Wine notes

Tuesday 7 April 2009


The Consorzio of Chianti Classico, the organisation which represents most of the producers and bottlers of the region, except for a few rebels and the likes of Antinori, who would rather spend the money on its own marketing, has always been one of the most proactive when it comes to promoting Chianti Classico.

It has the unenviable task of raising awareness of the fact that Chianti Classico is a whole different ballgame from straight Chianti. Although both denominations carry the highest quality designation, DOCG or Denominazione d’Orgine Controllata e Garantita, in the form of a pink banderol around the bottle’s neck, they are actually two separate designations, with Classico being the original, historic area, with much stricter regulations, especially with regards to yields, than the catch-all, do-whatever-you-like DOCG Chianti. This is not a distinction easily conveyed to the general public, especially when the name itself has been tarnished with mediocrity, and the difference between Chianti and Chianti Classico not a given in terms of quality either.

Since 2006, in an ongoing marketing effort to get international recognition for the progress the region and its wines have made, the Consorzio of Chianti Classico annually organises a showcase tasting in Florence - the Collezione Chianti Classico. It is an almost all-encompassing tasting of the most recent vintages held in a defunct and dramatic but sombre-looking 19th-century train station, Stazione Leopolda. Where once trains would roll in, now hundreds of Chianti Classico wines on tables as long as wagons are waiting to be poured to an international gathering of buyers and journalists by smart, if old fashioned-looking, sommeliers with tastevins dangling from their necks as if to prove their expertise.

At the beginning of the first of two days of solid tasting, Marco Pallanti, proprietor of Castello di Ama and the Consorzio’s current president, took only a couple of minutes to welcome the guests, explaining that the original Greek meaning of the word ‘crisis’ is ‘separating’ or ‘selecting’. The parallel to the current economic crisis that he sees is the fact that choices need to be made. He went on to say that he was certain that we would surely find something to select from the 350 or so offerings on show. This was mirrored by the surprising optimism the Consorzio showed in its press release, which stated that the region sees the recession as though from a ‘fortress’, since the majority of estates and wineries are wholly owned by their proprietors and therefore ‘quite immune to the fluctuations of the finance markets’. This confidence seemed naive, to say the least, especially as in the same breath the 100 million euro investments made over the last five years in the region were also mentioned. And investments, we all know, need to be earned back sooner or later.

While this two day tasting exercise clearly showed that the wines have in general improved considerably, the real question is: has the image of Chianti Classico in the consumer’s eye kept up with these quality improvements? In other words: can Chianti Classico sell itself confidently enough to recoup these investments?

One look at the grape variety blend that makes up Chianti Classico shows that Sangiovese as the sole ingredient for Chianti Classicos is rapidly gaining ground, although the law requires only an 80% minimum. In those wines which are not all Sangiovese, more often than not it is complemented by ancient Tuscan grape varieties such as Canaiolo, Colorino, Malvasia Nera and Pugnitello. But the fashion for a dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon and especially Merlot is not over yet. And as Canaiolo tends to be unreliable, giving irregular yields, its sudden popularity is not easily explained. Several wines were too deeply coloured and often too international in aroma to be wholly convincing as an expression of the Tuscan spirit.

This in itself is not surprising. Although Sangiovese is undoubtedly the most capable carrier of the Tuscan terroir message, many of the region’s vineyards are planted with clones that were selected for quantity rather than quality. Interestingly, a hectolitre of wine produced as Chianti Classico now fetches double that of something bearing the name Chianti. The direct result of this is that many unsuitable spots in the Classico region are planted with Sangiovese, which has led to a lowering of quality, as well as adding credibility to the assumption that Sangiovese is merely a good, rather than an excellent or even outstanding grape variety. This in turn makes it difficult for producers who are genuinely convinced of the quality of Sangiovese to get a proper return on their financial investments and timely efforts in the vineyards. Planting the right clones and bringing down total yields comes at a cost, which continues to be compromised by the still significant 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 structural element in Chianti Classico. These grapes, however, have a considerable impact on the style of the resulting wines, and tend to impair Sangiovese’s characteristic perfume on the one hand and compromise the ageability of the wines on the other, turning Sangiovese’s garnet colour into a brownish black ruby, with a nose dominated by tarry and tired fruit.

The Chianti Classico zone is also heavily dependent on winemaking consultants, who in some cases have acquired superstar status. Because the most celebrated of them are considered nothing less than a guarantee of return on investment due to their international exposure and their internationally appealing style of wine, some of the oenology courses at Italy’s universities are now over-subscribed. The Italian Association of Oenologists, Assoenologi, warned two years ago that the situation would lead to an over-representation of the profession. And while Assoenologi was worrying about how to guarantee enough employment, others were expressing concern about how this breed of professionals ‘detached from the land’ would ever be able to express the sacred notion of terroir in their wines – especially if they had so many clients that they could never truly study the special characteristics of specific plots of land over the long term.

But it is not all bad news. Fortunately, this year’s tasting showed the high quality 2007 vintage of Chianti Classicos, as well as the equally attractive 2006 Riservas, which, with their additional mandatory 24-month ageing period, are just appearing on the market. The general quality of the wines is high, pairing sweetness of fruit with tangy, biting acidity and long and fragrant fruit flavours. The wines are food partners par excellence, and while bistecca fiorentina is the clichéd match for a fine Chianti Classico, the best examples fare much better with subtler foods, especially after being allowed some bottle age.

A noticeable trend was that regular as opposed to Riserva Chianti Classico seemed a touch neglected, almost being treated as a ‘second wine’, with the best quality grapes reserved for the Riserva. Meanwhile, the price of regular Chianti Classico has increased substantially even though the level of concentration, balance and persistence does not always seem to warrant these prices. However, progress throughout is undeniable, and most producers have started to embrace Sangiovese’s fresh, crystal clear acidity which, in combination with its sweet, ripe red fruit flavours, creates agreeable tension and freshness on the palate.

A final, but nevertheless striking, observation from the Florentine fortress was that the UK trade and media seemed surprisingly under-represented. One can only conclude that the Consorzio’s resources are being channelled into other efforts and, especially, other markets, which seem more promising than the cooling UK market.

Could it be that the current government tax regime, with its steady if unpredictable increases in duty, is starting to affect the UK’s reputation as the world’s largest export market for wine, as well as its past image as prestigious shop window and the ‘place to be seen’ for any producer with international ambition? British supermarkets have certainly done their fair share of deflating the value of wine by suppressing price points to an absolute minimum, making the decision to invest in markets with a less harsh regime promising a much higher return seem a logical one. However, the long-term investment which the Chianti Classico Consorzio has built up in the UK over the past few years is bound to dissipate and will surely be much more costly to rebuild in the future. British wine lovers and Chianti Classico producers alike will be the poorer for it.