Chianti Classico – Restoring Some Luster

June 8, 2013 at 6:19 pm 10 comments

felsina

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 VertineRocca 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.

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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.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jonas  |  June 9, 2013 at 6:54 am

    Excellent points Tom – all of them. I think the price of entry level classico in general has take it out of the every day category. For most of us common folk, once you get to $18-$20, that’s a saturday night wine. I also like Villa Cafaggio which I think is also in Panzano and Castello di Ama is on the same level as Felsina and Fontodi of course. One good example of Classico I can get here in Jersey for $15.99 is Castello di Bossi. Not sure if there’s some Merlot in it or not. Cheers.

    Reply
    • 2. tom hyland  |  June 9, 2013 at 10:03 am

      Jonas: Thanks for the comment. The other producers you mention are also excellent. There are others as well (Lilliano, e.g.), but just not enough that take enough care to produce first-rate wines every year. That needs to change.

      Reply
  • 3. Michael  |  June 11, 2013 at 3:10 am

    Great Article. I think a Autumn of Chianti should follow the Summer of Riesling to bring more attention. Love Fontodi. It would be fantastic if the cru’s could become more delineated and established.

    Reply
    • 4. tom hyland  |  June 11, 2013 at 10:04 am

      Thanks, Michael. I like your ideas. I also think the best examples of Chianti (cru or selezione) should be designated in a special way.

      Reply
  • 5. Peter Bernstein  |  June 11, 2013 at 9:21 am

    Tom,
    As a total wine-freak restaurateur of 40 years, I have seen another issue besides price. I get many calls for glasses or bottles of the “house” Chianti. Never do they call for Chianti Classico, nor do they expect to pay much money. I fear that this trend is a product of the inexpensive, mediocre wines that inhabit wines stores here in NJ and the rest of the USA. When they see a cheap bottle on those shelves, they assume that we carry something similar. Perhaps at chains or family places, but we carry nothing of the sort. We price fairly with Classico starting at $35 and going to $45 for some exceptional and more expensive labels like “Porta di Vertine”. Still there is push back at that level and so we must offer simple,but tasty Sangiovese (generally declassified or second wines from estates) to satisfy those unwilling to spend. Sometimes it’s clear that they really have no idea what real Chianti tastes like; if it’s that obvious and they are just looking for a “nice” red, I steer them to our Spanna from Vallana.

    Reply
    • 6. tom hyland  |  June 11, 2013 at 10:08 am

      Peter:

      Excellent comment. I agree that the word Chianti certainly doesn’t have an image of greatness to it; it is in fact, as you pointed out, a term one relates to “cheap” wine. And yes, too many consumers don’t think about the differences between simple Chianti and the finest examples of Chianti Classico.

      That’s marketing and the Tuscans need to do something about this. But I still maintain that the Chianti Classico producers as a whole, need to consistently produce better wine.

      Excellent alternative with the Spanna by the way!

      Reply
  • 7. Jonas  |  June 11, 2013 at 10:23 am

    That Spanna is hands down one of the best entry level Nebbiolos that money can buy.

    Reply
    • 8. tom hyland  |  June 11, 2013 at 10:51 am

      I’ve heard nothing but great things about this wine!

      Reply
  • 9. Ole Udsen  |  June 12, 2013 at 3:20 am

    Dear Tom,

    Excellet piece. Totally agree. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel, though, what with the excellent work by Alessandro Masnaghetti/Enogea in defining vineyards of particular merit? That work certainly seems to have helped Barolo to finally define individual vineyards, something of which they were apparently incapable without external stimulus.

    Best regards
    Ole

    Reply
    • 10. tom hyland  |  June 12, 2013 at 8:10 am

      Ole: You bring up a good point. Alessandro has done a marvelous job with his maps of Piemonte (Barolo and Barbaresco) as well as Bolgheri. I know that he is now working on Valpolicella. These maps highlight how particular and how special these areas truly are and help explain terroir.

      Perhaps work like this could be a starting point for the impetus to change. But the problem is much larger than that. Barolo is such a special wine that lends itself to detailed, pinpoint maps. Do the majority of Chianti Classico producers feel that maps are necessary or could be important sales tools? I wonder. Given the mass market appeal of Chianti Classico, I don’t think any major changes are coming soon.

      Reply

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