Not all Chianti is the same, some are indeed Classico (and others should be)!

I have just returned from my trip to the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany...What struck me most on my trip, was not the beautiful sun-kissed rolling hills covered with vineyards, forests, and ancient hilltop villages. No, as impressive as they were, it was the people, their history, and their culture that struck me most. It was the people and their culture that provide the wines of Chianti Classico with their nerve, their balance, and their approachability.

Map of Chianti Classico

I have just returned from my trip to the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany, courtesy of the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico, and wanted to share with you my impressions and some wine recommendations for those of you interested in discovering or re-discovering this magical land between Florence and Sienna.

Before we dive into my ramblings and reviews, I think it important to give you a little more foundation about Chianti Classico. Most of you have heard of Chianti and have had visions of the straw basket Chianti bottles know as Fiasco that decorate many an Italian pizzerias in the US.  However, Chianti Classico is by design a distant third cousin of these inexpensive, generic and acidic wines.  Wines labeled Chianti Classico that also are adorned with the Gallo Nero (Black Rooster) come from a smaller delineated sub-section of broader Chianti and is limited to the following sub-regions; San Casciano in Val di Pesa, Tavernelle Val di Pesa, Barberino Val d’Elsa, Poggibonsi, Greve in Chinati, Radda in Chianti, Castellina in Chianti, Gaiole in Chianti, and Castelnuovo Baradenga. The Chianti region dates back to 1716, when the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III, decided to protect its name and establish its borders. His 1716 proclamation is the first legal document in history delineating a wine region. In 1932 the Chianti Classico sub-zone was created in the effort to distinguish this, the original zone, from other “Chianti” wine made outside the productions zone listed above. In 1996, the Chianti Classico region received its own D.O.C.G. (Italy’s highest application designation), which transformed Chianti Classico from a subzone into its own independent denomination.  More changes are on the way soon (click here to read more about the changes).

What struck me most on my trip, was not the beautiful sun-kissed rolling hills covered with vineyards, forests, and ancient hilltop villages. No, as impressive as they were, it was the people, their history, and their culture that struck me most. It was the people and their culture that provide the wines of Chianti Classico with their nerve, their balance, and their approachability.  People like Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi winery and Paolo De Marchi of Isole e Olena winery, both of whom you will meet in our upcoming The Stories Behind Wine Podcast. It is their commitment to preserving and staying true to their rich history and culture, all the while remaining dedicated to improving the quality of their wines.  Some are taking the traditional approach to crafting their wines, while others are taking a more decidedly modernist approach (more on this later). Both camps however believe that the quality of their wines rest squarely on the shoulders of the improved viticulture in the vineyard.

Every winery owner an winemaker I spoke to echoed the oft spoken words that “wines are made in the vineyard” and pointed to their commitment to using improved Sangiovese clones, understanding their vineyards soil structure and terroir, and experimenting with vine planting density. Some, such as Francesco Ricasoli (the Baron) of Barone Ricasoli winery, are going as far as engaging a company to map his vineyards with high-tech instruments that will help him and his agronomist Massimiliano Biagi craft better wines from better vineyards. Paolo di Marchi, of Isole e Olena winery, started this process back in the mid 1980’s, albeit with a less technological focused approach.  He did it by digging pits in his vineyards to better understand the soil structure and by hand selecting vines from his own vineyards to propagate with new plantings.  This desire for improving the vineyards and clonal material of grape varieties was not limited to individual producers.  In 1987 the Consortium launched and ambitious and transformative project called Chianti Classico 2000 aimed at identifying the best clones of Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Colorino and Malvasia Nera. (More info here). This is a land where the agronomist may be more important than the winemaker.

As Vittorio Pozzesi says: “The whole world can make Cabernet or Merlot but only we can make Sangiovese. Why change it?”

Castello d’Albola

I mentioned before that there are producers who have taken a traditional approach to crafting their wines and those with a decidedly modernist approach.  Here is what I mean; in my view a traditionalist is someone who shuns the international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah in their blends (even though up to 20% of these varieties are permitted in the wines of Chianti Classico) in favor of either 100% Sangiovese  or Sangiovese blended with Canaiolo, they also use minimal new oak French barriques in favor of larger Slovenian botti (extremely large barrels that can hold up to 6,000 liters of wine). These are wines driven by a balance of red cherry fruit, earthy notes, and refreshing acidity – wines that are crafted to support the cuisine of the region not over power them. I dare say these are wines crafted in the heart of the region’s culture and would be considered traditional.

The Modernist wines are wines that take greater advantage of the power of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, thus pushing the concentration of the wine and emphasizing black fruits, softer tannins, and bigger body while down-playing the acidity.  Add on top of the addition of the international varieties, the growing trend to age the wines in new French oak producing wines that are more in common with the wines of California and appealing to the palates of wine lovers who enjoy their wines independently of food.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredible modernist styled wines, made by winery owners passionate about the region and its culture, however some (not all) of the wines are hard to distinguish as heralding from Chianti Classico, let alone the Sangiovese grape.  As a side note, I want to make it clear that I am referring here to wines labeled with the Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva D.O.C.G.s and not the “Super Tuscan” wines labeled I.G.T.

Before I give you my recommendations of wines from both camps, traditional vs. modernist, I want to for a moment bring us back to the subject of the people of the Chianti Classico region.  The people, whether they are multi-generational locals, expats from other Italian regions, or international transplants, all seem to have an authentic passion and committed to the land upon which they live, a true love of not only the region but of the wines that hail from it. The number of winery owners that are in touch with the land is amazing; many of these wineries are not mere investments or trophies, but a place they call home. They are connected to the land because they choose to reside on it, and to improve it by committing to, as in the case of the vintners and growers in Panzano in Chinati, farming organically. Here wine is a part of life interwoven with the local food, music, culture, and rolling hills, it is not a means onto itself but merely an extension of the land, its centuries old history and its people.

My Wine recommendations:

The Traditionalists (classic, soulful Chianti Classico):

2008 Fattoria Rodano Chianti Classico – Fresh berry, rich cherry, black fruit. Showing a wonderful structure.  Flavors of luscious black cherry, cinnamon, wild strawberries. The fruit is well-balanced by its bright acidity. The finish is both elegant, complex and medium plus in length.  One of the stand-out Chianti Classicos in my opinion!

2006 Fattoria Rodano Chinati Classico Riserva – Perfumed aromas of red fruits layered with dark chocolate, black cherries and cigar box.  Flavors of red and black fruits present a lush entrance on the palate and coat the mouth, classic bright acidity while the structured tannins offer a nice support to the fruit. On the finish sweet vanilla from the French oak aging is apparent but well-integrated. A post-modern Chianti Classico Riserva worth seeking out!

2008 Castello d’Albola Le Ellere Chianti Classico – Red fruit; cherries and strawberries backed by an earthy nerve. Flavors of dried cherries, smoky undertones, and cranberry give way to a nervy acidity which gives a nice lift to the fruit and helps offset the silky tannins. A wine showing great poise and balance.

2008 Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico– Red and black fruits intermingled with spice, earthy character, and some slight oxidative notes (seem to add complexity). Flavors of sour cherry, strawberries, and ethereal smoky notes. The oak is very well-integrated with ripe tannins and a classic sangiovese acidity profile.  Finishes with moderate complexity.

The Modernists (Armani and Jean Paul Gaultier mash-up) :

2008 Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico – Concentrated ripe black fruit with some savory notes and evidence vanilla and judicious use of new wood. Flavors of chocolate, extracted fruit (plum, black cherries) give this wine power.  Tannins are ripe and polished and acidity is only medium. Wine shows good complexity and its modern oak inspired edge.

2009 Brancaia Chianti Classico Riserva – Loads of dark cherries, sweet oak, new leather and earthiness.  Gobs of fruit make this a bold styled Chianti Classico. Tannins are silky and acidity is less than in more classic expressions of Sangiovese. There is a healthy dose of French oak in use. here  Clearly a modern style (Merlot is very much in evidence)  that is well put together and impresses with its power and sweet oak.

Fontodi Flaccianello

The IGT’s (The 100% Sangiovese outsiders that could define the region):

2008 Felsina Fontalloro – Good aromatic intensity of candied cherries, black and blue fruits, sweet French oak and vanilla, with hints of earth. The palate reveals structured tannins and classic bright acidity that help balance the curvaceous body. Flavors of black cherries, plum, and blueberries are interwoven with chocolate, and a mineral character. This wine is both power and grace, showing a long complex finish albeit with a modern edge.

2008 Isole e Olena Cepparello – Floral, raspberry, red cherry aromas backed by leather, oak and vanilla.  Tannins are polished and ripe and acidity dances on the edge of the tongue. This is a medium plus plus bodied wine with flavors of Mulberry, vanilla, tar, black fruit that finishes very long and complex. Amazing balance of all the components.  A fabulous wine!

2007 Fontodi Flaccianello – Aromas of rose peddles, perfume, sandalwood, cinnamon spice, vanilla, and black cherries, in a word amazing! Structured tannins that give this wine staying power. The acidity gives poise and lifts the flavors of spice, black pepper, black currant, and dark cherries. The finish is elegant, beautifully structured with a complexity rivaled by very few wines. A masterpiece that shows what other 100% sangiovese wine should aspire to.



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