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.

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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.

Brunello In Between

The official line on Brunello di Montalcino in 2009 is that it’s a very good, but not quite the best vintage—“four star, not five star,” says Fabrizio Bindocci, President of the Consorzio. From the wines presented at the Consorzio’s event in New York January 27, I’d be more inclined to give it three stars. The word most often being used to describe the vintage was “plush” but that is not an adjective I would use.

The most noticeable feature is the extreme variability, from wines that have tight red fruits with punishing acidity to fruits with more black fruits and smooth elegance. The vintage is being billed as perfect for restaurant wines, showing much less acidity and drinking much sooner than the 2008s, but I find this hard to see from comparing 2009s with 2008s at the tasting. The fact is that 2009 is so variable that it’s all but impossible to make a single generalization for the vintage. It’s fair to say that few if any wines rise above the level of restaurant wine into being worth consideration for the cellar: many in fact strike me as more what I expect from Rosso di Montalcino.

Most of the wines are around 14.5% alcohol, but this seems to fit quite naturally into their flavor spectrum and is surprisingly unobtrusive. But perhaps it’s not a coincidence that one of the wines I liked best came from the north, showing floral delicacy, and had only 14% alcohol; where one I liked least came from the south and with 15% alcohol made an altogether heavier impression. But although quite a number of  wines conformed to the stereotype of finesse and elegance from the north and greater power from the south, there were plenty of reversals: nor were the wines from high altitudes (up to 500 meters) necessarily any tighter or more acidic than those from down below. The type of oak (French versus Slovenian, barriques versus larger containers) seems to be just as important. Once again, it would be brave, if not foolhardy, to generalize.

I suppose it would be fair to say that the wines I liked best fell into two styles: those with floral finesse and red fruits (where more came from the north than the south);  and those with smooth black fruits, elegant and round (where most came from the center or south.) But one of the best wines supported all the traditional arguments for blending: a mix from north and south it had a combination of power and finesse, with good flavor variety.

One thing that is evident is that the debate between  modernists and traditionalists has run its course. There are certainly stylistic differences, but (at least in the wines represented at this event) they were less extreme than they were, say, ten years ago. I have to admit however that I did not like wines showing evident new oak.

The 2009s certainly seemed quite acidic enough, thank you, so I was worried about the official line that 2008 has more acidity and should be left longer before starting (and will age longer). Of course, Sangiovese is a variety known for its acidity, but to my mind the difference is more that the fruits in 2008 tend to be firmer, in fact in many cases greater fruit concentration absorbs the acidity better. It also seems to be a more consistent vintage, although firmness sometimes becomes a bit too sturdy. In fact, I think some of the 2008s are readier to drink now than the 2009s. The 2006s at the tasting tended to be rather tight, with a certain lack of generosity, and sometimes a little crisp.

The best wines at the tasting were the 2007s, perhaps partly because many of them were Riservas. Riserva isn’t always a sure fire bet in Brunello (they can be too much) but whenever it was possible to compare a 2007 Riserva with a regular bottling, it had an extra dimension and greater refinement. These wines had a combination of smoothness with greater complexity that lifted them well above any of the 2008s or 2009s. Among the latter two vintages, the most elegant 2009s carry the day; but sight unseen, there is a better statistical chance of enjoying a 2008 given the variability in 2009.