Visiting Chianti Classico 
Part 1: Introduction   

There is one drawback to visiting a wine region at harvest time: everyone is busy with more important matters than entertaining journalists – namely, getting their grapes in and making wine. But this disadvantage is outweighed by the massive plus of seeing grapes being picked and processed, which for a wine nut like me is just so exciting.

In October I visited Chianti Classico country, on a trip organized by the Consorzio, the official body of the region. Tuscany, with its gently rolling hills, is beautiful most of the year, but in the gentle October sunshine, with pickers in the vineyards, it has a particular beauty. 

There’s no getting away from it: Tuscany is utterly seductive, and the Chianti Classico region, in the heart of the province between Florence and Siena, is a wonderful place to spend a few days. The hill-top villages and scattered farmhouses blend seamlessly into the landscape, and the whole place has a real sense of history. And then there’s the food. It seems as if it’s hard to eat badly here, although I’m sure it must be possible.

The visit began at the Consorzio for an introduction to the region and an overview of the progress made in Chianti Classico in recent years.

Some background. The Chianti Classico area is the oldest, central part of Chianti country. It’s slap bang in the middle of Tuscany and covers 70 000 hectares. 10 000 hectares of vines are planted, and 7100 of these are Chianti Classico vineyards. Classico was the first of the DOCG Chianti subregions; since then, seven more have been added (you’ll probably recognize names such as Colli Senesi or Ruffina appended to Chianti). Outside Chianti Classico there are 20 000 hectares of vineyards in the broader Chianti area.

The soils vary quite a bit, and it’s not easy to make a link between the geology and the way the wine tastes. This is partly because the geological map of the areas doesn’t correspond to the administrative boundaries of the region. Some of the names you might come across include:

  • Galestro, a friable marl of layered limestone and sandstone

  • Macigno: a hard grey/blue sandstone

  • Alberese: compact clay and limestone mainly found in the south central zone

  • Calcareous tufa: found throughout the south

Altitude varies from 250-600 metres, and the climate is continental, with cold winters and hot summers. Summer temperatures can top 35 °C here, and sometimes even reach 40. Rainfall is 700-800 mm annually, mainly in Autumn and spring. Recently, the weather has become more unpredictable, and harvest has been brought forward a little by warmer growing season temperatures.

In the vineyards, the viticulture is fairly standard. The vines are grown on vertical trellises and pruning is single or double Guyot (can pruning, leaving one or two canes – last years shoots) or spur-pruned cordon (where the vine has permanent arms with a number of short two or three bud spurs left on them). There's a variation on the Guyot theme that's called archetto Toscano (archetto = bow), which is where a bend in the cane limits the vigour of the end shoot, which is typically more vigorous in cane-pruned vines.

Tilling is widely practiced, although cover-cropping is now increasingly common, allowing the vineyards to be worked when they are wet, and preventing erosion. Many different planting densities have been tried, but 4500-6000 plants per hectare seems to work best.

But the key to Chianti is Sangiovese, the red grape variety on which Chianti is based. 20 years ago, it looked like high-end Tuscan producers would move away from Sangiovese towards Bordeaux grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Accompanying this shift was the use of new barriques, as opposed to the more traditional Botti – large oak casks made typically of Slavonian oak. Indeed, these have been the two 'fault lines' in the Tuscan fine wine scene: tradition versus modernity expressed in terms of both grape varieties and oak use. 

The modernists looked to be winning, with new 'supertuscan' wines achieving critical acclaim. These wines had to be sold as IGT Toscana, with no mention of Chianti on them. But there's been a shift of late back to making top wines from just (or mostly) Sangiovese. The rules have recently changed a bit so that in Chianti Classico it is now possible to make a varietal Sangiovese (bizarrely, it wasn't before – you had to include a small proportion of other varieties), and it is lawful to have up to 20% of other varieties in the blend. These could be the native grapes Canaiolo and Colorino (a teinturier variety with red flesh) or Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Despite this and previous rule relaxations, which would have brought some of the supertuscans back into the fold, it is common to find high-end producers with both Chianti Classico Riservas and IGT wines at the top of their portfolio. This is because IGT wines now have a sort of cachet to them, even though it is supposedly a lesser designation. 

Sangiovese is a difficult variety, but one with bags of personality. However, it is hard to determine how much of the character of Chianti Classico comes from the grape variety and how much from the terroir. What do I mean by this? Well, Sangioivese travels badly and rarely produces more than barely adequate wines outside Tuscany. And when other red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are planted in Tuscany, they seem to have more Tuscan character than they do varietal character. There's something about Tuscany that imprints itself on the wines.

There's been a lot of recent work on the various clones of Sangiovese by the Consorzio. Sangiovese was first properly documented in the 15th century. It’s difficult to cultivate, and is genetically unstable (a bit like Pinot Noir), which means that clones differ widely in their performance. There are two basic types: grosso (also known as dolco or gentile) and piccolo (also known as forte or montanino). As well as this, there are loads of synonyms: Brunello, Montepulciano, Morellino, Pignolo, Sangioveto, Prugnolo gentile and so on.

In the 1970s there was a revolution of viticulture in Chianti, but while the vineyards were renovated they were replanted with clones aiming at high production, with little colour. The move now is to replace these with clones that have small bunches with small berries, and in which the berries aren’t packed closely together, which makes them more disease susceptible. Currently 60 clones are authorized for planting.

In 2000 the Consorzio started a project looking at identifying the best clones, to make these available to growers. They have 1.5 million plants of these new clones which they planted in 2001. The project began with 239 clones, and this has been whittled down to 7 that are recognized to be superior.

Finally, some thoughts on marketing. Chianti is one of those wine regions where the appellation is used as a brand. Very few consumers will know the names of any Tuscan wine producers, but they will likely recognize the name ‘Chianti’. For older consumers, this might be associated with the old-style flask-like Chianti bottle in wicker baskets (some supermarkets still sell this), but for most, their experience of Chianti will be of an inexpensive supermarket version.  These wines are simple, a little bit rustic, and generally rather charmless.

But what about Chianti Classico? Will this work as a brand in a similar way? I suspect not. ‘Classico’ appended to ‘Chianti’ might sound a bit grander, a bit like the widespread use of the term ‘Reserve’ on new world wines with aspirations. Why? Because the sorts of consumers who are going to eschew £4-6 Chianti for £10-18 Chianti Classico will be using more sophisticated and reliable buying cues such as the producer name or a wine merchant’s hand sell to help them make their choice.

And as for breaking Chianti Classico up into its various sub-regions, I don’t see the point. The only sensible reason to have a geographical indicator for wine is where that particular locale produces wines with distinct character. Now if you can tell me what the differences are between the wines from Castelnuovo and Gaiole, and back that up with some examples of this regional character, then I’ll admit you have a point. But even then, the message might be getting just a little too difficult for all consumers.

Winegrowers the world over see regionality as the key for differentiating their product in the market place and charging higher prices for it. But this regionality has to be accessible to the people buying the wines,  and even then, there’s a strong chance of confusing them. And as for charging higher prices, you need to ask whether there is a market there for more expensive wine from your region, no matter how good that wine might be.

While I’m at it, one further point. Chianti Classico will only work as a brand if the name on the bottle is a reliable guide to quality. Chianti Classico must be consistently good if it is to be of value as a purchasing cue, and the Consorzio must make sure that every bottle reaching the market with this brand is of sufficient quality, something which is very hard to regulate. The biggest enemy of Chianti Classico is inexpensive Chianti Classico that has no real merit to it, and which therefore devalues the brand.

So I begin my exploration of Chianti Classico with a visit to one of the top estates of the region, Fontodi.


Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Fontodi
Part 3: Castello di Querceto
Part 4: Castello della Paneretta
Part 5: Bibbiano
Part 6: Fattoria di Felsina
Part 7: Castell'in Villa
Part 8: Palazzino
Part 9: Barone Ricasoli
Part 10: Colle Lungo
Part 11: Vicchiomaggio

Wines tasted 10/08  
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