Last month’s Consorzio Vino Chianti Grand Tasting and seminar in NYC reinforced my growing feeling that Chianti today offers a higher level of consistency, quality and value than ever before. The region’s upward trajectory mirrors that of other important and historic regions across the wine world. The event made a number of trends evident, including interest in revisiting traditional methods, exploration of organic viticulture, increased technical precision, and development of distinct and diverse styles.
Chianti is one of the best known wine regions of Italy. Set amid endlessly scenic Tuscan hills, its wines are referenced in renaissance literature and painting. It was then that Chianti started to build its reputation as the archetypal wine of that patchwork of fiefdoms we now call Italy. Since then, like most storied European wine regions, they have had their ups and downs.
The Context of Chianti Today: Recovering from Industrial Production
For most of the wine world and agriculture in general, the post WW II period offered the promise of agriculture made easy via pesticides, herbicides, industrial machinery and economies of scale. In retrospect, we see that for wine this was transformative in a downward direction. This was a period that wine production, and with less success agriculture are both still recovering from today. The context of Chianti’s current ascendency is best seen as a reflection of it’s recovery from the downsides of industrial mass production.
Why? Simply put, mass production is the enemy of taste, character and quality. Of course there are benefits to mass production, most notably lower prices, and higher production. But times have changed since the post war period. And although there will always be a market for bulk wine, today’s fine wine consumers gravitate not only to affordable pricing but also environmental responsibility, authenticity and personality of place. Changes in Chianti production laws in the 1990’s helped producers get back to the business of taste, character and quality.
Isolating What Makes Chianti Chianti
The morning seminar and guided tasting provided a very focused way to draw out what’s at the heart of Chianti today. The one essential thing is the Sangiovese grape, as its grown in those picturesque Tuscan hills. The tasting included six wines, all Riservas, all retailing from $20-$30, all from the cooler and somewhat uneven 2010 vintage, all tasted blind to keep any bias about the producers out of the mix. By limiting those factors we were able to see more clearly the salient differences between the wines: the grape blends (at lest 70% must be Sangiovese), the geographic differences and the stylistic differences.
1. Chianti DOCG Riserva 2010 (later revealed to be from Vino Sorelli)
· Grape Varieties: 80% Sangiovese – 10% Canaiolo – 10% Trebbiano (white grape)
· Wine Making Process: Fermentation of red, with maceration on the skins for about 10 days at a controlled temperature.
· Aging: At least 6 months in a large barrel, 2 months in barriques, and 2 months bottle aging.
· Color: Ruby red.
· Alcohol Content: 12.5%
2. Chianti DOCG Riserva 2010 (later revealed to be Tenuta di Morzano’s “Il Quarto”)
· Grape Varieties: 80% Sangiovese – 15% Merlot – 5% Syrah
· Wine Making Process: Traditional, 20 days of maceration on the skins and subsequent fermentation in vitrified cement.
· Aging: 24 months in French barriques, third use.
· Color: Deep ruby red.
· Alcohol Content: 14%
3. Chianti Rùfina DOCG Riserva 2010 (later revealed to be Cantine Bellini’s “Il Pozza Riserva”)
· Grape Varieties: 90% Sangiovese – 5% Canaiolo – 5% Colorino
· Wine Making Process: 15 days of maceration of the skins at a controlled temperature (25-28°C).
· Aging: 24 months in oak barrels and 6 months in bottle.
· Color: Ruby red with hints of garnet.
· Alcohol Content: 12.5%
4. Chianti DOCG Riserva 2010 (later revealed to be from Castello di Oliveto)
· Grape Varieties: 90% Sangiovese – 5% Colorino – 5% Merlot
· Wine Making Process: In steel vats with maceration of the skins for about 15 days, with frequent pumping over and aeration to foster ceding of the color at a controlled temperature (28-30°C).
· Aging: 24 months in 25 Hl slovenian oak barrels and 6 months in bottle.
· Color: Brilliant ruby red.
· Alcohol Content: 13%
5. Chianti Montalbano DOCG Riserva 2010 (later revealed to be from Tenuta Cantagallo)
· Grape Varieties: 100% Sangiovese.
· Wine Making Process: The alcoholic and the malolactic fermentation take place in stainless steel tanks.
· Aging: Traditional in barriques and new tonneaux at 40% for 12 months and then in bottle for 12 months.
· Color: Brilliant ruby red.
· Alcohol Content: 13.5%
6. Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG Riserva 2010 (later revealed to be Castelvecchio’s “Vigna La Quercia”)
· Grape Varieties: 90% Sangiovese – 10% Cabernet Sauvignon
· Wine Making Process: Wine produced from a single vineyard. south-east exposure.
· Aging: 12 months in barriques and 12 months in bottle.
· Color: Deep ruby red.
· Alcohol Content: 14%
All the wines had a core of bright cherry, but varied widely in inflection and character. The most striking difference seemed to be in the blend. What that 10 to 20% of other grapes (or lack of other grapes) lent to the overall impression of the wine. This effected both the structure and the flavor profiles of the wines.
The white Trebbiano seemed to make for a more streamlined, juicy and less weighty wine–perhaps more elegant and restrained. The classic blending reds, Canaiolo and Colorino seemed to soften some of the Sangiovese tannic edges and add more of an acid spine and grace. While the Merlot seemed to soften the wine most, adding tobacco and leaf tones. The syrah added some black pepper and tarry spice tones. The 100% Sangiovese showed deeper tannins than the previous blends, with earth and wildflower notes. While the Cabernet version showed rounded full tannins, and darker fruit flavors like black currant and blackberry.
The Producer Influence
The second biggest factor for me was the wine style, ranging from more lean and traditional to more ripe, extracted and deeply oaked. These differences complimented the blend differences so it was not exactly clear on where one factor began and the other left off. The racier, sleeker wines used less new oak and pushed extraction and ripeness less, than the last two wines, which were deeper and more internationally styled.
The hardest factor to pin-point was geographic and terroir differences, although each wine clearly had its own distinct character. The northerly, and presumably cooler, Chianti Rùfina was balanced more toward the racy and tart side, but with a distinctive truffle undertone. The Chianti Montalbano had lovely earth, honey and wild herb tones different from the others. Whereas, the Colli Fiorentina’s addition of Cabernet Sauvignon and its ripe, oakier style ended up masking its geographic origin somewhat. The others did not include a sub-zone designation of specifics on the geographic source of the grapes.
Conclusions from the Seminar
Put all together, the land, micro-climate and vines of each producer, plus style in terms of ripeness, extraction and oak level, and finally the blend choices, make for a lot of ways for each producer to express their own personality. The end result was a diversity of Chianti expressions. The racier and more traditional styles clearly lend themselves to pairing with the classic, rich foods of the region. While the riper, deeper more oaky wines match that more modern craving for big, bold flavors.
Very interestingly in the Q&A a young sommelier, who had spent some years living in Tuscany exploring the wines felt that those last two wines, the more modern ones, were most indicative of what Chianti is for her. While, diametrically opposed was an esteemed and longtime importer of Tuscan wines who felt that the other wines, particularly the blend with white—as Chianti was traditionally made—was more quintessential.
In my view the leaner and more traditional styles are more expressive of the region and better with food. But on the other hand the more modern styles are still deeply expressive of Chianti character, within the confines of other similarly styled wines from elsewhere in the world. And those wines had an undeniable appeal as far as both plushness and elegance.
The Grand Tasting
The walk around tasting showed even greater diversity in terroir, style and blends. It also showed improvements in quality among some of the producers that exhibited in the same event last year. Overall quality was up, although some producers were less consistant than others.
For the most part the commitment quality and expressing their own character was evident. Although there was one very large producer whose, entry level and highly commercial wines were fairly generic probably most appealing to consumers at the lower price ranges of the fine wine spectrum.
Overall, given the generally good level of quality and the diversity of styles and personalities of the wines on offer, it became a matter of personal taste as to which wines I preferred. Regardless of your stylistic prefernece one thing quality Chinati provides without a doubt is value. Because they do not command the high prices of more illustrious regions elsewhere in Italy or in the wine world, they offer plenty of value. That is because their quality oriented efforts and the trends they are following parallel those of as other historic, but more expensive wine regions of the world.
Below are a few of my favorite producers, with my personal taste favoring the more restrained and less oaky, traditional styled wines—although I certainly enjoyed some of the bolder and more modern wines as well:
The Chianti DOCG (DOCG is the highest appellation status in Italy) includes the general designation Chianti DOCG which can be blended from different subzones, or Chianti vineyards outside the specific subzones. Chianti may only be red and must be at least 70% Sangiovese, with up to 30% other authorized grapes; a maximum of 10% white grapes and a maximum of 15% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Below are the Chianti DOCG sub-zones:
Colli Aretini (Arezzo)
Colli Fiorentini (Florence)
Colline Pisane (Pisa)
Colli Senesi (Siena)
Additional designations of the region are Chianti Superiore DOCG with some higher technical standards than the wider Chianti DOCG, Vin Santo de Chianti DOC for the production of sweet wines, and Colli del Etruria Centrale DOC, which allows the production of white, rosé and sweet wine. Chianti Classico is a separate DOCG in the center of the wider Chianti region with its own regulations.
For more information please visit the website of the event sponsor, the Consorzio Vino Chianti: www.consorziovinochianti.it