stricter selection and extended aging, Ruffino's Ducale (2012, $25) luxuriates in its 20 percent merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
Sangiovese has other worthy manifestations. Some prize Brunello di Montalcino even more than Chianti. It also is more expensive, with some bottles costing several hundred dollars. Named after the town of Montalcino and the local clone of sangiovese, the area produces some of the most concentrated, muscular, long-lived sangiovese.
For a more affordable option, try Rosso di Montalcino. Made from younger vines or declassified grapes, Rosso gives you a taste of Brunello without the hit to the wallet. A good one is the 2010 Banfi ($25). It is lighter and less concentrated than Brunello but still lush and fruitful, earthy and fresh.
Nearby, Montepulciano produces Vino Nobile di Montepulciano - similar to Chianti in that the local clone of sangiovese (known as prugnolo gentile) may contain up to 30 percent other grapes. The wines can age but are best enjoyed sooner than later.
The 2013 Avignonesi ($29) is 100 percent sangiovese. It is energetic, revealing smoky, earthy notes with tobacco, leather and solid tannins. The 2013 Poliziano ($28) includes 15 percent colorino, canaiolo and merlot. It is dense with bright acidity and plump fruit displaying oak, finishing with smooth tannins.
For an everyday drink, try the 2014 Poliziano Rosso di Montepulciano ($15). From younger vines and with 20 percent merlot, it's softer yet sports a juicy and fresh palate.
At the other end of the scale is the amazing 2012 Poliziano Asinone ($60). A limited production wine from Poliziano's best vineyard, it is rich, deep, vibrant and concentrated, firmly structured with spice, leather, tobacco and herbal notes.