Chianti Classico Revamps

You’ve got to hand it to those Chianti Classico producers. They don’t rest on their laurels. Even though they’ve got the most famous wine name in all of Italy, they don’t coast. Instead, they’re busy as beavers changing and updating virtually everything they do, from vineyard to cellar, raising the bar ever higher.

Out with the old (left) and in with the new

Out with the old (left) and in with the new

That’s been going on for few decades now. It desperately needed to be done, as any babyboomer will attest. (We survived not only sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, but thin, weedy Chiantis.)

Now everything’s changed. Every time I visit the region—about twice year—it’s clear that Chianti Classico is a land of overachievers. And god bless ’em. They’re constantly tinkering with vineyard density, trellising, and clones. And they’ve gradually changed Chianti Classico’s very identity, moving it from its original 1860s recipe (sangiovese, canaiolo, and colorino, plus a softening splash of white malvasia or trebbiano) to today’s big-tent definition that includes not only blends with international grapes, but also pure sangiovese, that fine-blooded but temperamental Arabian stallion of Tuscan grapes. Even in the blended Chiantis, the trend is towards ever-increasing amounts of sangiovese. (The white grapes, meanwhile, have been unceremoniously pushed out of the tent for good.)

Gone with the wind: the old Chianti fiasco

Gone with the wind: the old Chianti fiasco

The revamped rooster & 3-tier system

Paul Wagnerof Balzac Communication said it well when introducing the seminar accompanying the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico Grand Tasting, held in New York last week. When teaching Chianti Classico, he noted, “it’s less like medieval history, which doesn’t change too much, and more like slang or modern English, which changes continuously.”

Last week we learned more change is afoot. As announced in a jazzy video, the black rooster has gotten a makeover and now the trademark has a “livelier, more contemporary” look.

But behind the window dressing, there are deeper changes: Consortium president Sergio Zingarelli of Rocca della Macie announced a new three-tier pyramid for Chianti Classico, which goes into effect in 2013.

The bottom tier is your basic Chianti Classico, now dubbed Chianti Classico Annata. Other than that word annata (meaning vintage), nothing much changes here; it’s still 12 months of aging. This entry level indicates a fresher, fruitier style of Chianti Classico.

Next rung up is Chianti Classico Riserva, a category that’s been around for awhile. It requires double the aging (24 months, including three in bottle). The riserva label suggests a more powerful, age-worthy wine—one that uses better grapes, possibly more time in wood, and definitely more oomph.

New is the top tier: Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. This requires grapes to be estate grown and estate bottled, and aging increases to 30 months. Both it and the riserva have updated, presumably intensified “chemical and organoleptic parameters,” per the consortium. Gran Selezione will clearly be the grand master of Chiantis, perhaps intended to challenge its rival to the south, Brunello di Montalcino. (In a price/value comparison, Chianti is already the hands-down winner.)

Is this new three-tier system good? No doubt most Americans will blithely ignore it. But for those who do pay attention, it could be a blessing.

Because, let’s face it, it’s hard to know what’s inside a bottle of Chianti Classico, given the variables of blending, maturation, and microclimate in this sizable wine zone. And no one can possibly know all the Chianti producers and their house style firsthand. There are 365 consortium members who bottle their own wine—one for each day of the year. That’s a lot of Chianti to taste through. So clues like Annata, Riversa, and Gran Selezione just might help.

Pat's chianti picks

At the walkaround tasting, where 26 Chianti Classico wineries showed their wares, that range in style was apparent. And so was the overarching quality.

I gravitated toward some old friends who make what I consider benchmark wines: There was Casa Emma’s lovely and amiable Chianti Classico 2010, a traditional blend (with 10% canaiolo and malvasia nera) that always foregrounds ripe red fruit—a perfect lunch wine. Moving up the ladder was Capannelle’s Chianti Classico Riserva Capanelle 2007, a pure sangiovese that’s as refined as the Relais-quality hotel on their property, and Fontodi’s sought-after Chianti Classico Riserva Vigna del Sorbo 2009. Despite its dose of cabernet (5%) and 24 months in new oak, this cru from the conco d’oro or golden bowl of Panzano is an exemplary Chianti Classico, showing the finesse that characterizes this high-altitude subzone.

Good old Ruffino keeps stepping up to the plate with its 2007 vintage of Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale Oro. (2007 was a fantastic year in Tuscany, by the way, and the winemakers said 2012 looks good as well.) It was a pleasure to taste Ruffino’s top Chianti Classico again—this one blended with 20% cab/merlot—and see how it’s so consistently elegant and supple. (For more on this historically interesting estate, see my story Time Traveler: A Day with the Ambassador of Ruffino, in the March/April 2013 issue of Tastes of Italia.)

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised with Rocca della Macie’s Chianti Classico Riserva Famiglia Zingarelli 2008, a modern blend with cab and merlot (5% each). I admit I’d previously shied away from this estate because of its huge size. (At 3- to 5-million bottles annually, it’s the fifth largest winery in the zone.) But by gosh, this was my favorite wine during the seminar, and it appealed again during the walkaround. And no, that wasn't just because owner Sergio Zingarelli is the new DOCG head (nor because his father, Italo, produced dozens of spaghetti westerns). I liked its mouth-watering acidity (sangiovese’s benchmark) combined with fruit as sweet and ripe as grandma’s cherry pie. Ripples of earth and tobacco gave it that old-world Tuscan touch that I find so appealing. I’ll be looking for this wine at restaurants next time we’re in Chianti.

And that, folks, will be this coming July on our  Tuscan Wine Treasures tour. So join La Dolce Vita Wine Tours there, taste Chianti Classico in situ, and see for yourself how far it’s come.