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Chianti Classico's Gran Selezione: Grand Idea or Grand Mistake?
By Michael Apstein
Apr 2, 2013
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Chianti Classico producers have been hitting home runs with recent vintages. But they are on the verge of striking out with their new category, Gran Selezione, debuting with the 2010 vintage.

The Importance of Soil

Francesco Daddi, one of the grower representatives on the Board of Administration of the Consorzio of Chianti Classico, the group that has promulgated the new category, and owner of Castello La Leccia, a star producer in the region, says the Gran Selezione designation is meant to “stress the importance of soil, or to use the French word, terroir.” Producers who make wines exclusively from estate grapes--no purchased grapes allowed--and age them for two and a half years will be eligible for the new labeling. The wines will need to pass a tasting panel, which Daddi hopes will be more rigorous than the current one for determining DOCG status. There is no change in regulations controlling the varietal composition of the wine. The wines will still need to contain a minimum of 80 percent Sangiovese. To allow maximum flexibility, the grower can wait until just before bottling to decide whether to label the wine Gran Selezione.

There can be no doubt that vineyard site is as important in Chianti Classico as it is in other fine wine areas. The diversity of elevations, exposures, and soil types in the Chianti Classico region guarantees a wide range of wines. But just how this category will focus on terroir is not clear since the selection will be made in the cellar, not in the vineyard. And the wine needn’t come from a single vineyard, just estate-owned vineyards.

Not Everybody’s on Board

Not everyone is as enthusiastic as Daddi is about the new category. Although Paolo de Marchi, a leading produced of Chianti Classico agrees saying, “It’s a good start,” he would prefer to see a system that designates vineyards instead of wines. He believes that a pyramid system, similar to other fine wine regions, identifying levels of quality is an excellent idea. “There’s a need to identify distinct spots, just as is done in Burgundy.” De Marchi adds that this new category risks confusing consumers, especially with both a Gran Selezione and Riserva designation. De Marchi remains undecided whether he will change the designation of Cepparello, his much sought-after all Sangiovese-based wine, which would qualify for the new category.

The team at Querciabella, another top-notch and innovative grower in Chianti Classico, agrees that Gran Selezione is a good idea. Their team echoes de Marchi’s opinion about vineyard designation and has been doing just that with their Sangiovese vineyards. They are identifying unique vineyards throughout the Chianti Classico zone to highlight and contrast the different subzones. The Querciabella team intends to release a set of Sangiovese-based Chianti Classico wines from the communes of Radda, Greve, and Gaiole in the next few years so consumers can see the differences among the areas. It’s a welcome project because, until now, it’s been difficult to know whether the difference between wines made in different communes or subregions of Chianti Classico is due to the commune’s unique terroir or the producer’s style. I wish more producers would follow Querciabella’s lead.

Kerin O’Keefe, an American wine writer living in Lugano, just across the Italian border in Switzerland, and an expert on Italian wines, believes that focusing on the vineyard is critical. (Don’t miss her exceptional book, Brunello di Montalcino, University of California Press). To that end, she suggests that growers should be forced to designate the wines for the Gran Selezione category at the time of harvest. Wine that didn’t evolve as expected could always be declassified at the time of bottling to a regular Chianti Classico or a Chianti Classico Riserva.

Confusion Reigns

The new category couldn’t come at a worse time. Chianti is misunderstood as things stand now. Older consumers remember the straw covered bottles (known as fiaschi) whose use as a candle holder often provided more enjoyment than the wine itself. My unscientific informal poll of younger wine drinkers indicates that they still associate the name with a low-end Italian red wine.

And Chianti is already plenty confusing. Just look at Chianti’s subzones. In addition to Chianti, the large area between Florence and Siena, there’s Chianti Classico and Chianti Rùfina (often confused with Ruffino, one of Chianti Classico’s leading producers), to name just two of Chianti’s eight zones. In their press releases, even the Consorzio of Chianti Classico feels it needs to remind journalists, all of whom should know better, of the difference between Chianti and Chianti Classico.

Stylistically, the wines from Chianti Classico are, to put it mildly, all over the board. Some Chianti producers use Italian grapes--Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino--exclusively, while other equally notable ones include a healthy dose of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Some producers opt to age their wines in new small French barrels (barriques), while others remained tied to the traditional old large chestnut vats or botti. And then there is the Riserva designation already for wines the producer believes are better and will be enhanced by extra aging in barrel.

The wines of Chianti Classico have never been better. As a category, they deliver more than their prices suggest. They are ideally suited for food, and not just Italian fare. Tuscany in general, and Chianti Classico in particular, has had an incredible run of excellent vintages. Except for 2002 they’ve experienced no poor vintages--and many grand ones--since the turn of the century. The 2010s are particularly attractive. So why throw a knuckleball at consumers now?

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Email me at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein