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Chianti Classico: The Times They are A-Changing
By Michael Apstein
Nov 6, 2018
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With apologies to Bob Dylan, “The Times They are A-Changing” in Chianti Classico.  Three decades ago, producers were embracing the use of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other so-called “international varieties,” to bolster Sangiovese.  But now, with dramatic improvements in the vineyards, growers have shown the heights that Sangiovese can achieve in Chianti Classico.  It no longer needs support.  As Francesco Ricasoli, of Castello Brolio, an excellent producer in Gaiole, told me in February, “Sangiovese in Chianti Classico is unique.  We need to preserve it.” 

For example, Fontodi’s Vigna del Sorbo, now labeled as a Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, started life in 1985 as a Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, but now is made entirely from Sangiovese.  (Gran Selezione, a relatively new category of Chianti Classico, sits above Chianti Classico Riserva, at the peak of the quality pyramid.)  The mere fact that the team at Castello di Meleto, in the heart of the Chianti Classico DOCG at Gaiole, eliminated Merlot from its blend in 2011 confirms the trend that producers are returning to Sangiovese exclusively.

To be fair, some producers, such as Paola de Marchi at Isola e Olena, one of the very best Chianti Classico producers, have always favored Sangiovese, using it exclusively for Cepparello, their best wine.  (Cepparello is still not labeled as Chianti Classico, though it could be, because it was created in 1980, prior to the regulations that allowed a 100-percent Sangiovese wine to be labeled as Chianti Classico.  At that time, all wines labeled Chianti Classico had to have been made from a blend.)

Castello di Meleto has also backed away from the use of new small French oak barrels (barriques), another technique winemakers have used to pump-up and round-out Sangiovese.  Instead, this house has reverted to the traditional aging in large old, frequently Slavonian, oak barrels, called botti.  For Meleto, the transition occurred during 2011/2012 time period.  Michele Contartese, Meleto’s current General Director, could not identify a seminal event that caused the team to revert to using botti and exclusive use of Sangiovese because he was not present during that time period.  However, based on his experience, he speculated that the change was simply the result of repeated tastings.

As an example, he pointed out that, under his direction, they tasted all the varieties separately to create the blend for their basic Chianti Classico.  The team was struck by the quality of the Malvesia Nera, another grape allowed in the Chianti Classico blend.  They did not want to lose any of its unique character by combining it with Sangiovese, so they opted to remove it from the blend and produce a wine made exclusively from Malvesia Nera. Contartese wondered whether a similar tasting exercise in 2011 led the team to conclude that omitting the international varieties and returning to large botti just made better wine.

Comparing Meleto’s 2000 Chianti Classico Riserva, “Vigneti Casi,” which contained Merlot (15%) in the blend and was aged in new oak barrels with their current vintages, the 2013 and 2015, showed what a dramatic difference the changes have made.  The 2000 came across as heavy, even muting the liveliness imparted by Gaiole’s elevation and reputation for producing fresh wines.  The 2013 and 2015, in contrast, were bright and showed the near-magical combination of fruitiness and earthiness that makes Chianti Classico so appealing.  Clearly, they are moving in the right direction.

But again, to be fair, there are lots of excellent examples of Chianti Classico that still use international varieties and age them in barrique.  Just look at Principe Corsini’s Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, “Don Tommaso,” which typically includes a small amount (10%) of Merlot in the blend with Sangiovese and is aged in French barriques for over a year.  At a vertical tasting in New York last year, wines back to the 1998 vintage showed extraordinary grace and complexity.  In the younger wines, you felt the use of oak aging without tasting it.  As Duccio Corsini put it, “I believe in graceful oxidation, not in oak.”  One of the wonderful things about wine in general, and certainly Chianti Classico, is that there’s no universal formula.  One size does not fit all.

David Posner, the owner of Grapes The Wine Company, an excellent retailer in White Plains, just north of New York City, sums up the changes he has experienced in Chianti Classico:  “Fifteen years ago I had maybe two (Chianti Classico) on the shelf.  Now there are 20 or so, and I’m happy to buy more, the quality is so high.  Compared to 15 years ago, it is hard to find a bad bottle of Chianti Classico in the $15 to $20 per bottle range.”

Along with changes in winemaking, is a movement towards producing Chianti Classico from single vineyards.  Winemakers and viticulturists want to show unique expression of Sangiovese depending on site.  Castello di Brolio already bottles two single-vineyard Chianti Classico with plans for two more on the way, according to Ricasoli, who notes with a pride-filled smile that, “We have been here for several centuries.  We can take our time regarding parcelization.”  Brolio, with its 600-acres under vine, the largest in Gaiole, has “all kinds of soil and even within the estate there are enormous differences,” according to Ricasoli.  He effuses that, “The richness of Chianti Classico is its diversity of Sangiovese.”

Giovanni Poggiali of Fèlsina, a top producer in Castelnuovo Berardenga, the most southern commune of Chianti Classico, has long produced a superb single-vineyard Chianti Classico, Rancia, and has started to produce a second such single-vineyard wine, Colonina, from a 6.5-acre parcel at the summit of Rancia.  Poggiali relates how he needed to use dynamite to plant the vineyard because the soil was so laden with rocks.  Curiously enough, the most difficult aspect of this effort was obtaining the dynamite…because of the ongoing threat of terrorism.  The first vintage of Colonina was 2006.  He bottled the 2007 Colonina as a Chianti Classico Riserva and the 2009 as a Chianti Classico Gran Riserva as the increased vine age allowed for higher quality wine.

Matteo Menicacci, the enthusiastic young winemaker at Castello Meleto, explained how they are considering bottling three more vineyard-designated Chianti Classico in addition to their Vigneti Casi, noting, “We want to express the differences of the various areas.”  Wholesalers and retailers to whom I spoke felt that more single-vineyard wines would be a marketing nightmare.  Contartese agreed that more single-vineyard bottlings might confuse consumers who prefer less information, but there are also those who prefer to know as much about the wine as possible.  He’s willing to run the experiment, saying somewhat philosophically, “If you don’t try, you’ll never know what you could have achieved.”

In my mind, it would be far more important for the Chianti Classico region as a whole to show the world the distinct differences among the nine subzones (Greve in Chianti, Barberino Val d’Elsa, San Casciano Val di Pesa, Tavarnelle Val di Pesa, Radda in Chianti, Gaiole in Chianti, Castellina in Chianti, Poggibonsi, and Castelnuovo Berardenga).  Currently, it is impossible to really taste the differences because few producers make wines from grapes grown in different subzones.  Although you can compare wines from the subzones, as was done at a tasting in Florence last year, you never really know whether the observed differences are the result of the uniqueness of the subzone or the producer’s style.

Chianti Classico would benefit from learning from Burgundy, another area with many subzones.  In Burgundy, a taster can easily discern the differences among the villages by tasting the wines made by a négociant because the winemaking is, in effect, a constant.  The differences among the wines truly reflect the terroir.  What Chianti Classico really needs is a large, well-respected producer, such as Antinori or Ruffino, to bottle wines from various subzones to show the world how site matters in Chianti Classico as much as it does in Burgundy or Barolo.

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Email me your thoughts about Chianti Classico at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

November 6, 2018