Posts tagged ‘chianti classico’
I’ve addressed this situation in the past, but it bears repeating. Chianti Classico has lost a lot of luster and that’s a shame, as there are some outstanding examples. But the truth is that the consumer thinks of Chianti Classico as an ordinary wine, one that’s overpriced and too often, merely a red wine meant for quaffing or for the most basic food pairings.
I write this as I tasted a brilliant example of Chianti Classico the other day, the Felsina “Vigneto Rancia” Riserva 2008. In my recently published book Beyond Barolo and Brunello: Italy’s Most Distinctive Wines, I wrote this about the wine:
“This estate has become one of the unmistakable reference points for Chianti Classico… It is with the single vineyard “Rancia” Chianti Classico that Felsina displays its best winemaking… this is a wine of outstanding complexity and breeding. When you find a young vintage, lay it away for a few years in the cellar, as peak consumption is generally at age 10-12.”
The 2008 release of this wine certainly fits this description, as there is excellent depth of fruit, notable persistence, lively acidity and outstanding structure. 2008 was an excellent year in Chianti Classico (and throughout most of Italy, for that matter), as this was a growing season that yielded wines that were classic (no pun attended) in nature, with excellent structure and a sense of place; brilliant producers such as Felsina made stunning wines from 2008. (Of course what makes Felsina so great is that even in years that aren’t considered classic, they still craft marvelous wines.)
Felsina of course, is not the only great producer in Chianti Classico. Fontodi is another as is Querciabella and there are another six to eight estates such as La Porta di Vertine, Rocca di Montegrossi, Castello di Volpaia and Villa Calcinaia that routinely produce excellent wines. Producers such as these make wines that show the rest of the world what Chianti Classico can and should be. But there are not enough examples.
The problem is a big one and there are many reasons; yes, Sangiovese is a grape that has a high yield, so there are still too many producers that do not oversee the proper work in the vineyard, resulting in wines that are thin with modest fruit and high acidity. Certainly the producers of today do take more care in the vineyards than those of 30 or 40 years ago (generally speaking), but there are still too many examples of ordinary wines and the disciplinare allows vintners to make wines such as these.
But a bigger problem is that Chianti Classico is a rather large area, basically from Florence to Siena and given as vast a territory as this, not every vineyard is sited in the best spot. So while we hear all about the beauty of Tuscany and Chianti Classico, it doesn’t always translate into special wines.
Vineyard in Panzano, one of the most prized sites of Chianti Classico (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
So how to fix this? Well there’s a logical solution, but it’s one that I truly think will never come about (I know that you’re never supposed to say never, but in this case, I believe I’m safe). The answer is zonation – allowing labels to list their zone of origin. This would mean that Felsina can list Castelnuovo Berandenga not just as the winery’s address in small print, but in larger print as a denomination of origin. The same would be true for Fontodi, as their estate vineyards are situated in Panzano, also known as the Conca d’Oro (“the golden hill”); other fine estates located here, such as Panzanello and Il Molino di Grace could also label their wines as being from Panzano grapes. As Panzano is recognized by everyone who is familiar with Chianti Classico as one of its very best sub-zones, listing this geographical name on a label would certainly add a dimension of prestige to the wine, which would help sales of those specific wines and perhaps Chianti Classico in general.
There are several sub-zones in Chianti Classico, from Greve to Castellina in Chianti to Radda and Gaiole; the wines vary in terms of aromatics, weight and acidity, as you might imagine; after all these areas are micro-climates. When speaking about Barolo in Piemonte, dozens of crus (single vineyards) have been officially recognized and we talk about the differences in wines from La Morra with their floral perfumes and gentle tannins as opposed to the more muscular style of Barolo from Monforte d’Alba or Serralunga d’Alba.
So why not in Chianti Classico? Well maybe it’s a Tuscan mentality; the same problem exists with Brunello di Montalcino, as has been documented by Kerin O’Keefe in her excellent book about this wine. Maybe it’s a larger problem, especially when you consider the old joke about getting more than five Italians to agree on anything. But kidding aside, it’s politics, plain and simple, as least as it seems to me. Tuscany, unlike Piemonte, is represented by both farmers and wealthy businessmen, many of whom made their fortunes in other businesses, often in foreign countries. There’s nothing wrong with these people owning estates in Chianti Classico and other wine districts of Tuscany, especially as new blood can infuse a tired corpse, but in reality, do these people have the same sense of pride about their land as farmers in Piemonte whose families have been working their land for more than 100 years in many cases?
Then you have the problem of Chianti Classico being a victim of its own success. This is such a recognizable name around the world – indeed it may be the world’s most beloved and recognizable red wine – so that producers do all they can to attract as many new drinkers as possible around the globe. This means producing an international wine – really, was it a smart decision to allow producers to include Cabernet Sauvignon in Chianti Classico? – one that too often loses its expression of local terroir. If it’s a success in Italy and the United States and Scandanvia, why change? Let’s try and make it appealing to everyone, from Russia and China to Japan and Hong Kong. Try and please everyone and you wind up pleasing no one.
This problem does not exist only in Chianti Classico; there are international wines made in other part of Italy as well. But few wines are as well known as Chianti Classico and few have lost as much market share (at least in the United States, a very important market, without question) as this wine. Price has something to do with this and it’s not the fault of the local producers that the US dollar isn’t as strong against the Euro as it used to be (although admittedly, it’s better today than four or five years ago). But for a wine that was routinely $14 on retail shelves about five or six years ago, it’s now $18-$20 and that’s for the basic Chianti Classico, not riserva. For $14, tens and hundreds of thousands of American wine drinkers are purchasing Malbec from Argentina. What does this have to do with Italy? Nothing of course, but these consumers are looking for a wine they like at a price that they’re comfortable with. If Chianti Classico can’t come in at that price, so be it, Malbec can.
Back to Felsina and Fontodi and a few dozen Chianti Classico estates that really deliver the goods. As I wrote above, these producers show the world that Chianti Classico can be a very special wine. It’s just that too many producers in Chianti Classico take the easy way out, cashing in on the success of the Chianti Classico marque. The bottom line is average quality, which drags down the overall image of this wine. As it stands now, Felsina and Fontodi will sell every bottle of wine they make, as they continue to push themselves to make the best wines possible and enough people realize that. It’s a shame that too many Chianti Classico producers don’t make similar efforts. Resting on your laurels – if one can call it that – is never a good thing and Chianti Classico sales – and the image of this wine - are taking a beating.
Last time, I listed a few of my favorite value white wines from Italy in 2010; now for the reds:
TORMARESCA “NEPRICA” 2008
This is a beautiful blend from Antinori’s wine project in Puglia, cleverly named for the first two letters of the three red varieties: NEgromaro, PRimitivo and CAbernet Sauvignon. It displays tasty black fruit and good spice with moderate tannins. It’s eminently rinkable right now with all sort of foods. In other words, a fun and uncomplicated wine! Priced anywhere from $8-12, how can you go wrong?
MASTROBERARDINO AGLIANICO “RE DI MORE” 2008
Aglianico is the wonderful red variety of Campania that is used to produce the classic Taurasi, one of Italy’s most distinguished wines. Many wineries produce a lesser, fresher version of Aglianico that is released earlier for younger enjoyment and Mastroberardino generally produces one of the most consistent bottlings. This 2008 Re di More is from an older clone of Aglianico and the wine delivers excellent complexity with flavors of black raspberry and mocha. Medium-full with polished tannins and light black spice, this can be enjoyed with lighter game and most red meats (especially grilled) over the next 3-5 years. (note- this wine is not imported in the US at the present time, so look for the winery’s Aglianico Campania IGT offering, which is also quite good at $20.)
CASTELLO DI VOLPAIA CHIANTI CLASSICO 2007
There are so many beautiful examples of Chianti Classico from this excellent vintage; this from one of my favorite producers, is a steal at $20. Red plum and currant aromas, light black spice, very good acidity and moderate tannins combine to make a very typical and very drinkable Chianti Classico that will be a fine match with pastas, pork and veal dishes over the next 2-3 years.
PIO CESARE DOLCETTO D’ALBA 2009
No surprise here, as this has been one of my favorite bottlings of Dolcetto d’Alba for some twenty years now; combine that with the 2009 vintage, a year of excellent ripeness and depth of fruit and you have a recipe for something special. Gorgeous perfumes of mulberry, cranberry and toffee backed by impressive persistence, very good acidity and moderate tannins, this is delicious! Pair this with pastas or even duck breast (cherry or orange sauce) or many poultry dishes and you’ll have a great experience, especially considering you only have to spend about $22 on this wine!
CASCINA ROCCALINI BARBERA D’ALBA 2008
After reading notes about the wines from this new artisan estate in the commune of Barbaresco, I contacted importer Terence Hughes in New York who was kind enough to arrange an appointment at the winery with owner Paolo Veglio and winemaker Dante Scaglione, I am eternally grateful to Terence for that, as the wines here are brilliant. Veglio used to sell his grapes to Scaglione when he was winemaker for Bruno Giacosa; now he keeps them for his own label.
The Barbaresco is aged only in large oak casks and is elegant with a beautiful sense of place, while the Dolcetto is amazingly fruity and delicious. The Barbera is the best of all – there is subtle spice, but this is all about varietal purity and outstanding concentration. This has layers of flavor and outstanding complexity and is a impressive a Barbera as I’ve had in years. This is not only an excellent value at $27, it’s also one of the best wines of the year!
Everyone loves Tuscany it seems, so it follows that everyone loves Chianti. It is arguably the most-loved red wine in the world, if you think about it. Bordeaux and Burgundy may be more famous and regal, but the price of many examples of those wines keep them from being appreciated by so many people. Thus Chianti, historically a moderately priced wine, is seen in many more markets across the globe, giving more consumers the chance to embace this lovely Tuscan red.
The name Chianti has been around since the year 1100, when it was first used to describe a wide area in Tuscany’s central zone. The Etruscans who began viticulture along the region’s west coast, soon spread their efforts north and east, planting Sangiovese near the town of Siena, Pisa and Arezzo. It was in 1085 that the Ricasoli family began to produce wine at Castello di Brolio in Gaiole, one of Tuscany’s most famous estates.
Given the success of Chianti wine, farmers outside the center of Tuscany, wanting to cash in on the popularity of this name, started to produce Chianti throughout the region. Eventually the heart of the Chianti territory- the hills between Florence to the north and Siena to the south – became known as Chianti Classico, and today there are seven sub-zones that use the name Chianti with a geographical suffix, such as Chianti Colli Fiorentini (“the hills of Florence”) and Chianti Colli Senesi (“the hills of Siena).
The DOCG regulations are slightly different for Chianti Classico as compared with the other Chianti zones; basically the minimum amount of Sangiovese in Chianti Classico is 80%, as compared with 75% for the other zones. In the past, only local varieties, such as Canaiolo or Mammolo for red or Trebbiano or Malvasia for white were allowed in a Chianti blend, but the regulations were changed in the 1980s. Several producers, most notably Antinori and Le Pergole Torte, started to add Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon to the blend, leaving out traditional varieites. At first, these wines such as Tignanello, had to be called vino da tavola (table wines), as they did not conform to the Chianti regulations. But with the success of these wines and the more common use of international variteties from other area producers, the laws were changed. White varieties were banned from the Chianti blend a few years ago and today, Chianti can be made with small amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvgnon, Syrah or other varieties; it can also be 100% Sangiovese. (A Riserva bottling of Chianti must be aged longer than a normale bottling; in the case of Chianti Classico Riserva, the wine must be aged for a minimum period of two years and three months in wood.)
Top estates of Chianti today include:
- Castello di Brolio (Barone Ricasoli)
- Castello di Cacchiano
- Castello di Bossi
- Badia a Coltibuono
- Castello di Volpaia
- Castello Monsanto
- Castellare di Castellina
- San Felice
- Le Miccine
- Rocca di Montegrossi
CHIANTI COLLI FIORENTINI
- Castello di Poppiano
- San Michele a Torri
Chianti was traditionally a rustic red; while that adjective can cover a lot of flaws, rustic really was an apt decriptor for old-style Chiantis. Made from Sangiovese, which is high in acidity with moderate tannins, these wines were aged in large casks, giving them a cedary quality. Usually displaying notes of brown herbs, dried cherry and tomato as the wines aged, these were simple, charming wines meant for food; even today, the traditional style of Chianti (such as the excellent wines from Badia a Coltibuono) works beautifully with any number of foods such as veal, pork or pastas with tomato-based sauces.
However, modern methods both in the vineyards and in the cellar have changed the style of many Chiantis (as of course have the blending laws). The wines today are deeper on color, while many are oakier, especially the ones aged in French barriques.
Perhaps the biggest difference between today’s Chiantis and the older botlings is the fact that today, yields are much lower. Left to its own, Sangiovese can be uncontrollable, often getting 12 tons to the acre. This means a lot of wine, but wine that is thin and too acidic. Yields are often cut to 4-5 tons per acre these days (sometimes lower) and the wines are much fuller and riper with excellent Sangiovese fruit character.
While the style of wines can be argued, there is no question that today’s Chiantis are better quality offerings. Here are thoughts on this subject from Francesco Ricasoli, owner of Castello di Brolio; “The wines of today are without discussion much better wines from the ones of the past. Chianti Classico today is tracking its way for the future with innovation but still keeping its roots with Sangiovese and preserving its own style that makes it unique worldwide. It cannot be “duplicated” elsewhere in the world.”
Whatever your preference for Chianti – traditional style versus modern style – the best bottlings do present the charm of Sangiovese, with its lively acidity and fresh red cherry fruit in a nicely balanced wine that everyone loves.