Wine notes

Saturday 20 September 2008

Embracing acidity


The Consorzio of Chianti Classico, the association of producers and bottlers of that most emblematic of Italian wines (often for all the wrong reasons), is one of the most switched on when it comes to promoting the product on a national and international scale. It plays a far bigger role in upgrading the wine than most producers would be willing to admit, by means of ongoing research in all areas concerning the production of Chianti Classico, from viticultural aspects (for example, it ignited a continuous investigation at the beginning of the 1980s in superior clones) to laboratory analysis of the wines and indepth soil composition research, in an effort to pull Chianti Classico out of the shadow of its former mediocrity.
It also fights an ongoing battle in educating the general public (and not a few wine professionals too) about the fact that Chianti Classico is the original zone and has precious little to do with wines, which are marketed under the straight Chianti designation, and which tend to come from a much larger region produced with less stringent regulation, especially when it comes to total yields. These insipid wines, which can be found back in supermarkets, do nothing to help and bring out the quality message the Chianti Classico Consorzio is so eager to push. A sole exception may be Chianti Rufina, a sub region Northeast from Florence, where the vineyards are generally higher than on average in the area, resulting in higher acidity in the final wines, guaranteeing a long life, and which a are far cry from the stuff we know as plain Chianti. However, it still may represent a style most Chianti lovers are unfamiliar with, as we are now so used to big, extracted, deeply coloured and almost sweet reds.

Acidity, by the way (in combination with lower alcohol levels) is the new buzz word in the UK wine scene, which is desperate to promote more digestible and food compatible wines, as it feels the hot breath in its neck of the legislator, who is trying to curb alcohol intake and in this effort discredits all alcoholic beverages (ironically enough, statistics seem to point in an altogether different direction suggesting we drink less alcoholic drinks than ever).

The Consorzio of Chianti Classico launches annually the latest vintages in a near perfect tasting in Florence, where literally hundreds of samples are available for professionals to taste in an airy and very impressive former train station, Stazione Leopolda. The tasting allows professionals to sit down and have sommeliers pour all samples for them during two days. A greater luxury is hardly conceivable. A spin off of this huge event this time representing only 40 odd producers while focusing on estates, which are imported to the UK market, was held in London last May. Although a smaller version compared to its Italian counterpart it nevertheless attracts the likes of Jancis Robinson, who worked herself through the samples, making it abundantly clear that the event provides the most efficient way of assessing a vintage only a tube ride away from home. Sommeliers and wine suppliers take note.

The Consorzio seems to be well aware of the fact that a lack of knowledge about the Classico zone hinders a greater understanding and forms the main obstacle in obtaining a premium price for the wines. This in turns makes it difficult for producers, who are genuinely convinced of the quality of the main grape, Sangiovese, to get a proper return for their financial and timely efforts in the vineyards. Planting the right clones and bringing down total yields come at a cost, which at the same time is continuously compromised by the large production of cheap low quality wines, which nevertheless lawfully carry the Chianti Classico designation. It is therefore no wonder that many producers still believe in international grape varieties, notably Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, to beef up the wines for an international market that is not used to acidity as a main structuring element in the taste of Chianti Classico. These grapes however have a considerable impact on the style of wines, and tend to dominate the characteristic perfume Sangiovese imparts. The wines become more international in style, and at the same time seem to strengthen many producers in the false belief that Sangiovese cannot stand on its own legs. How otherwise could one explain for the generous 20% of “other grape varieties” (read: the international suspects) the law sanctions in the blend, and in doing so purporting this erroneous view. Nicholas Belfrage recently remarked dryly in this context, that it would be like allowing Sangiovese in the wines of Bordeaux: “The French would go apeshit”. Yet no such reaction is to be seen from the side of the legislator.

The Consorzio seems also to have a hunch of the jadedness of the average wine professional, who is pampered with such an affluence of wine events in London on a daily basis, that a mere tasting, even a comprehensive one, is no longer regarded as relevant. What seems to pull the crowd are seminars and Master Classes (a much over used word nowadays), offering sensible background information, which can be turned into immediate use for journalists, sommeliers and wine buyers alike. The intriguingly named seminar preceding the London tasting, “Does height make a difference? – Chianti Classicos from different altitudes” certainly attracted well deserved attention and it lead the way immediately back to acidity as one of Sangiovese’s main parameters.

The seminar tutored by the Consorzio’s in house and very knowledgeable oenologist Daniele Rosselini, with the ubiquitous Peter McCombe at his side, focused on the influence of altitude on the style of wines from the Chianti Classico region. It is an intriguing and ambitious concept, based on the fact that the make up of the soils in the Chianti Classico zone is so endlessly complex, with several soil types occurring within a single vineyard, that it is virtually impossible to “map” the zone neatly into separate communes on basis of a specific soil type analogous to Bordeaux to explain for terroir characteristics and wine styles.

There is no doubt that vineyard altitude has an impact on fruit ripeness and quality, but most estates within the zone have a multitude of vineyards with different exposures, aspects and altitudes and as the majority of wines are almost always assemblages of these different patches of land, this blending can be used to even out or compensate for different ripeness levels of the fruit, Bordeaux being the most obvious example of this practice.
The question put before us was if a clear trend would be visible, and to this means two flights of wines were tasted, the first consisting of wines from vineyards between 450 – 600 m, and the second between 250 – 350m.
Logically, one would expect a much higher level of acidity in the wines originating from the higher vineyards, and vice versa. However, the limited amounts of samples shown did not allow for such broad generalisation, not least due to the fact that not all samples were a 100% Sangiovese. Wine making techniques putting their stamp on several of the wines showed to be another determining factor. Still, even without being able to draw a final conclusion it confronted the professional audience with the strong suggestion, that Sangiovese is first and foremost about its inimitable perfume followed by an acidic bite embedded in a sweet red fruit coating creating what the Germans call “spiel”, a game between fruit sweetness and acidity combating for dominance, a sensation which the addition of Cabernet and Merlot seem to dampen on the palate.

The attempt to map style by altitude may have not been immediately obvious from the seminar but fact is, that several young producers I met during my sojourn last year in Chianti Classico are busy acquiring vineyards on higher altitude to use its fruit as a much needed component in creating Chianti Classico with freshness and uplifting aromatics light years away from the stewed fruit we have come to expect from the wines. They may have gotten closer to a truly terroir driven style than ever before in Chianti’s century old history.

The wines in the flights below where known beforehand to the tasters, however, the exact grape variety blend was revealed afterwards.

Flight 1 (450 – 600m)
1) 2006 Chianti Classico - Monteraponi
Tight but serious, marked by cedar and cherry jam – quite truthful. Marked acidity underlines fresh cherry fruit, with very soft tannins, lifting the palate and is of the perfumed school if very restraint. Will need more time. Soft alcoholic touch on the finish. 480m. 90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo, no temperature control during fermentation followed by punching down, 10% aged in barrique. 13% vol

2) 2006 Chianti Classico – Borgo Scopeto
Quite deep. Opens earthy and medicinal, with brooding fruit on alcohol. Full bodied and at the same time somewhat lean, with soft drying tannins and considerable acidity on the finish. Shy on aroma, but will change with time, tannins are at this moment dominant. Seems better balanced (i.e. less alcoholic than no1, but also less fun at this stage). From Castelnuovo Berardenga (but Peter says the estate has a cooler microclimate than normally associated with this commune – due to altitude?). Stainless steel fermentation, the wine is aged in large oak barrels. 100% Sangiovese. 13% vol.

3) 2006 Chianti Classico Fattoria Montenaggio
Subdued fruit with alcoholic prickle and spicy oak on the nose. Fruit cake too, markedly high in acidity and powdery, drying tannins. Red fruit and touch of lead pencil, and quite restraint, even closed on the finish. Tannins become more dominant, but should work out fine with a year or two in the bottle. From the commune of Radda in Chianti, Mostly Sangiovese with the addition of Merlot. Vineyards are between 450-600m. Fermented in stainless steel and concrete vats. Malolactic fermentation and maturation in Slovanian oak. Andrea Pauletti is the estate’s consultant. 13.5% vol.

4) 2006 Chianti Classico Collelunga
Openly seductive with obvious oak and vanilla, the popular school. Oak also shows on the palate but more complex. High acidity carries fragrant fruit, but less opulent on the nose. Still great sweet-sour impression followed by quite drying, persistent tannins. Will make a great bottle at the dinner table. From the commune of Castellina in Chianti . 90% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot. Fermented in stainless steel, and maturation for 12 months in second year barrique. Consultant Alberto Antonini, who also works in new world (Argentina, etc). 450 -600m. 13.5% vol.

Flight 2 (250-350m)
1) 2006 Chianti Classico Castello di Monsanto
Opens slightly sweaty and alcoholic but with brooding fruit. Touch of kitchen spice.
Closed on the palate, and still lots of acidity, but seems rounder than previous sample. Soft, drying, somewhat rustic tannins, on a closed finish. 90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo and Colorino. From the commune of Barberino. 13% vol.

2) 2006 Chianti Classico Castello di Vicchiomaggio
Looking already mature. Earthy fruit with cherry and a touch of strawberry preserve and fruit cake. Round and fullbodied, with hints of sweeet fruit and a touch of oak. Quite well integrated acidity, and very nice sweet sour bite. Dusty (oak) tannins on the finish. 90% Sangiovese, 5% Colorino, 5% Canaiolo, but Peter wonders whether another grape (starting with C) found its way into the blend. 13% vol.

3) Chianti Classico Ruffino
VERY dark (international grapes?). Opulent, sweet fruit nose, with a touch of kitchen spice and lead pencil. Touch of fruitcake. Full attack, with sweet fruit, followed by highish acidity and crunchy tannins, leaving quite fresh and concentrated finish. Fruit still compact, will need more time, and although tannic it should have a great future. From the commune of Castelllina in Chianti. 5% other varieties…Stainless steel temperature controlled fermentation followed by malolactic in tank and barrel. 8 months in oak. 13.5% vol.

4) 2006 Chianti Classico Savignola Paolina
Dark fruits and spice, meaty notes too, but not particularly open. Quite lean and restraint fruit with drying tannins. Closed on the finish with some fruit aroma and oak. Wait. 85% Sangiovese with 15% Malvasia (seems to ripen roughly at the same time as Merlot, but needs close monitoring when reaching full maturity in the vineyard) and Colorino. 13.5% vol.