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?