Creeping Modernism in Chianti Classico

Unlike areas such as Brunello di Montalcino or Barolo, there has never really been a debate in Chianti Classico about modernism versus tradition. The nearest equivalent would be the controversy as to whether to include international varieties; at first seeming necessary in the 1980s to ‘improve’ the Sangiovese, it became irrelevant two decades later as quality was improved by new cultivars of Sangiovese. But for those who wanted to make modern wines in a forceful style, it was easier to label them as ‘super-Tuscans’ rather than fight for the soul of Sangiovese.

The exclusion of most of the top wines from the Chianti Classico region by being labeled instead as IGT Toscana was one of the driving forces for the introduction of Gran Selezione in 2010, a new class intended to be the top tier of Chianti Classico. This did not take what might have been the most obvious course of requiring 100% Sangiovese or a single-vineyard source, but had only the restriction that grapes must come from the estate, not be purchased.

Initially embraced by  relatively few producers, the first vintages were mostly wines that had previously been Riservas but that made it through the screening committee to be approved for the new category. There was a small but significant change in character from the old Riservas: the Gran Selezione were denser, smoother, and more inclined to black fruits rather than red.

A couple of vintages later, the trend had intensified, and where producers had wines at each level of the category, it wouldn’t be much of an over-simplification to say that Chianti Classico still tended towards the classic fresh red fruits, the Riserva showed more structure, and the Gran Selezione began to move stylistically towards Brunello. There was a trend for Gran Selezione to be 100% Sangiovese and often to come from a single vineyard. The wines were a mix of a super-set of the old Riservas, a handful of super-Tuscans that had reverted to Chianti Classico DOCG, and new cuvées introduced specifically for Gran Selezione.

The Chianti Classico CoNNEction Tasting held in New York and other cities this month, with 250 wines from 100 producers, showed that the situation has developed further. It now seems the rule rather than the exception to present a tier of wines, from Chianti Classico, to Riserva, to Gran Selezione. Caught in the middle, Riservas vary from being closer in style to the Chianti Classico to being closer to the Gran Selezione. Quite often, the difference between Chianti Classico and Riserva is slight: this is not a criticism of the Riserva, but a comment on how much the general quality of Chianti Classico has improved in the past decade.

Not only has the quality improved, but the style has changed. There are still some Chianti Classicos with a classic flavor spectrum of bright red fruits, but they are certainly no longer sharp with obtrusive acidity: the best remain fresh but have a new smoothness. However, they seem to be outnumbered by wines with relatively soft palates, moving towards black fruits, and often hard to equate with Sangiovese. This is not because the Sangiovese has been overwhelmed with international varieties: often enough these wines are 100% Sangiovese or close to it. They have a sort of interdenominational character resulting from taming the tannins and acidity. They are pleasant wines, probably more attractive to the consumer than the tart old style, but do they offer a distinct identify? How do they compete in the international market except on price? Is this a creeping modernism resulting from convergence of styles based on worldwide common approaches to viticulture and vinification?

This concern is exacerbated by the development of Gran Selezione. With more than 100 Gran Selezione cuvées now available, it is harder to get a bead on the category, but I sense some dilution from that early determination to produce wines that could compete with super-Tuscans. Now the Gran Selezione tends to be the best wine that each producer can make, but is that good enough? Can you make a top tier in a hierarchy without any assessment of the terroir from which the wine comes?

Around half the Gran Selezione at the tasting struck me as nice enough wines for current consumption, but not really offering enough distinction from Riservas; or perhaps to be more critical, I would say they really comprise what the Riserva should offer. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the imprimatur of the class when there were only twenty or so must have been diluted by its expansion and success. Perhaps it’s too hard to apply my criterion for great wine to the class: that it should become increasingly interesting as it ages. Many of these wines are attractive for immediate consumption, but is that enough? If I were on the committee that approves Gran Selezione, I would add the criterion of requiring ability to age for at least a few years.

The best Gran Selezione stand out as wines that can compete on the international market with Brunello di Montalcino or equivalent super-Tuscans, although in a less powerful style. At least when young, the difference is becoming partly a matter of personal stylistic preference, although even here I’m uncertain whether Gran Selezione will have quite the same longevity. For all my criticism, Gran Selezione has restored the reputation of Chianti Classico, and I suspect its success has had a knock-on effect in improving Riserva and the basic DOCG wines.

My top wines at the tasting were mostly Gran Selezione, but included a couple of Riservas and even one Chianti Classico tout court.

Rocca di Castagnoli,  Stielle, Gran Selezione, 2016

Nice depth here, really nice balance, smooth without going to chocolaty or nutty extremes, nut as savory as the Riserva: this is more modern, the Riserva is more what I expect in Chianti Classico.   (Sangiovese 100%)

Querciabella, Riserva, 2017

A deeper, rounder, version of the Classico. More complex on palate with some sweet herbal impressions: similarities are greater than differences, which is a tribute to the quality of the Classico, not a criticism of the Riserva.   (Sangiovese 100%)

Fontodi, Filetta di Lamole, Gran Selezione, 2018

Attractive nose is deeper and more aromatic than the Classico. Only a touch deeper and rounder, a hint of tobacco on the finish, more of a bite at the end. In the same style as the Classico, the main difference from the Classico is some additional complexity on the palate. (Sangiovese 100%)   

Fattoria Di Fèlsina, Rancia, Riserva, 2018

Rancia shows similarity of style to Berardenga, but has greater fruit density, more depth, but similar lovely rounded fruits. (I like this better than the super-Tuscan Fontalloro, which has become too powerful for my palate.) This is lovely wine, pretty much ready now.  (Sangiovese 100%) 

Fontodi, Vigna del Sorbo, Gran Selezione, 2018

Some soft aromatics on the nose intensify from the Classico and Filetta di Lamole. Palate is softer, deeper, blacker, the aromatics are still present, rounder with greater fruit density. Without wishing to be pejorative, the style shows some international influence in moving in a round chocolaty direction towards Montalcino. (Sangiovese 100%)  

Querciabella,  DOCG, 2018

Smooth, silky, elegant, very much the house style, and although perhaps it doesn’t have the weight of Riserva, quite in line with that level. May well be the most elegant Classico. (Sangiovese 100%)  

Ruffino, San Lorenzo, Gran Selezione, 2016

Very much the same style as the Riserva Ducale but just a little rounder and deeper, modern style faintly relieved at end by savory hints. Good depth and potential to develop flavor variety.   (Sangiovese 83%; Merlot 12%; Colorino 5%)

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