The Sommelier Journal August 2008 Catherine Fallis, MS
Tuscany is one of the world’s most established and aristocratic wine regions. Because its reputation is never in question, winemakers here can afford to look at the big picture—where they want to be for the next several generations—unlike those in up-and-coming areas, where the pressure to make a splash in the market is so great that they can only seek to emulate the high-scoring super-ripe, steroidal style in hopes of selling their product quickly.
Wines made in the historic heart of Tuscany, Chianti Classico, are sometimes dismissed as old-fashioned, traditional, light, tart, and lacking in both fruit and oak. That may still be true of some Chiantis, but Tuscan producers today have many more options. Most sell a variety of wines, from their Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) Chianti Classicos, made with traditional vinification methods and grapes, to the more modern Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) wines, which were officially welcomed into the system in the appellation law revision of 1992. IGTs can range from simple, rustic Toscana Rossos to the great super-Tuscans—still the flagships of many houses and the wines of the region most prized by collectors, along with the big, oaky Brunellos made to the south in Montalcino. On the other hand, even the best Chianti Classicos are still considered wines of the table, meant to be enjoyed every day.
A movement to upgrade the vineyards in the region, known as Chianti Classico 2000, involves the replanting of the most suitable Sangiovese clones on proper rootstock, identification of the best growing sites, and viticultural research to determine optimum vine densities and trellising systems. A growing number of vineyards are also being farmed organically and biodynamically, further improving the quality of the finished wine.
TODAY’S WINEMAKING STYLES
Under the revised appellation rulings, winemakers no longer have to dilute their red wine with white grapes. The minimum amount of Sangiovese required for Chianti Classico DOCG is now 80%; as much as 20% of the wine may consist of other red grapes, but no white grapes may be added. In the surrounding Chianti DOCG, the minimum for Sangiovese is 75%, with the remainder of the blend containing as much as 10% Canaiolo, as much as 10% other approved red grapes, and as much as 10% of the white Trebbiano and Malvasia. In other words, a Chianti producer may now blend in a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah, or leave the wine as 100% Sangiovese. In the past, such a wine would have been labeled as the old vino da tavola or an IGT.
Producers are also exploring various oak treatments—from 8,000-liter Hungarian vats to American barriques—to help them make more luscious wines. Chianti Classico normales must be aged in wood for at least one year, riservas for two years. Either way, however, the wines usually lack the rich oak tannins commonly found in California.
Not everyone embraces these changes. Emanuela Stucchi-Prinetti, one of the new generation of owners at Badia a Coltibuono, says, “We are not interested in this new liberal system. We believe in using traditional varietals, principally Sangiovese and Canaiolo. These grapes have adapted to the terroir here in Chianti over the last thousand years, and experience tells us they grow well here and make great wine here. And our philosophy is to adhere to the traditional winemaking methods passed down from generation to generation. But we are particularly lucky because our vineyards have the ideal soil and sun exposure for producing mature, well-balanced grapes using traditional varietals.”
Most Chianti Classicos are light-to-medium- bodied, elegant, and understated, featuring lovely cherry, leather, and earth notes and a refreshing palate with cleansing, zesty acidity. Fashion-driven? Trendy? Cultish? I think not. And for that, I and millions of fans around the world are grateful.