Wine notes

Friday 31 October 2008


Chianti Classico producer Il Borghetto’s fetish for Burgundian bottles has fallen foul of the Consorzio. 

Tim Manning, winemaker of Il Borghetto, an estate in Tuscany’s San Casciano, discovered recently that the regulations regarding bottle shape can change rather quickly and, in doing so, restrict him from continuing to fill the estate’s Chianti Classico in the sloping shouldered Burgundian bottles pictured here. 

Originally from Liverpool, Manning came to Tuscany in 2004 on the back of vintages in New Zealand and Oregon where he had been working with Pinot Noir. He immediately saw similarities between Burgundy’s mainstay and Tuscany’s principal red grape variety, Sangiovese. Both are capricious varieties to grow, both are able to produce great wines of supple elegance which can express perfectly their origin, and both require a certain attention to winemaking detail to ensure that the subtleties of the grape find their way through to the bottle.

However, more important than vinification methods is the grape variety itself: Sangiovese depends more on perfume and elegance and less on extract and muscle. And although the addition of so called international grape varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, can easily blur these characteristics, it is these blends that (legally) have become the norm in Chianti Classico rather than a 100% varietal Sangiovese.

From the very beginning the idea of giving Sangiovese free rein had determined Il Borghetto’s planting scheme, with six clones of Sangiovese matched to 15 different vineyard blocks. According to Manning, they make Sangiovese a little like one might make Pinot Noir: each block is fermented separately, while in some ferments a percentage of whole bunches, stems and all, are added to give a fine backbone of tannin. 

Manning explains that if most Chianti Classico is a blended wine like those of Bordeaux and filled in a Bordeaux bottle, then their Chianti Classico in its 100% Sangiovese form is more Burgundian and the Burgundian bottle has been chosen to show this. He adds that they did it out of the conviction that Sangiovese is a bit like Pinot and as such it maybe best express itself unadulterated by any foreign, or even indigenous, additions.
The message is the bottle, and as such must have been picked up by the bureaucrats too, who have only recently started to change the rules, specifying the exact bottle shape Chianti Classico should be seen in. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it stipulates the use of Bordeaux bottles only, a decision which is soon to become legally binding.

The apparent haste to get the legislation through after more than half a century of silence on the subject seems curious. It could give rise to the speculation that the officials would like to see everybody in line in order to prevent the controversial issue of international grape varieties in one of Italy’s most famous wines made visible by a ‘Bordeaux bottle vs Burgundy bottle’ war, the latter being supported by small, artisanal operations trying to elaborate on terroir and embracing vintage differences, while the first is firmly supported by the larger producers (and even larger bottlers) who see their salvation in Merlot & Co, especially when Sangiovese is unaccommodating in less than ideal vintages.

The biggest surprise for Manning however, must be the fact that until he started using the Burgundian bottle, not a single attempt had been made previously to specify the shape. Although the Consorzio seems to act as if it were completely unaware of this, it remains curious, to say the least, that Il Borghetto’s wines, in their heretical form, have on several occasions passed through the offices of the Consorzio to be presented at various tastings. 

If Manning wants to keep his bottle as a message, he will have to label his wine under the lower IGT qualification, and as the regulations don’t seem to leave him any other choice, we may yet see again another producer who could add credibility to Chianti Classico’s battered reputation pushed out of the boat. 

On the up side of things: at least if he is forced to sell his wine as an IGT rather than as a Chianti Classico, he can probably charge a higher price for it now.