Does Gran Selezione Really Make A Difference in Chianti Classico?

The new Gran Selezione top tier of Chianti Classico made its first appearance in New York this week. It’s intended to revive Chiantio Classico after years in the doldrums..

Regulations for Gran Selezione are nominally more stringent than for Riserva, but the only practical difference is that maturation must last 30 months rather than 24 months. Grapes must come from an estate’s own vineyards, but the wine can be a blend or selection of lots, and doesn’t have to be from a single vineyard; the restriction just means that it cannot include purchased grapes.

A process for approval should ensure that all wines with the label live up to the demands for a top tier, which was not the case with Riserva, and this may very well be the main difference. About a third of the wines submitted in the initial round were not approved. Gran Selezione is a new name but not a new style or quality level. Virtually all of the first rush of Gran Selezione (89 wines have been approved to date) are the same wines that used to be labeled as Riserva (more or less the very best of the Riserva); there are just a handful of new wines created for the Gran Selezione category, which was approved in 2013. Most of the initial round of Gran Selezione wines are the 2010 vintage, harvested before anyone knew if Gran Selezione would become reality, so it may be too early to see whether new wines will be created for the category.

The regulations for alcohol levels seem like a throwback to a distant era, calling for a minimum of 12% in Chianti Classico, 12.5% in Riserva, and 13% in Gran Selezione. When are the authorities in Europe going to realize that the old equation of alcohol with ripeness is now half a century out of date, and the issue is to restrain, not to encourage, alcohol? Chiantis today are routinely achieving alcohol levels way above the stated limits: in the not particularly warm year of 2010, virtually all the wines are over 14% alcohol (the average for Gran Selezione was 14.2%). That said, perception of alcohol was not evident on the palate, and the relatively high level does not seem to be a problem–but it does not need to be encouraged further.

Generally freshness runs through the 2010 vintage. Some of the wines are plush enough to drink now, others are still rather tight (although none are really what you might call tannic), but the general impression throughout is that these are food wines. Against the background of alcohol levels over 14%, this confirms my view that the problem with high alcohol wines isn’t so much the alcohol level itself as the fact that late harvest and winemaking have accentuated extraction as well as alcohol, and it’s the extract that makes the wines fatiguing (not a problem in Chianti Classico).

It took Chianti Classico an agonizing period to modernize its regulations for grape varieties, by removing the requirement that some white grapes must be included, and allowing 100% Sangiovese. Today, up to 20% of other varieties can be included. Roughly a third of the wines are pure Sangiovese. The others most often include Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, but some of the old indigenous varieties such as Malvasia Nero or Colorino are still found. The average proportion of Sangiovese is now over 90%. There’s a slight increase in the average proportion of Sangiovese going from Chianti Classico to Riserva or Gran Selezione (probably not statistically significant), but perhaps more to the point, there’s a tendency for producers to move to 100% Sangiovese for the Gran Selezione. Presumably this reflects selection of the best grapes for Gran Selezione, making inclusion of the other varieties unnecessary.

I have to admit, however, that I could not see any clear effect of grape varieties in tasting, and I would not be confident of identifying wines that are pure Sangiovese, as opposed to wines that have some Cabernet Sauvignon, for example. The characteristics of the individual plot, in particular where it lies on the north-south axis, and its elevation, as well of course as winemaking, are equally important. There are no rules for aging, but most producers are following a similar regime in which the wine is aged in barriques of French oak.

Gran Selezione is supposed to be the best wine coming from a producer, but there’s no formal requirement that it must be (for example) the producer’s highest priced wine. “The problem is that the top wine is often not labeled as Chianti Classico,” says Sergio Zingarelli, the head of the producers’ association. “I planted a new vineyard fifteen years ago to be my top wine, but if there wasn’t Gran Selezione it would have been an IGT. I think the Gran Selezione will be at the same level as the Super Tuscans.” It would be an exaggeration to say that the name of Chianti has been devalued, but it’s true that historic difficulties with the regulations mean that for most producers their top wines are in the informal Super Tuscan category, labeled as the nominally lowly IGT Toscana. Many of these wines could have been labeled as Chianti Classico after the regulations were updated, but I’m not aware of any that have changed. It would be a mark of success for Gran Selezione if Super Tuscans were relabeled, but I would not hold your breath. In fact, the trend is in the other direction. “The problem is that some producers have made a selection from middle of the range, which sends a mixed message to the market as to how much the producer believes in it,” comments Antonio Galloni. Some producers used to make Riserva wines only in better vintages; it remains to be seen if that will be true also for Gran Selezione.

The introduction of Gran Selezione was not universally accepted by producers, although some who were against it are now making wines in the category; probably it will settle down to become accepted as the new top tier of Chianti Classico, even if that does not mean much more than picking out the best of what used to be the Riserva category. “The real need here is to clarify Chianti’s zones and vineyards, which isn’t being done,” says Sebastiano Castiglioni of Querciabella, who is staying out of the system, and focusing on single vineyard wines. So it’s unclear whether the new category will have any effect on recognition of different terroirs in Chianti Classico, which might be a more effective way to gain recognition for the region.

It’s not straightforward to compare Gran Selezione with Riserva directly, because most producers switched the label from one vintage to the next (the other wines being simple Chianti Classico), but there are a few producers who have different cuvées in both categories. In these rare cases, the Gran Selezione is usually just a touch more intense than the Riserva, just as the Riserva is usually a touch more intense than the Chianti Classico, although the difference has narrowed in recent years due to a general improvement in the quality of Chianti Classico. The wines are richer and deeper, often showing a mix of red and black fruits as opposed to the bright red cherries of old, and perhaps the real message is the improvement of quality all round.

All Change in Roussillon: New Approaches but Still Looking for Identity

It was an indication of trends in the region that sweet wines were much less in evidence than dry at the Roussillon tasting in New York (for those statistically inclined, the breakdown was about half dry red and a quarter each of dry white and sweet wines, with a handful of rosés).

Whites have been making progress in the south of France, but it remains a bit of an uphill battle against the sun in Roussillon, the farthest south, driest, and warmest region in France. Whites were in a small minority, and on this showing, are having some difficulty in establishing a balance between becoming overly aromatic and phenolic (and alcoholic) or maintaining freshness (by picking early but at the expense of flavor variety and intensity). Most of the wines are fermented purely in stainless steel, but occasional essays into oak sometimes do bring a touch of greater roundness and complexity.

Getting a bead on the character of the region is not helped by the wide range of varieties, from aromatic Muscat or Viognier to flat Grenache Blanc or Carignan Blanc. In the Languedoc, experiments with more northern varieties, such as Chenin Blanc, have sometimes led to attractive results, but Roussillon seems more to be sticking to its traditional varieties. It’s curious that the difficulties of viticulture in cool climates have resulted in development of grape varieties that do better under marginal conditions (although none has yet produced more than serviceable results), but there do not appear to have been comparable attempts to develop white varieties for warm climates.

Reds show more consistency, although it is hard to identify styles with grape varieties. I don’t think it is so much that terroir trumps cepage as that climate (and winemaking) trump cepage: there’s a certain sameness in high alcohol and extract. It can be hard to see the cepage behind the soft, round, character, especially at entry level. Even 100% Syrah can taste more like Châteauneuf du Pape than like Hermitage. When ripeness verges on over-ripeness, there’s a tendency to convergence, although perhaps Grenache stands out a bit for its overwhelming fruit and tendency to nuttiness on the finish.

Although AOPs must be blends, mostly of traditional varieties, whereas IGPs can be monovarietal and tend to have more “international” varieties, the difference between them is not as marked as you might expect in either style or quality. I do not think that in blind tasting it would be possible to distinguish wines as coming from the AOP Côtes du Roussillon as opposed to the IGP Côtes Catalanes. (Of course, sometimes the differences are blurred by ignoring the rules: that 100% Syrah was in fact an AOP wine.)

Sweet wines run a range from Muscat Rivesaltes, which tends to be a bit dull (why is Muscat considered one of the noble varieties in France?), to the slightly “sticky” impression of many Rivesaltes, and a handful of very concentrated old wines in the ambré category. These can be good, but only the very best achieve the complexity of dessert wines from Sauternes or the Loire; given the expense of production and the limited market, you can see why producers are moving out of the category.

Roussillon is a work in progress. It’s come a long way from the days when the Midi produced cheap bulk wine, but on this showing, it hasn’t yet really found its identity completely in the quality market.

Two Decades of Ducru Beaucaillou Show Supreme Elegance But With Surprises

The Wine Society’s tasting of wines from Ducru Beaucaillou with Bruno Borie was an eye opener into the changing nature of Bordeaux, although the grand vin of Ducru continued to demonstrate its supreme elegance.

Croix de Beaucaillou was introduced as a second wine in 1995 (displacing Lalande Borie to the position of third wine). It’s now not so much a second wine as a separate brand, Bruno explained, coming from vineyards plots farther from the Gironde. This may explain why I could not see much of an obvious relationship between La Croix de Beaucaillou and Ducru Beaucaillou itself. Both come only from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but La Croix tends to have 10-20% more Merlot, and its style is more superficial. It’s round and attractive, but it’s the grand vin of Ducru Beaucaillou that shows the precision that typifies St. Julien. I was surprised by the closeness of style of the 2010 and 2009 La Croix; the difference seems due more to the extra year’s age of the 2009 than to vintage character, as both show fruits before structure.

The youngest Ducru was the 2009, smooth and silky, and just about drinkable now as the tannins are coming into balance with the fruits. “The drinkability of 2009 is evident,” Bruno says. Young Bordeaux from great vintages no longer has punishing tannins, but all the same, the tannins still have grip, and to drink it now is to miss the point, as those subtle, elegant, flavors won’t come out from under for several years. Judging from comments around me about deliciousness, and seeing the empty glasses, it strikes me that there is a willingness on the part of the consumer to accept wines with more tannins and extract then used to be the case. Yes, it’s a plumper version of Ducru’s usual style, but please don’t drink it yet.

I almost never like 2006 left bank wines as I find it hard to get past the flat character of the year, but both La Croix and Ducru showed more aromatics than I usually see in this vintage. Very good results for the year, but all the same, hard to see that they are going anywhere.

The biggest surprise of the tasting for me was the 1999: traditional claret with a light fruit impression that’s as much red as black. It’s very drinkable, what I would call a luncheon claret, and it strikes me that it’s very much what claret used to be, before the grand cru classés started going for more extraction and a deeper, richer, international style.

The next surprise was the 1996 which is simply glorious. I’ve always regarded this as one of the standouts of the vintage, but the last time I tasted it, a delicious counterbalance of herbaceousness was developing to offset the fruits. This bottle (fresh from the Ducru cellars) by contrast did not have any trace of herbaceousness, but tended more to chocolate and sweet tobacco and cedar overtones. It’s not often that I see Bordeaux losing herbaceousness with age and showing clearer fruit character.

Ducru remains the quintessential St. Julien for me, with a terrific ability to pinpoint the character of each vintage, although I tend to prefer “classic” vintages to more “modern” ones..

Premox Meets New Oak: a New Experience

As I finish off my 2005 white Burgundies, I am continually having surprises. I had a new experience with the last bottle of a half case of Jadot’s Clos de la Garenne from Puligny Montrachet (the Duc de Magenta cuvée). Previous bottles have been wildly erratic: the previous one showed clear notes of oxidation, while the one before still showed new oak. That makes for a pretty narrow window for drinking between the oak resolving and the oxidation taking over.

Well this bottle showed both influences: oxidation in the form of Sherry-like notes at the end of the palate, but wood spices in the form of cinnamon at the forefront. That narrows the window for drinking to zero. It was actually quite interesting until after a while the oxidation took over and all remaining evidence of youthful fruits disappeared.

Beyond the fact that I’ve been unable to enjoy a single bottle in perfect condition, my concern is the sheer unpredictability. None of my white Burgundies have followed a clear path of development so that you might try at least to seize a moment to drink them, even if it’s only a brief opening. The path has been more of a zigzag, with one bottle showing oxidative problems, the next one much better, then a step backward and so on. I remember a conversation with the chef at a restaurant in France. When I asked about the reasons for his success, he said one was the “regularité.” We could certainly do with more of that in Burgundy.

One major surprise has been that just when I was about to give up on the vintage altogether, I had a series of bottles that were much better than the earlier ones. I am sure this is a coincidence, but I am reminded of a conversation with a producer in Burgundy last summer. He had been visited just previously by his English importer, who wanted to try some older bottles. “I’m afraid they are all oxidized,” the producer said. The importer want to try them anyway, and voila! they appeared to have returned to form.

This brings to mind a warning from Mercedes in the manual for one of its cars. “Even Mercedes cannot repeal the laws of physics,” it said. Well you can’t repeal the laws of oxidation either: it’s a one way process once oxidative products have been formed in wine. So I am not going to hold on to my bottles to see if a miracle of chemistry occurs, but I’m not going to assume they are all undrinkable either.

Playing Russian Roulette with Puligny Montrachet

I have got fed up with the premox problem and am drinking all my 2002 and 2005 white Burgundies, whether they are Chablis premier or grand cru, or Côte d’Or premier cru (alas I do not have much in the way of grand crus, except for a couple of bottles of Le Montrachet).

This evening was Leflaive’s Clavoillon Puligny 2005, the last bottle of a half case. I did not have high expectations, because there’s been significant variation among previous bottles: some have showed obvious touches of oxidation, some have showed signs of fruits drying out, some have been overly phenolic. This one was perfect.

I was just amazed to have a bottle that showed the sheer perfection of what a top premier cru from Puligny should achieve at ten years of age. Here’s the tasting note:

Noticeably paler than previous bottles. Forceful citrus and stone fruits show with touches of grapefruit and apricots, slowly developing those steely mineral overtones that epitomize Puligny. The phenolic overtones that were overly evident in some previous bottles develop more slowly here and are integrated into the granular texture of the palate. Palate is complex, hard to disentangle flavor and texture – if only they were all like this.

I don’t know whether to lament the fact that the previous five bottles were all in some way at least slightly disappointing due to premox or associated problems, or whether to say Hallelujah! now we see what it’s all about. Given the cost of white Burgundy these days, I’m temperamentally inclined to sackcloth and ashes rather than celebration.

This seems an appropriate point to consider the premox problem, as the first vintage to show the premox problem was 1995, twenty years ago. Today’s wine is ten years old, so it marks the halfway point. The problem wasn’t solved then, and I’m not completely convinced it is now. Should they be considering screwcaps in Burgundy?

Chateau Musar: Simply Sui Generis

I have tasted Château Musar in depth only twice. Once in New York, in 2009 at a tasting with Serge Hochar, when we had white vintages from 1999 to 1959 and reds from 2000 to 1966, and last week in Miami at Wine by the Bay’s commemoration of Serge, with an excellent range of wines, including whites back to 1998 and reds back to 1989. At both tastings, the wines impressed me as brilliantly different from anything else.

Production at Château Musar has now extended to include the Jeune line (red, rosé, and white) from young vines, and the Hochar Père et Fils line (lighter wines for immediate drinking, in the modern fashion), but although all these are well-made examples of their genres, for me the real interest came with the Musar white and red.

The white is much less well known than the red, but every bit as distinctive. It comes from the indigenous varieties Obaideh and Merwah; they are said to be related to Chasselas, Chardonnay, and Sémillon, but if they are, terroir is clearly trumping variety. Fermentation is unusual as it lasts for nine months in barriques, then the wine is bottled conventionally enough after a year. It’s held until it is seven years old for release, so you never really get the chance to see what a young wine tastes like.

The long fermentation gives an oxidative character: for me the nearest resemblance to other wines might be to the whites of the Jura, with an intensely savory quality approaching a touch of fenugreek. My favorite of vintages from the 2000s at last week’s tasting was the 2000: light, subtle, and developed, but it paled besides the densely savory 1998. What I love about these wines is the way they start out herbal and become increasingly savory with age. Normal experience would suggest they should hold for a few years, but this is no doubt an under-estimate; at the tasting in 2009, the 1959 was developed but fresh; in fact Serge said at the time that the wine was showing the youth it did not have when it was younger.

Fermentation for the reds is also very slow: six months in cement, followed by a year to mature in barriques. Then the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Grenache are blended, and spend another year in cement cuve before bottling. The wine is not released until seven years after the vintage, but there is certainly no need to taste it sooner. The current release, the 2007, still has to come together, although the mix of blackberry fruits, high toned aromatics, and sweet tannins is promising.

The 1996 vintage puts Bordeaux or Burgundy to shame, with a lovely balance between delicate fruits and tertiary notes, with a drying touch of cinnamon at the end. It reminded me a bit of some of the old Daumas Gassac Cabernets from the eighties, with that Mediterranean twist on Cabernet. I was astonished by the sheer precision and depth of the flavor of the rather washed-out looking 1989. At the New York tasting in 2009, we started with the red 1981, as Serge said that this age—about twenty five years—is the average age at which his wines are ready to drink, but I would beg to differ and suggest you don’t have to wait quite that long, as the 1996 was perfection this month. But I am sure it will improve until it reaches the ethereal quality of the 1989.

Is Pontet Canet 2004 the Best Kosher Wine Out There?

I do not usually drink Kosher wine. My recollections from childhood of sickly sweet wines with the foxy taste of non-vinifera grapes form a mental block. But a friend recently was given the Kosher cuvée of Pontet Canet 2004, so we set up a side-by-side comparison with the regular cuvée from my cellar.

I find it difficult to see the point of Kosher wine. If it’s not necessary for orange juice to be certified Kosher, why should wine need to be certified? How do grapes differ from oranges or lemons or other fruits? I suppose it’s reasonable if the wine is to be used for sacramental purposes, but it seems to be confusing things to require certification for a wine to be drunk with dinner. Of course, winemaking involves more manipulation than producing fruit juice, and I can see that it may also be necessary to certify that non Kosher products have not been used—the most obvious being some fining agents—but basically any wine that has been made in the usual way without fining or filtration should not breach the rules of Kashrus.

Fining is not an issue at Pontet Canet as the wine is not fined anyway. The Kosher wine comes from specific parcels, so that it can be guaranteed to be kosher all the way from vineyard to bottle. “The wine cannot be exactly the same, but it has to get the soul of the place… It comes from some specific parcels with the three main varieties chosen to represent the best they could the average of the estate. There is no Petit Verdot… It has to be Kosher from the receiving of the grapes. Making a selection of some barrels would mean that all the barrels would have to be produced in a Kosher way,” winemaker Jean-Michel Comme explains. About 10,000 bottles of Kosher wine were produced from each of the 2002, 2003, and 2004 vintages, and the only difference in production from the regular cuvée was that it was made in vats with an automatic system of pumping over for the weekends (because the supervisors could not be there on Saturday).

The wines were surprisingly different. To my palate, the regular cuvee is more evidently Cabernet-based; not overtly herbaceous, but not directly fruit-driven, settling down to a very nice balance of acidity with developing fruits, not quite ready yet, smooth and elegant, very much in the classical tradition of Pauillac. The Kosher version seems softer (it feels as though it has more Merlot) with lower acidity. It is more approachable and seems ready now. The difference seems almost like a subtle change in seasoning, and I wonder if the main factor could be the absence of Petit Verdot (there is 2% in the 2004 regular cuvée). It would not be unreasonable to drink the Kosher cuvée now, but to hold the regular cuvée for another three or four years. The comparison is a fascinating demonstration of how every aspect of winemaking impacts the wine.