Chianti Classico DOCG continues to produce wines the world wants, with exports going to 130 countries last year. For publication in week starting 16 April 2018.
The last time this column wrote about Chianti Classico, in June 2016, the DOCG exported to 100 countries. As of late last year the number had soared to 130, an indication of the region’s global reputation — especially given the area of hectares of vines and the average number of bottles made has not changed.
Chianti Classico is the name of a wine made in a specific geographical area of 7,200 hectares of vines in the centre of Tuscany. Only this wine can use the region’s symbol — the black rooster, the gallo nero — which appears on the neck of every bottle. It is a clever marketing tool; the rooster provides an easy way to recognise the wines.
For the past decade Chianti Classico DOCG has averaged 35 million bottles a year. Last year four in five of those bottles were exported. North America is easily the biggest market. The USA took a third of all exports, and Canada 8 per cent meaning that 41 per cent of Chianti Classico DOCG exports went to those countries. Other key destinations included Germany (12 per cent), Scandinavia (5), the UK (4), and Switzerland and Japan (3). Exports to China and Hong Kong declined to only 2 per cent of the total.
September 2016 marked the 300th anniversary of the establishment of the borders of the Chianti Classico region by Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany. He identified the villages of Radda, Greve, Panzano, Gaiole and Castellina as the leading sites and these villages represent the nucleus of the region today.
Chianti and Chianti Classico are separate DOCG regions (in Italy DOCG represents the highest guarantee of quality). The total Chianti region consists of about 70,00 hectares between the provinces of Florence and Siena in Tuscany. This is an apt time to talk about that black rooster.
During Medieval times the republics of Siena and Florence often fought to maintain dominance over the Chianti region, which lies between the two cities. Legend has it that the cities agreed to establish a definite boundary. Two knights would leave from their respective cities at an agreed time and the boundary would be fixed where they met.
Departure was set a dawn, with the signal to ride the crowing of a rooster. The Sienese chose a white rooster and the Florentines a black one. The cunning Florentines starved their rooster in a dark coop, so that as soon as it was freed it began to crow. This allowed the Florentine knight to depart earlier than his Sienese counterpart, who waited until daybreak. The knights met at Fonterutoli, only 12 kilometres from Siena, which meant that almost all of Chianti came under Florentine control.
Now-a-days strict regulations govern winemaking. The base level wine, known as Chianti Classico Annata (annata is Italian for year or vintage) must be aged for at least a year before release. For decades the higher level wine was known as Chianti Classico Riserva. It must be aged for 24 months before release, including at least three months in bottle.
In 2014 a level above Riserva, Gran Selezione, was introduced. It can only be made from grapes harvested from a winery’s own vineyards, must have a minimum alcohol of 13 per cent and be aged for at least 30 months. Wines for this new level became available from the 2010 vintage because they had already had the minimum 30 months of ageing.
All 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 Nero, Colorino, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Some producers believe the best wines come from only Sangiovese. Others maintain that only indigenous grapes in the smaller component of the blend produce the best results.
Yields are kept low under DOCG laws, with a maximum of 7.5 tonnes per hectare permitted, or about 2kg per vine. In the Chianti region which surrounds Chianti Classico yields can be as high as 9 tonnes a hectare.
Some of the finest wines tasted this week came from Fattoria di Cinciano in the Poggibonsi sub-region on the western edge of Chianti Classico. Their entry level wine from 2015 displays typical cherry notes and is very drinkable. The 2013 Cinciano Riserva – 95 per cent Sangiovese with the balance Colorino – is even more delicious, with a chalky mouthfeel associated with the calcerous soils on the estate.
Highlight was the 2013 Gran Selezione made from vines planted in 1971. This memorable wine is solely Sangiovese, with soft tannins and bright fruit. Winemaker Valerio Marconi said yields were kept to a third of the permitted maximum to concentrate flavours.
Ian D’Agata, author of The Native Wine Grapes of Italy, said Sangiovese was like Merlot in the sense that it succeeded in most places it was planted. D’Agata believes Canaiolo Nero makes Sangiovese taste better. “It’s the Robin to Sangiovese’s Batman,” he said. “It brings out the best in Sangiovese.”
Marconi also presented his 2009 Vin Santo made from Malvasia Blanco Lunga and Trebbiano Toscana. This is a superb dessert wine, created by drying grapes in a tower on the estate for three months.
D’Agata wrote that this Malvasia was an important part of the Chianti blend invented by Baron Bettino Ricasoli, who maintained the best possible recipe was seven parts Sangiovese, two parts Canaiolo Nero and the rest Malvasia. The Chianti Classico consortium eliminated Malvasia from the blend in 2006. This is why Marconi uses his white grapes planted in 1971 for Vin Santo (the wine of the saints).
Young Chianti Classico smells of red fruits like sour cherries and red-currants. Over time these aromas change to darker fruits like plums, and with further years in the cellar people will notice dried herbs. Some Chianti Classico also offers aromas like violets when young that evolve to dried roses when older.
Chianti’s colour changes over time. Young Sangiovese is typically ruby red. The intensity of the colour varies depending on the terroir (Chianti Classico essentially comes from three kinds of soil) and the grapes in the blend. 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.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico, who provided accommodation and meals.