One of Italy’s oldest wine regions is producing memorable wines, and now exports to 100 countries. For publication in week of 27 June 2016.
This September will mark the 300th anniversary of the establishment of the borders of the Chianti Classico region. Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany classified the zone, identifying the villages of Radda, Greve, Panzano, Gaiole and Castellina as the leading sites. These villages represent the nucleus of the region today.
Chianti and Chianti Classico are separate DOCG regions (DOCG represents the highest guarantee of quality). The naming can be confusing. The Chianti region consists of about 70,00 hectares between the provinces of Florence and Siena in Tuscany.
Chianti refers to a wine made in Tuscany but not in the geographical zone called “Chianti”. Chianti Classico is the name of the wine made in the specific geographical zone called Chianti, in an area of 7,200 hectares of vines in the centre of Chianti. Only this wine can use the region’s symbol of the black rooster, the gallo nero. The distinctive bird appears on the neck or rear label of every bottle. Think of it as an easy way to recognise Chianti Classico DOCG wines.
Strict regulations govern the wine. Regular Chianti Classico cannot be released until the start of October in the year after the harvest, while Chianti Classico Riserva must undergo 24 months of ageing before release, including at least three months in bottle. In 2014 a level above Riserva, Gran Selezione, was introduced, and it can only be made using grapes harvested from a winery’s own vineyards. It must have a minimum alcohol of 13 per cent and be aged for a minimum of 30 months. This meant that wines for the new level became available from the 2010 vintage because they had already had the minimum 30 months of ageing.
All levels of Chianti Classico must be made from a minimum of 80 per cent of Sangiovese, with the balance coming from a range of grapes such as Canaiolo, Colorino, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Some producers believe that the best wines come from only Sangiovese, while others maintain the smaller components of a blend should only come from indigenous grapes.
Young Chianti Classico has aromas of red and black fruits like sour cherries, blackberries and redcurrants. Over time these aromas change to riper fruits like plums and cherries, and with further years in the cellar people will notice dried fruit and herbs. Chianti Classico also offers floral aromas like violets when young that evolve to dried roses when older.
Wines that have been cellared for some years will suggest spices like black pepper, cloves, liquorice and vanilla, and after even more years we can detect tobacco, earth, charred wood and truffles.
The colour of chianti also changes over time. Young Sangiovese typically appears a bright ruby red. The intensity of the colour will vary depending on the terroir (Chianti Classico essentially originates from three kinds of soils). Young riserva wines tend to have a richer ruby red hue with a light orange rim. Gran Selezione are a brighter ruby red, tending towards purple. After about a decade in the bottle the colour changes to garnet.
Last year the region exported four in five bottles of its annual production of 35 million to 100 countries, with 41 per cent of exports going to North America. Other key export destinations included the UK, Switzerland, Japan, China and Hong Kong.
Costs of production of Chianti Classico can be high because of the number of animals that eat the fruit. These cannot be hunted; hence the need to erect two-metre fences to keep them out. The Nunzi Conti family of Tenta Villa Barberino displays images of all these animals on their label: deer, boars, pheasants and rabbits. Their wonderful 2012 Gran Selezione Elisa is 100 per cent Sangiovese from a single vineyard named after Antonio Nunzi Conti’s grandmother.
Birds feature on the labels of Castellare wines. Each year the company highlights an endangered bird. Chief winemaker and general manager Alessandro Celiai focuses on the best three clones of Sangiovese and only blends it with local grapes. He believes it is difficult for consumers to understand all the levels of Chianti Classico. “We want to keep it simple. That’s why we don’t talk about Gran Selezione.”
Instead he produces elegant and beautiful Chianti Classico and Riservas. His flagship I Sodo di Saint Niccolo has received at least 95 points each year from wine guru Robert Parker since 2006. It is 85 per cent Sangiovese with the balance Malvasia Nera. “I Sodo proves you don’t need international grapes. It shows what Sangiovese can do.” Celiai said working with Sangiovese was like using his other favourite grape, Pinot Noir. “It sings when it’s made well.”
Do you remember the spaghetti westerns made in the 1970s? The movies that turned Clint Eastwood into a household name? In 1973 Italo Zingarelli used his profit from producing movies like They Call Me Trinity to buy the Le Macie estate. His three children run a giant company that produces 3.7 million bottles a year. The flagship Gran Selezione is named after Italo’s son Sergio and is 90 per cent Sangiovese with the rest Colorino. We tasted the 2011 and 2012 vintages. These are supple and delicious wines with soft tannins and beautiful integration of fruit and acidity. The estate has not used chemicals on its 200 hectares of vines since 2000, and fava beans are grown between the rows to enhance the soil.
Insufficient space means we can do not more than mention the other lovely estates visited: Volpaia, Castello della Paneretta, Querceto di Castellina and Le Miccine.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico.
Video about Chianti Classico