Wednesday 10 April 2013

The new top level Chianti Classico wine category - useful, confusing or both?

A few days ago, I had something to say about the new Chianti Classico Gallo Nero logo, and promised to look also at the modified classification of Chianti Classico wines that was released by the Consorzio at the same time. So - the new top level Chianti Classico wine category - useful, confusing or both?

Most wine makers in Chianti Classico belong to a consortium known as the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico which is principally a collective marketing cooperative and which also sets the rules regarding the composition, classification and labelling of Chianti Classico wines.

The Consorzio's new, top level classification is designated "Gran Selezione" and is effectively a designation for single-estate wines which must be produced solely from grapes grown by the estate, cannot be sold within less than 30 months of the harvest (6 months longer than Riserva) and must receive at least three months of pre-sale bottle maturation. Yields must be 52.5 hectolitres or less per hectare, the same as for Riserva.

new top level Chianti Classico wine category

Many wine producers that I have spoken to are worried that this is going to introduce further confusion into buyers' minds regarding Chianti wines. Part of the problem is that Chianti Classico is only one of eight Chianti wine zones. Chianti Classico corresponds to the historical Chianti area located between Florence and Siena, while the other Chianti zones are distributed all over northern Tuscany. There is something to be said for this sense of dismay among some of the wine makers. However, if the labelling is consistent - in other words, the general appellation Chianti Classico is prominent and always has the same physical location on the label in relation to the subclassification appellations (IGT, Riserva) - my feeling is that Gran Selezione will allow buyers to distinguish between "ordinary" IGT (previously, vino da tavola) and Classico on the one hand, and the producers' top-of-the-range wines on the other. Gran Selezione provides greater specificity than DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) where the grapes just have to come from the wine region, not the producers' vineyards, but I would like to see the actual vineyard specified as well.

Sometimes I suspect that the new logo and the new classification have been introduced by the Consorzio not just with buyers in mind, but also their own members. The Consorzio recently lost a prolonged and very expensive court struggle with Gallo Bros. of the USA over the use of the Gallo Nero (Black Rooster) trademark on their bottles of wine sold outside Europe. Their members have not been happy about any aspect of that issue. However, this is just personal speculation - I only know what the producers tell me.

In a blog post, David Berry Green, a buyer for Berry Bros. & Rudd, rubbished the entire concept of adding an upper level Gran Selezione appellation, basically by complaining that the Consorzio had not introduced, instead, clear-cut delimitations, alla francese, of vineyards based on their "terroir". I can't agree with this criticism at all. The trend in Chianti Classico wines for the past thirty years has been away from terrain-dominated characteristics due to the dominating role of consultant oenologists. I'm not saying that's a good thing, but it is an observable fact. A terroir-based denomination would be of use to a few big properties that employ their own oenologists but would still reflect more the style of the oenologist than the geology, altitude, slope etc. (By the way, the major contribution of the Tuscan oenologist, once the vine varieties have been selected and grown, is in blending, since Chianti Classico allows for up to 20% red, non-sangiovese varietals, and this largely masks any specific contribution by geology other than in Chiantis that are 100% sangiovese.) For a divergent opinion on the introduction of Chianti Classico subzones, see the link below to the article by Roberto Stucchi.

Green also makes the following sweeping statement: "while the term Riserva is generally regarded in the UK as passé, a massive fudge, a wine that lacks provenance, has spent too long (drying out) in wood and is often too expensive". I don't know if that's a general public perception in the UK but it's definitely not the perception among all those who regularly buy and drink Chianti. Perhaps he's referring to UK-based distributor-bottled Chianti? Obviously if you're buying an estate-bottled Chianti, its provenance will be written on the bottle in great big letters and a bit of tasting experience will soon reveal whether the winemaker uses his best grapes for the Riserva. In my experience, they almost always do. The Gran Selezione classification is specifically prohibited from being used on wine bottled by wine merchants.

In summary, I tend towards favouring the new "Gran Selezione" denomination as long as it really does refer to wine made entirely from the grapes of the winery that bottles the wine and, if possible, is also identified with a particular vineyard. I would even favour putting the name of the oenologist on the bottle, as Andre Lurton of Bordeaux does, to good effect. Strangely enough, the makers of the best Italian pasta are slightly ahead of the curve in this regard. If you have a bar-code app on your cell phone, you can take advantage of pasta sold in Italian supermarkets which is bar-coded to identify the specific field where the wheat was grown. If you want to do the same thing for Chianti Classico wine, you need to key the series number and identification mark into a form on the consorzio website. As consumers become more and more particular about what they eat and drink, a Gran Selezione indication guaranteeing quality and precise origin is very likely to be a positive development for both producers and consumers.

Note added 11 January 2014: Roberto Stucchi of Badia a Coltibuono comes out in favour of the use of subzones for Chianti Classico wines.

Some useful links for Chianti Classico fans.

More about native Tuscan grape varieties.

My recommended places to stay in Tuscany.

Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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