Will Gran Selezione Pull Chianti Classico Out of the Doldrums?

On my research visit to Tuscany last month for the Guide to Wines of Tuscany, I spent a morning at Rocca Delle Macìe, where I had a long conversation with Sergio Zingarelli, presently the chairman of the Consorzio of Chianti Classico. Founded by Sergio’s father in 1973 as a small winery, Rocca Delle Macìe has grown to include four estates in Chianti Classico and two in Maremma, and its total annual production is numbered in millions of bottles. The original winery is a tiny building now used to store botti, and around it is a gracious courtyard with family buildings and a tasting room; just below is the large, modern winery. I’m going to report the conversation verbatim without much commentary, as it casts an interesting light on the great progress being made in Chianti.

roccamacie1The black rooster in the courtyard at Rocca Delle Macìe

“The quality of Chianti Classico had increased a lot, due to changes in the cellar and the work on the Sangiovese grapes,” Sergio started, “but the image was not up to the level of the wines and the wineries. There are two big problems. One is the confusion between Chianti and Chianti Classico. We’ve given the black rooster more visibility, and we hope everyone will put Gallo Nero on the neck in the future.” This refers to the emblem of Chianti Classico—which is prominent as a large metal sculpture in the courtyard at Rocca Delle Macìe. [Chianti tout court refers to the huge area around Chianti Classico which also produces wines based on Sangiovese, but it is a completely separate DOCG with different regulations.]

“The second problem is that the best wines from the best wineries were not Chianti but IGT [the so-called super-Tuscans]. People would ask why the top wines were not Chianti Classico if they come from the Chianti Classico area and fit within the rules for the Chianti Classico blend.” The answer to this has been to introduce a new category, Gran Selezione, starting with the 2011 vintage. “It took two years to decide the name of the new category. The idea is that it has to represent the very best. In 2014 the first presentation was by 24 wineries with Gran Selezione; now there are over 100 wineries. Even some of the wineries that voted against have started the production of Gran Selezione. It’s important that the commission tastes the wine.” A big difference from Riserva (which still exists) is that wines must be approved: when I asked how often a wine is rejected, Sergio would not be drawn into details, but said that it’s certainly not a pro forma procedure.

I asked about the controversial decision that Gran Selezione is restricted to a producer’s own grapes, but not to an individual vineyard. Sergio gave a big sigh—obviously this had been a hard fought point. “No, it’s not required—but most of them do, 80 or 90%.” An informant in the Consorzio explained that there are some important top Chianti Classicos that don’t come from single vineyards, a prominent example being Ruffino’s Ducale Oro (which actually comes from two estates in the same commune). Ruffino wanted this to be Gran Selezione. “It was difficult to say no to Ruffino…”

Will IGTs be relabeled as Gran Selezione, I asked? “This is our goal. We are waiting.” In the meantime, some new top cuvées have become Gran Selezione, including Rocca Delle Macìe’s wine named for its owner. “The Sergio Zingarelli cuvée would have been an IGT if the Gran Selezione category had not been created,” Sergio says. I have come across a couple of former super-Tuscans that are now labeled as Gran Selezione, but most producers tell me they do not plan to change the label.

Chianti is a large area, covering seven or so communes, with different soil types, and climatic variation from north to south and from low to high elevations, so I asked whether producers will be allowed to indicate zones on labels. Wouldn’t this be a useful movement towards distinguishing character? “We are working to see what geographical information could be included. If we divided by soils and geography we would have to have 100 different classifications. We have to work by steps. Now we are working to have more information on the label where a wine comes from; if this happens it will probably be for Gran Selezione and Riserva.”

The rules for Chianti Classico have undergone continual evolution from the old regulations requiring white grapes to be included and limiting the proportion of Sangiovese (both factors that drove many top wines into the super-Tuscan category). Today Sangiovese has to be at least 80%, white grapes are forbidden, and international varieties can be included, but there’s something of a move back to indigenous varieties. “In the eighties when we understood we had to improve the quality, a lot of wineries felt they had to use international varieties because it was difficult to reliably produce high quality with Sangiovese. But with Chianti Classico 2000 [a research project to develop better grape varieties], we found several clones of Sangiovese and one each of Colorino and Canaiolo that are high quality for Chianti. For example, in a vineyard my father planted with 3,000 plants/ha, we could have two weeks difference in ripening between adjacent plants. We’ve analyzed the soil and replanted at more or less double density, and we don’t have the same problems with ripening. With these changes probably the international grapes will begin to decrease. Twenty years ago some people wanted to increase the international proportion allowed, but now this is anachronistic; people are increasing Sangiovese and indigenous grapes. I think in the natural way Sangiovese will increase—but I think Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are important grapes in the area.”

I admit I was sceptical when I first encountered Gran Selezione. However, whereas at the first showing, most Gran Seleziones were the same cuvées that had previously been labeled as Riservas, in Tuscany last month I found many new cuvées, often representing single vineyards or specific terroirs, and the quality was a definite step up from where Riservas used to be. Is Chianti Classico closing in on Brunello di Montalcino (where the wines have to be 100% Sangiovese) in terms of quality?

Thoughts about the Modernization of Chianti

Judging from the wines at this week’s Definitive Italian tasting in London, Chianti Classico is making great strides towards more uniform quality, although wines seem to be diverging in two direction. The event showed wines from all over Italy, of course, but I find its organization, with each importer presenting an array of wines from all over the country, rather confusing for getting a bead on what’s happening in each area, so this year I just concentrated on Chianti Classico.

The big news in Chianti Classico, of course, was the introduction of the Gran Selezione category in 2013 as a new top tier. (Chianti Classico must age for 12 months, Riserva for 24 months, and Gran Selezione for 30 months. Grapes for Gran Selezione 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. 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, previously the top level, but now a middle tier.)

Gran Selezione to date has been a mixture of Riservas relabeled with the new category and new cuvées being introduced for the category. The wines definitely seem richer (and more alcoholic) giving the impression that they come from the ripest grapes. However, I’m not sure that I necessarily prefer them to the Riservas or even to general Chianti Classico.

There are eight different communes with Chianti Classico, but although producers may be conscious of their individual characteristics, I don’t think this has much impact for the consumer. There’s a tendency for wines from the warmer areas to be richer—Castellina-in-Chianti or Castelnuova Berardenga, for example—but with improvements in viticulture there’s also a tendency for Sangiovese to be planted at higher altitudes than used to be thought desirable, which gives a finer quality.

Chianti seems to be evolving towards two extreme styles. I think of them as red fruit and black fruit. What you might call traditional shows lively red fruits with a spectrum in the direction of sour red cherries, with a tang of savory acidity at the end. The black fruit wines have a more modern impression, with greater density on a softer palate, less obvious acidity, and sometimes tannins evident at the end.

There may be a tendency for the modern class to have more in the way of international varieties and more often to be matured in barriques, but you can find both 100% Sangiovese and blended wines in either category, and wines matured in the traditional large casks in either category. Gran Selezione tends to show less delicacy and more weight.

I would not say it’s a mistake to use barriques or new oak, but the effect is to reduce what I think of as the typicity of Sangiovese from Chianti, that delicious savory counterpoise to the red fruits. At their best, wines in traditional style can have a wonderful silky delicacy. For my taste, it’s the wines in the red fruit category that really express the freshness I expect in Chianti, but there are lovely wines in both categories, and it may well be that the more modern wines have greater success in today’s market.

The problem is that unless you really know the producer, there’s little indication of what to expect. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s a confusion of styles, but I was unable, even with the detailed information provided by producers about proportions of grape varieties and methods of vinification, to predict before tasting what would be the style of any particular wine.

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.