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Chianti: Confusing, But Worth Understanding
By Michael Apstein
Mar 10, 2015
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Americans love Chianti. Even those who rarely drink recognize the wine. It has the kind of name recognition that other wines can only dream about. Annually, we Americans actually drink almost twice as much Chianti Classico--wine from Chianti’s most important sub-region--as the Italians do. In an average year, America buys almost 11 million bottles of Chianti Classico compared to 6.8 million bottles sold in Italy, according to the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico, the organization that represents Chianti Classico producers. And remember, the consumption figure for Italy includes the 50 million tourists who visit that nation each year.

We Americans adore Chianti because, more often than not, it delivers real value for the price. Chianti is surely the “go-to” wine for Italian dishes because its acidity and verve make it an ideal foil for Italy’s olive oil- and tomato-based cuisine. But its fine tannins also make Chianti an excellent choice for a variety of other dishes, such as hearty stews or simply grilled meat. Chianti should have a core of cherry-like flavors offset by herbal or earthy ones and supported by vibrant mouth-watering acidity. Those labeled simply “Chianti” are often light and simple with few tannins (what I frequently call “pizza wines”), whereas the best ones, especially from the Chianti Classico subzone, can be seriously complex and intense, with a more prominent tannic backbone that makes them perfect for a hearty pasta dish or a leg of lamb. Common to them all should be a zippy thread of acidity that keeps you coming back for more.

Potential for Confusion

Our love affair with Chianti exists despite considerable potential for confusion regarding the name. To begin with, Chianti is a vast region (60,000 acres, or slightly larger than the Napa Valley) in central Tuscany that encompasses Florence and Siena. But it quickly gets more confusing. There are eight subregions or zones within the greater Chianti area, all of which contain the name “Chianti.” The largest, best known and most important is Chianti Classico, which, with its 17,500 acres, occupies the center or heart of the region. The others are Chianti Colli Senesi (the hills around Siena; 9,000 acres), Chianti Colli Fiorentini, (the hills around Florence; 2,300 acres), Chianti Rùfina (1,900 acres and not be confused with the well known Chianti Classico producer, Ruffino), Chianti Colli Aretini (the hills around Arezzo; 1,650 acres), Chianti Montalbano (800 acres), Chianti Colli Pisane (the hills around Pisa; 400 acres), and Chianti Montespertoli (150 acres). [Acreage figures are from Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd edition].

It’s easy to understand how consumers are befuddled by seeing the name “Chianti” (the 25,000 acres not encompassed by the subzones) or any of these eight subregions on a label. Add the word “Riserva” to any of the wines from Chianti or its eight subzones, or Gran Selezione in the case of Chianti Classico, and confusion becomes chaos.

Decades ago, Chianti was sold in a straw covered pot-bellied bottle (fiasco, in Italian, which ironically accurately described many of the wines since the bottle gave more enjoyment as a candle-holder than the wine). While that bottle today is still available for Chianti, none of the subzones bottle their wines in such a container; they all use the Bordeaux-style squared shouldered bottle--a more appropriate choice given the quality of the wines.

Chianti Classico: The Most Important Zone

The wines from Chianti Classico have been prized for centuries. And to their credit, the Chianti Classico producers continue to raise the bar. Cosimo Medici III delineated the geographic area where the vines could be grown in 1716, a rare proclamation anywhere in Europe in the 18th century. The Italian authorities awarded Chianti Classico DOCG (Denominazione Origine Controllata et Garantita) status, the country’s highest quality level for wine, in 1984. With the establishment of a new category, Gran Selezione, with the 2010 vintage, Chianti Classico remains a leader in producing and identifying quality wines.

Quality Pyramid Helps

Indeed, a “quality pyramid” has emerged and is a good guide for consumers to navigate the morass. At the base is the category of Chianti Classico, commonly referred to annata or normale, in Italian. These wines are generally ready to be consumed upon release. Chianti Classico from the 2010, 2011 and 2012 vintages are lovely to drink now. The 2013s, starting to appear on retailers' shelves, are seductively charming.

The next level up is Chianti Classico Riserva. By regulation, these wines must be aged an extra year in barrel compared to the normale. In practice, the winemaker feels that a Riserva is sufficiently concentrated and powerful to stand up to an extra year of barrel aging. They are generally broader, more complex wines that need a few years of bottle age before pulling the cork. The Chianti Classico Riservas from the 2006 and 2007 vintages are just starting to show their grandeur.

At the pinnacle of the Chianti Classico quality pyramid is the newly established category, Gran Selezione. These wines are must be aged for an additional 6 months compared to the Riservas--30 months overall--and are meant to be the estate’s best Chianti Classico. The Gran Selezione from the 2010 and 2011 vintages are truly outstanding but need years of additional bottle age to develop and blossom.

A Plethora of Styles

Although the quality pyramid is helpful to the consumer, the plethora of styles of Chianti Classico can confound even those well versed in Italian wines. The producers’ style is determined chiefly by the blend of grapes, winemaking practices, including how the wines were aged in the cellar, and the location of the vineyards. Though the primary grape of Chianti Classico is Sangiovese, regulations permit up to 20% of other varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Even within a category, such as Riserva or Gran Selezione, some producers use exclusively Italian grapes, Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino, 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), which tend to impart a more full-bodied and oaky flavor, while others remained tied to the traditional old large chestnut vats known as botti. And even within the Chianti Classico zone, vineyards in a more southern location or at a lower elevation will produce riper grapes with less acidity that translate into more powerful wines with less freshness and verve. Though both may be labeled Chianti Classico Riserva, it’s easy to see how one that includes a substantial amount of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot grown at lower altitude and aged in new French oak barrels will taste entirely different from one made entirely from Sangiovese grown at a high altitude and then aged in botti.

Producer, Producer, Producer

How’s a consumer to know? Once again, it comes down to the name of the producer. Yes, it’s helpful to know if the wine is a Riserva or Gran Selezione, but it’s imperative to know the producer. Here’s a list of some of my favorite producers, but there are literally hundreds more, so explore: Badia a Coltibuono, Borgo Scopeto, Castello di Ama, Castellare di Castellina, Castello La Leccia, Castello di Monsanto, Castello di Uzzano, Castello di Verrazzano, Fattoria San Giusto a Rentennano, Fèlsina, Fontodi, Isola e Olena, Monteraponi, Nittardi, Principe Corsini, Querciabella, Rocca delle Macìe, Ruffino, San Felice, San Leonino, Tenuta di Nozzole, and Villa Cerna. Watch these pages in the coming weeks for reviews of Chianti Classico that will explain the differences one producer to another.

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March 11, 2015

E-mail me your thoughts about Chianti in general or Chianti Classico, more specifically, at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein