Chianti Classico: A brave new world

Justin Keay

Justin Keay

24 October 2019

It’s one of the world’s best-known wines, but Chianti Classico is experiencing difficulties with both consumers and the trade. What does the future hold? Justin Keay reports


 

Keynote Chianti

There are some 350 Chianti Classico producers. These are five of the best for your list:

Antinori

There’s no avoiding the impressive new Antinori winery as you drive south from Florence, and recent vintages have seen a return to form. The Peppoli is a good straightforward Annata, with the 2017 showing nice fruit and balance. Much more exciting are the Tignanello and the Badia a Passignano 2015. These wines deserve their reputation.

Berkmann

Principe Corsini

Duccio Corsini’s wines are a perfect expression of north Chianti Classico – elegant, focused and expressive. His Annata, Le Corti, is one of the best of its kind. Even better, though needing time to show their full potential are the Cortevecchia Riserva and the Gran Selezione Don Tommaso, both 2015. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement is the fully biodynamic IGT Fico, a delicious fruit-driven but remarkably balanced Sangiovese made by Duccio’s talented late son Filippo.

Astrum Wine Cellars

Fontodi

If anyone tells you they aren’t a fan of Chianti Classico, this is the producer to show them; the Annata is one of the best, a forceful expression of Panzano, and the wines get better as you rise through the range. His 100% Sangiovese Flaccianello della Pieve is set to become the estate’s second Gran Selezione, after Vigna del Sorbo.

Liberty Wines

Isole e Olena

When I asked Paolo de Marchi why his Gran Selezione is so expensive (£230 a bottle, retail price), he said it refl ected the tiny volume and the fact he wanted to make a statement. Well, given how well the wines are showing, he certainly has.

Liberty Wines

Frescobaldi

The range here gives a great overview of the wider Chianti region against which to compare the two Chianti Classicos, Tenuta Perano and Tenuta Perano Riserva. Impressive, well made and authoritative wines that give great expression of the region.

Hallgarten & Novum

At least since 1716 – when Cosimo de’ Medici of Florence recognised Chianti Classico as the world’s first officially designated wine region – writers, poets and painters have enthused about the captivatingly beautiful hilly land that lies between Florence and Siena.

That Room with a View? It probably looks onto Chianti Classico vines, so it is little wonder that producers are as enthusiastic as everyone else.

'Three years ago, I started walking from Siena’s Piazza del Campo early one morning and arrived in Florence’s Piazza della Signorina late the following day,’ says Tommaso Marrocchesi Marzi, owner of Bibbiano, one of the producers in the Castellina in Chianti commune. 'It made me realise how beautiful this land is and how inspirational.

'Importers and consumers likewise enthuse about a wine they say fully deserves its status as one of the world’s best known. 'Chianti Classico has an ineffable style that I think is impossible to replicate,’ says Berkmann’s Alex Hunt MW. ‘The wines have some of the structure and majesty of good Bordeaux, but where the blinds have been opened to reveal Tuscan sunshine. And there is a real brightness to the acidity. The best have weight, tension and balance with flavours that run from plummy right through to savoury. You just don’t find that combination anywhere else.

’Duccio Corsini’s winery Principe Corsini is located in Casciano, near Florence. It has been in his family for generations – the cellar was constructed in the 16th century and Duccio includes a pope amongst his ancestors – and the estate has everything you might expect: A renaissance-era villa, formal gardens, towering cypress trees, olive trees aplenty, even an award-winning restaurant. Corsini says his wines are very much of the land.

‘They need to be tidy, clean and elegant; most importantly, they must speak of this amazing, distinctive and historic terroir,’ he says, pointing to the softly undulating hills of his 250ha estate, of which just 50 are under vine. From that, in a typical vintage, Principe Corsini makes some 250,000 bottles of Chianti Classico.

Corsini says that because of soil and weather differences, there is a clear distinction between Chianti Classicos from the north – which tend to be more elegant and perfumed – and those from the south, towards Siena and particularly around Castelnuovo, or Panzano, which tend to be more fruit-driven and emphatic.‘But it is all Chianti Classico. I think of us as an island in the middle of the sea of Chianti. We stand above,’ he says.

GROWING FRUSTRATION

For some consumers, however, this distinction is not sufficient. Unlike say, Barolo, Barbaresco or Brunello, Chianti Classico isn’t especially trendy amongst those with deep pockets; even the high-end wines from top producers like Fontodi, Felsina or Antinori just don’t seem to have the cachet of those other ‘in’ regions. And for wine drinkers used to New-World styles, Chianti Classico is often, well... too much like hard work. It has lots of acidity, and Sangiovese’s often tough tannins don’t make for easy drinking in the same way that, say, a Primitivo from Puglia or a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo might.

‘They need to be tidy, clean and elegant; most importantly, they must speak of this historic terroir’

Duccio Corsini

The fact that these are very much food wines doesn’t help them at tastings; nor does the fact a Chianti Classico from one producer can taste very different from one made just down the road. Chianti Classico is 65% hills and altitude, coupled with the fact that the right exposure to sunlight is key to making the best expressions. ‘It is ironic that once they started producing better Chianti, the wine lost many “aficionados”.

With so many good Italian wines to choose from, Chianti has been relegated to the bottom of the pecking order,’ is the somewhat bleak assessment from Gino Nardella, head sommelier at The Stafford London. Frustrations in Chianti Classico have been reinforced by two tricky vintages; 2017 saw drought impact on production, with many producers unable to make their full range of wines due to the small harvest, while for some, 2018 saw too much rain. And then there have been the wider producer frustrations with the region.

A recent profile of Italian wine families in a leading British drinks publication saw Chianti Classico damned with faint praise, with one doyen saying of the region ‘we have some runners that need to be better trained’ and another senior spokesmanadmitting ‘we have to do something because sales have been quite flat for a while’. This despite all the considerable efforts of the Consorzio di Chianti Classico established in 1924; it won legal independence for Classico from the wider Chianti region in 1996 and has been seeking to put dark red wine between the two regions ever since.

Success in this area has, it must be said, been mixed. Even in Italy, the typical consumer still confuses the two. So while Sergio Zingarelli, head of the Rocca delle Macie winery and currently deputy president of the Consorzio says that ‘gradually I think people see that Chianti Classico wines are generally better and are also becoming more familiar with [the appellation’s] well-known vineyards’, others aren’t so sure. 'They have a really tough job: I wouldn’t want to do it,’ was the blunt assessment of the head of another Consorzio.

Ironically, the attempt to make Classico stand out has not been helped by producers in the wider Chianti region generally upping their game. This is perhaps most obvious in Chianti Rufina with producers like Frescobaldi, but it’s also true in the other six satellite Chianti appellations. Differentiation, purely in qualitative terms, is proving difficult.

THE MEANING OF QUALITY

Quality improvements began in the late 1980s, when the Consorzio brought in the Chianti Classico 2000 project, aimed at encouraging producers to plant better quality clones of Sangiovese and replace those whose strength was volume over quality.

The project, still ongoing, also aimed to improve overall viticulture and encourage wider use of traditional local varieties alongside Sangiovese, including Canaiolo, Colorino and Malvasia Nera. Other efforts have focused on the quality pyramid. In 2013, on top of the two existing tiers Annata (base level) and Riserva (aged a minimum 24 months including three in bottle), a new category, the Gran Selezione, was added. Grapes for the latter have to be grown in a single vineyard or estate and aged for at least 30 months, including three in bottle.

Critics claim Gran Selezione just gives producers an excuse to charge more for their wine. Producers, perhaps unsurprisingly, like it – though some think the minimum proportion of Sangiovese should be upped from the current level of 80%. There are similar debates within Chianti Classico, over which grape varieties should be used to 'top up’ the Sangiovese. Some producers advocate international varieties like Merlot, others veer more towards traditional indigenous varieties like Canaiolo, Malvasia Nera and Colorino.

Corsini, for one, is highly sceptical about the latter. 'Have you ever tasted a 100% Colorino?’ he asks. 'Don’t bother.’ While Malvasia Nera is, he says, fickle, producing maybe one good harvest in 10. Others, however, see the use of indigenous grapes as a way of staying true to the old traditions of Chianti Classico, and are planting them enthusiastically.

Finally, there is the big debate about whether Chianti Classico producers should be aiming to put menzioni geografiche aggiuntive – ie the commune name – on its labels. Fans think that this Burgundian model will boost regional specificity, but like all things here, it is not straightforward. There are many different soil types and microclimates within each of the proposed nine communes, so such sub-regional differentiation runs the risk of ending up being meaningless.

WHAT’S IN THE FUTURE FOR CHIANTI?

Many observers are confident now that the final pieces of the Chianti Classico 2000 masterplan are fitting into place. Producers have become significantly more focused on quality over the last 30 years, and quite a few are also opting for sustainable and organic practices in the vineyard, including some of the region’s best and most known producers. There is a sense, too, that the Consorzio – an intensely political organisation long-married to arcane regulations that critics say have stifled innovation in the region – is moving in the right direction and away from these old markers of its reputation, under the new presidency of Fontodi’s Giovanni Manetti.

'Not only is he an outstanding producer, he is absolutely the right man for the job,’ argues Sebastian Payne, Italy buyer for The Wine Society, adding that among the Consorzio’s pending decisions is whether to bring IGTs and Super Tuscans under the Chianti Classico umbrella. 'Chianti Classico is not just one wine and that message needs to sink in with consumers and indeed, the trade,’ he says. Fontodi’s Manetti echoes this, pointing to the stylistic differences between his impressive Annata – the 2016 vintage has just hit the UK – and his old-vine, single-estate Chianti Classico Filetta di Lamole, grown in vineyards just seven kilometres away, yet completely different. 'This is the real beauty of Chianti Classico – every village makes a different wine. There’s so much diversity and increasingly, so much quality.’

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