Monday, February 21, 2011

Fixing Chianti Classico

Marco Ricasoli Firidolfi, Rocca di Montegrossi (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Let's face it - Chianti Classico is one of the world's most beloved red wines. It may also be the most purchased, if you think about the availability of this wine in America, Europe and Asia. But at the same time, Chianti Classico has lost some of its luster. The wines are still well made in most cases, but it's not as easy to get consumers, sommeliers and retail wine buyers as excited about these wines as it was even just a few years ago. So to some degree, Chianti Classico needs to be fixed.

I've just returned from Florence, where I attended a special anteprima tasting for journalists from around the world; this event was aimed at previewing new releases of Chianti Classico, especially the soon-to-be released 2009s, but also Riserva bottlings from 2007 as well as new bottlings from the 2008 vintage. 

First, the wonderful news - 2009 is an excellent, perhaps even outstanding vintage for Chianti Classico. I tasted a few dozen examples and again and again, found that these wines offer excellent concentration and ripeness along with very good acidity. The wines are well-structured and are very tasty- in other words, for those looking for a special bottle of wine tonight, there are many examples of 2009 Chianti Classico that will fit the bill. For others looking to lay the wines down for a few years, there are many fine bottlings that will be at their best in 3-5 years, with a few even drinking well for as long as seven to ten years. 

So the first order of fixing Chianti Classico is to make better wines and in that regard, the producers were given a wonderful growing season in 2009 and took advantage. 

Not every wine is a classic, if you'll pardon the pun. There are some wines that offer ripeness and are very forward and while they are appealing, they too often taste like a modern wine that could come from any number of regions in Italy or even from other countries. Yet, I have to admit that even with these wines, the enologists have lightened up on the oak, so the result is that you taste the Sangiovese fruit. This is a very positive sign and I for one, am happy to report this situation.

As for the best examples of Chianti Classico normale from 2009, a few of my favorites include: the deeply concentrated Monsanto; the elegant and beautifully crafted Isole e Olena; the terroir-driven Castellare di Castellina; the deeply fruity Querciabella; the charming, varietally pure Villa Calcinaia and the marvelously crafted, sublime bottling from Rocca di Montegrossi.

Briefly, I also want to note two wines from the 2008 vintage, a year that is lighter than 2009, but one that yielded some charming wines. The two finest I tasted at this event were the Castello di Brolio and the Fontodi. The former is the top wine of the estate owned by Francesco Ricasoli, who prefers to label this wine as Chianti Classico, even though it meets the necessary regulations to be identified as a Riserva. The wine has such lovely varietal purity and length in the finish; it is a polished, delicious wine. The Fontodi is likewise delicious with velvety tannins and a wonderful sense of place. This estate, under the leadership of Giovanni Manetti is at the top of its game and is clearly one of the very best houses in Chianti Classico. This 2008 normale can age well for another 5-7 years, but it is so appealing and tasty now - bravo Signore Manetti (and also to his enologist, Franco Bernabei)!

So there will certainly be renewed excitement with these new wines on the market. But more needs to be done. While I was in Florence, I enjoyed a glass of wine with Sebastiano Capponi, proprietor of Villa Cacinaia, located in Greve in Chianti. Capponi confirmed to me that discussions are finally underway among the producers in the consorzio about putting the names of subzones (such as Panzano, Greve, Radda, et al) on the labels. The thinking here is that there needs to be more information on the label than just the words "Chianti Classico."

According to Capponi: "We have Chianti Classico that sell between 3 Euro a bottle and 30 Euro a bottle in Europe. All of them are labeled as Chianti Classico, yet the wines are very different. There needs to be a better system." (Editor's note: prices for Chianti Classico in the US as confirmed by Capponi doing a search of various websites are between $7 and $30 a bottle).

For Capponi and others, labeling the wines with a subzone will create a "quality pyramid", which will no doubt create more interest and excitement in the wines of Chianti Classico. Capponi also told me that Giovanni Manetti at Fontodi has reportedly said that if the subzones are allowed on the labels, he will once again label his top wine, Flaccianello dell Pieve, as Chianti Classico. This would certainly be a wonderful realization for Chianti Classico as a wine type, as this wine is currently labeled as an IGT Toscana Rosso, even though it could legally be identified as a Chianti Classico, given that it is 100% Sangiovese from estate vineyards. "If he decides to do it," notes Capponi, "other producers with Sangiovese-based IGT Super Tuscans might follow."

So the stars are aligning for Chianti Classico. The wines from 2009 (and some of the finest from 2008) are first-rate and should be purchased by sommeliers, retail wine buyers and consumers everywhere. If the subzone labeling can indeed become a reality, it will mean a new era of excitement for this iconic red wine.

P.S. One final note. At this event, producers were allowed to bring one Super Tuscan with them. Some producers as well as journalists who attended the tastings were against this, as this has been an event that focuses on Chianti Classico. I can understand their thoughts and respect them.

However for myself and many other journalists (as well as vintners), this was a nice opportunity to experience the latest Super Tuscans. As producers were only allowed to pour one Super Tuscan and it had to be from their own zone (in other words, they could not show a wine from the Maremma or Bolgheri), this category did not steal the show, as most producers had three of four examples of Chianti Classico to pour from various vintages (2006-2009) and various types (normale, riserva).

Now that one realizes that the subzone plan may become a reality, it made sense to see what some of these wines were about. For myself, it was certainly a nice treat to sample the 2007 Flaccianello - what a gorgeous wine! Imagine in the near future - this may be Chianti Classico again. Isn't that a nice thought?


  1. Good article Tom, blending our 2009's this week so will let you know how we get on.

    I would say that it is more helpful for a consumer / sommelier to know what variety is in the last 20% of any Chianti Classico - rather than the geo-political nuances of the DOCG. It doesn't necessarily help to determine the style of the wine ordered.

    Agree to see Flaccianello and Cepparello as Chianti Classic would be fantastic news


  2. Thanks for the update Tom and I look forward to tasting the 09's in April. Certainly great news on the sub-zones if they can make it happen and I'll bet that Montalcino will follow with sub-zones of its own if they do! Now, can we just get the CC regulations to up the minimum of Sangiovese as well?
    Matt Paul

  3. Chris:

    Thanks for the nice comment. As for the other varieties, well, that's another post, isn't it? Too many variables here, from the inidigenous Canaiolo and Colorino to international varieties such as Merlot and Cabenet Sauvignon. Styles vary wildly according to these blends, of course and that wasn't my point in this post. I only wanted to discuss how the quality is increasing.

  4. Matt:

    Thanks for the comment. I wouldn't mind seeing a minimum of 85% or even 90% Sangiovese, but I'm guessing that won't happen. Let's do hope the subzones get approved - it can't help but get everyone excited about the wines.

  5. Informative post, Tom. Thanks. I love Chianti Classico, but have trouble finding the right ones. One one end of the spectrum, I look for lightness and purity in the under-$20 range, and on the other I see expensive wines that are hard to shell out $40+/btl for, because then they are competing with Brunellos. How do you convince a consumer to pay Brunello-like prices for Chianti? Perhaps the sub-zone designation might help.

  6. Thanks, Gary.

    Your thoughts are spot on. It's difficult to sell $40 and $50 Chianti Classico Riservas, no matter how good they are, given the name Chianti Classico. The producers as a group need to tell the story of why these wines cost more, so the sub-zone identification is a necessary step in that direction.