Chianti Classico and Beyond – New Releases
supreme in Chianti Classico. This year’s crop of new releases focuses on the
2012s and 2011s, wines from harvests that produced radiant, expressive reds with
plenty of near and medium term appeal.
Some Thoughts on 2012
Growers describe 2012 as a year with uneven ripeness, the
result of a season with start-and-stop conditions. As early as the spring,
Chianti Classico was experiencing an unusually warm and dry year, with
virtually no rain. When I visited the region in April, producers were very
concerned about the drought-like conditions. A few weeks later, rain arrived and pushed back the start of summer with
cooler than normal temperatures that lasted well into June. Warm weather returned with a
vengeance in August, especially during the first half of the month, which was
quite hot. Rain at the end of the growing season, right around harvest,
complicated the final phase of ripening at some estates. Yields are down across
the board. Some growers believe that the vines set low crops in response to
climatic conditions, while others reported everything from hydric stress to
fruit drying out on the vine because of the intense heat in August.
Based on what I have tasted so far, 2012 appears to be a
vintage of mid-weight wines, most of which are built for the near and medium
term. The wines have lovely radiance, but not quite the opulence of the 2011s
nor the classic sense of pulsating vibrancy found in the 2010s. I expect we
will see most of the top labels in 2012, although production will be down, as
this is a vintage that is going to require a bit more selection in the cellar.
Isole e Olena,
Barberino Val d’Elsa
The 2011 Chianti
By now, readers have had a chance to taste the straight
Chianti Classicos. The warm, precocious vintage produced a set of ripe – at
times exotic – wines, with tons of resonance and volume. Although the 2011s
drink well young, a few years in bottle will help the wines integrate as the
baby fat melts away. Sangiovese by nature has a good amount of acidity that
helps the wines retain a sense of freshness, something this vintage needed. The
best 2011s will drink well young and also age gracefully.
Chianti Classico Gran
This year, consumers will find an increasing number of wines
being marketed under the new Gran Selezione designation. As I
wrote last year, there is reason to be skeptical of this addition to the hierarchy
in Chianti Classico. To better understand the Gran Selezione, some perspective
might be in order.
The image of Chianti Classico has long been under assault by
an ocean of inexpensive wines that end up deeply discounted on supermarket
shelves or sold in less developed markets. The poor quality of these wines continues
to be seen as a major threat to high-quality Chianti Classico. In truth, many
regions face a similar dynamic, whether it is California with inexpensive
Cabernet Sauvignon, Piedmont with industrial level Barolo and Barbaresco or Montalcino,
with cheap Brunellos that set a low floor of pricing, and therefore image, for
the entire region.
The oldest part of
Fontodi’s Vigna del Sorbo, Panzano
In order to separate themselves from the more commercial,
industrial producers, a group of wineries in Chianti Classico proposed the idea
of Gran Selezione, which at its core, specifies that wines must be made from
estate-owned vineyards. That seems reasonable enough. The idea was that Gran
Selezione would sit at the top of the hierarchy in Chianti Classico, above
Riserva, and would only be available to quality-minded producers. Thus, Gran
Selezione was born.
There are just a few issues. What producers want and what
the market wants are two different things. Producers created a designation that
suits them, not that suits the
market. Why? Generous EU subsidies create an environment in which wineries and
estate owners are often out of touch with the public, in other words, the
consumer who actually buys and drinks their wines. Do you want to know how much
EU taxpayer money is being spent to promote Gran Selezione and Chianti Classico
around the world? No, you probably don’t.
The market, defined as consumers, buyers, sommeliers and
other thought leaders, wants something more. We want to understand what is unique
about Radda, Gaiole and Castellina. What are differences between Chiantis from
the province of Florence and those from the towns closer to Siena? As a
consumer and lover of Italian wines, I have spent a lifetime trying to
understand those nuances. But the producers themselves don’t want us to have that
knowledge. Why? Mostly out of fear of being classified into a second or third
tier of quality. Of course, there is one very easy way to fix that. Make a
great wine and no one will really care where it was made.
So, we have Gran Selezione. Interestingly, not all producers are labeling their top wine(s) as Gran Selezione. I
wonder why. Well, it is actually pretty simple. Any producer in Chianti
Classico who is not using Gran Selezione for their best wine either does not truly
believe in the designation and/or is bottling a Gran Selezione only to appease
their colleagues by appearing to support the initiative. On the other side of
the debate, some producers believe the Gran Selezione is the first step towards
more village-specific designations. I will believe it when I see it.
Castello di Ama is making a bold statement by releasing
three wines as Gran Selezione; a Riserva and the dual flagships Bellavista and
Casuccia. The same is true at Fèlsina, which has shown the remarkable
courage to introduce a new wine, Colonia, above their iconic Rancia, one of
the most universally admired wines in all of Italy. That level of conviction is,
sadly, shared by few estates.
Castellare, Castellina in Chianti
Other producers are sending a much more mixed signal. Fontodi’s
Vigna del Sorbo goes from Riserva to Gran Selezione. The wine is exactly the
same as before. What is the point? Most people consider Flaccianello to be the
flagship wine here (although I do not), so why isn't Flaccinello a Gran
Riserva? As the saying goes…it’s complicated. More on that below. San Felice’s Gran
Selezione Il Grigio is a newly-created. mid-tier bottling, a decision that
shows a clear lack of conviction. Antinori’s contribution to Gran Selezione is the
Chianti Classico from Badia a Passignano, arguably the least well-known wine in
their lineup. A number of top-notch estates have not adopted Gran Selezione for
any of their wines, including Isole e Olena, Castellare, Querciabella and San
Giusto a Rentennano.
Then we have the IGTs. Wines such as Tignanello, Cepparello,
Percarlo and others, including the aforementioned Flaccianello, could all be
sold as Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. What are the odds of that happening? Practically
zero. Those wines have all achieved a level of recognition and pricing that
supersedes the Chianti Classico region, so there is no incentive for any of
those producers to change a thing.
Lastly, in order to be sold as Gran Selezione, the wines
must be tasted by a panel that evaluates wines according to a list of technical
and qualitative criteria. Based on what I have tasted thus far, technical
criteria clearly prevail, as I have run across a few Gran Selezioni that aren't
deserving of any special status at all. Rather, they hurt the perception of the
best wines in the category.
It will be interesting to see how the market accepts the
Gran Seleziones. At the end of the day, there is no shortcut to achieving
recognition and prestige in the market. Today’s consumer is very savvy. Quality
will always triumph over mediocrity, regardless of how a wine is labeled.
Vineyard, San Casciano Val di Pesa
Sangiovese – One of
the World’s Great Varieties?
Sangiovese is a very difficult grape to grow. That is pretty
much universally accepted. It is quite sensitive, and only gives good results
in specific sites. Vines tend to naturally produce high yields, bunches are
irregular and ripening can vary greatly, even within the same row and plant. At
the same time, Sangiovese has that one single element it shares with the other
great varieties of the world – namely the ability to transmit a sense of
place…something about where it is from. In Tuscany, but particularly in Chianti
Classico, Sangiovese has a home to which it is ideally suited. I have seen the
best Sangioveses sit comfortably side-by-side with the world’s greatest wines. Simply
put, in Chianti Classico I see a region with extraordinary potential, although
much of it remains untapped. The first step is gaining a better understanding
of sites, microclimates, terrains and all the other variable that ultimately
shape what goes into the bottle.
Fermentation Room, Greve in Chianti
Chianti…There’s more to
it than just ‘Classico’
As good as the best Chianti Classicos can be, prices for the
top wines have also increased over the last few years, as the cream rises to
the top. Readers looking for everyday values will want to look beyond Chianti
Classico and into the broader Chianti appellation. The wines might be less
pedigreed, but I can’t imagine that matters a great deal for bottles that are
best enjoyed a few years after release. Specifically, producers such as
Piazzano, Marchese Torrigiani and Giacomo Mori make delicious wines that won’t
break the bank. Rùfina excels with more lifted, lithe, perfumed Chiantis full of
personality. And that is just the beginning. There is so much to learn and
explore in these picturesque hillside vineyards.
For More on Tuscany…
This is the first in a series of articles focusing on new
releases from Tuscany. Reviews for the Tuscan Coast and other smaller
appellations will follow shortly.
-- Antonio Galloni