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The wines of Chianti Classico
Part I

text and photographs © 2009 Tom Cannavan

This is a two-part feature. There is another link to part II at the bottom of this page.

Chianti is surely Italy's most famous wine name. This 70,000 hectare region in Tuscany around the cities of Florence, Pisa and Siena, was established as a wine region in the 18th century. Such was the success of the wines, that many areas made 'Chianti' even though they lay outwith the zone. So in 1932, seven very specific sub areas where created in an attempt to tighten-up the classification. Of these, Chianti Classico has become the best known and today boasts around 7,000 hectares of vineyard and over 600 growers.

Since 1996 Chianti Classico has had its own production code that differs from the rest of Chianti. One important difference is that the broader Chianti zone still allows the use of white wine grapes in Chianti as well as a minimum of 75% Sangiovese, whereas in Classico only red grapes can supplement a minimum of 80% Sangiovese.
   


   Tuscany is, of course, a stunning and evocative landscape, dotted with sunlit stone farm houses with their terracotta roofs, lines of imperious, elegant cypress trees and carpeted with gently rolling fields of vines.

It is a landscape that feels truly timeless, especially as passing through the ancient cities of Florence or Siena, which mark the northern and southern boundaries of the Chianti Classico zone, is the happy duty of most UK visitors.

It is also a gastronome's delight with the wonderful olive oils (many from wine estates), white truffles, mushrooms, beans, cheeses, wild boar and hams.

Soils and climate

There are various sub-soils across the Chianti region, including marl of layered sandstone with some chalk and clay (Galestro) and a blue-grey sandstone (Macigno) and a clay-limestone called Alberese. The surface tends to be chalky, with gravel and pebbles. The soils don't correspond precisely to the geographical/administrative zones of Chianti of course, and the altitude of the vineyards ranges from 820 to 1,968 feet.

The weather in Tuscany can be very hot, reaching 35c during July and August, but the night temperatures fall quickly, so vines do not stay in a heat-stressed state. There is normally adequate rainfall of around 30 inches per year, but the last few years have seen a slight drought. This is echoed in other European and world regions, and climate change is cited by many as a factor.

Grapes

In Chianti, Sangiovese is king. Sangiovese is one of Italy's superstar grapes, appearing under various guises with its synonyms including Brunello, Montepulciano, Morellino, Pignolo, Sangioveto, and Prugnolo Gentile. Each of these types has various clones, and so the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico set about a programme to rationalise, develop and approve certain clones for use within the Classico zone. The 'Chianti Classico 2000' project started with a bank of 239 clones that could be identified, and five years were spent on planting and agronomical studies, plus fermentation trials. Eventually only seven clones were approved by the Consorzio as suitable for the region's soil types and microclimate.
  

Since 2002 it is permitted to have Chianti Classico made from 100% Sangiovese, though the minimum is 80%. The balance of the blend can be made up of any red varieties from around 40 that are approved. These include international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and local varieties like Canaiolo. The Consorzio's membership contains some who would like to see a reduction in the use of international varieties, which is one of the forces behind the project to improve and identify better clones of Sangiovese.

Super-Tuscans, IGT and Vin Santo


   The DOCG red wines of Chianti are not the only story. Another historic wine of the region is Vin Santo, a sweet white wine made from Trebbiano and Malvasia. The grapes are dried for several months after harvest (traditionally in the lofts of winery buildings) before long ageing in small oak casks. The photograph left was taken at Castello della Paneretta, the air filled with the sweet fragrance of the drying grapes.

But there is a modern addition to the Chianti area's wine family that began life only in the 1970s, as something of a protest movement. At that time a maximum of 70% Sangiovese could be used in Chianti, and of the balance, a minimum of 10% had to be grapes that would normally be white wine varieties.

Those producers who wished to make 100% Sangiovese, or to eliminate white wine grapes from their blends, where unable to do so under DOC regulations. And so a new breed of wine for the region was born, that could only be labelled as simple Vino di Tavola, but which was in fact ambitiously conceived fine wine such Antinori's Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon blend marketed under the brand name 'Tignanello,' and Tenuta San Guido's Sassicaia.

The popularity and commercial success of these Super-Tuscans shook the wine industry to its core, leading to changes in the Chianti Classico production laws and to the creation of a new classification for Italian wines called Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT). Somewhat akin to the Vins de Pays of France, IGT wines have less traditional production codes than the DOC appellations, and usually cover larger geographic areas. Ironically, many of the Super-Tuscans could now qualify as Chianti Classico since production laws were modified, but most estates prefer to retain the brand names - and prices - that their Super-Tuscans can achieve.

the wine estates


   In autumn 2008 I visited Tuscany as guest of the Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico and visited a number of estates. There was no time to revisit some wonderful wineries I'd been to before such as Rocca di Montegrossi and Agricola Querciabella, and so although this group of nine estates is not exhaustive, it is perhaps representative of what is happening in Chianti Classico today. In part II of this feature there's also a roundup of over a dozen Chianti Classico wines from other producers.

Fontodi

The famous estate of Fontodi lies close to the town of Panzano and has been owned by the Manetti family since 1968. Giovanni Manetti showed us around the vineyards, all 70 hectares of which are now certified organic, having begun with a small organic experiment in 1990. Giovanni explains "In the Panzano area around 60% of vineyards are organic. That's partly to do with the climate being suitable, but partly because vineyard owners tend to be younger - in their 40s - and as they live with their families in the vineyards, they are more concerned about the use of chemicals."

The quality across Fontodi's range is compelling, with only estate fruit vinified, all with natural yeasts. Two hand-sorting lines allow grapes to fall by gravity into steel tanks and only French oak is used in the cellars, sourced from six different coopers. The use of new oak ranges from zero in the Chianti Classico, to 100% in the Super-Tuscan, Flaccianello della Pieve.
  

Fontodi's portfolio includes unexpected IGT wines including Syrah and Pinot Noir, which causes some consternation amongst purists I'm sure. But the success of Fontodi's wines internationally means they are currently doubling their barrel capacity, though Giovanni is quick to point out that their vineyard plantings have not doubled: "As wines get more concentrated, mainly because vines are now over 15 years old and planting densities are higher, they can take more oak."

for tasting notes on 8 wines from Fontodi

Castello di Querceto

The Greve vineyards of Castello di Querceto are some of the highest in the area at 470 metres above sea level. The François family own Castello di Querceto, having settled in Tuscany in the 18th century from their French homeland. The castle, erected as a lookout point, helped defend the area. Today it is encircled by forests and still preserves its medieval appearance.

Most of the vineyards were planted between 1975 and 1985, with Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Colorino and other local grapes. Cabernets Sauvignon, Franc, Syrah and Merlot are also planted, making a range of 'IGT' wines. Having studied the microclimatic and physical aspects of the individual vineyards on the estate, Alessandro François (right) explains that he has adopted a policy of vinifying each one separately, and concentrating production on single-vineyard 'crus' that he feels express the different character of the sites.
  

As a result and for many years now, Castello di Querceto has been producing four wines, in addition to Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva, that they refer to as 'selections' or 'crus'. Forty percent of production goes to the USA, though this export-driven estate is in 42 markets worldwide. I thought the quality overall was high in these wines, though for me they lack just a little final polish.

for tasting notes on 7 wines from Castello di Querceto

Castello della Paneretta

Here's a Chianti Classico estate that thinks a little differently, particularly in its fondness for the Canaiolo grape, which makes up 3.5 or their 22 hectares of vineyard. Plantings are of old clones that have small berries, though some new selected clones have been added too. The estate grow only Sangiovese and Canaiolo, and is proud of having only Tuscan grapes.

"My family was in the butchery business," owner Enrico Albisetti (left of picture) tells me, "but my father was passionate about wine and bought a vineyard in Chianti Ruffina. We bought Castello della Paneretta when it came up for sale 25 years ago."
  

Young winemaker Nicola Berti (right of picture) likes the challenge of Sangiovese: "Sangiovese is a very difficult grape to grow," he tells me. "It has an irregular berry size and ripening. It is also tannic and can be difficult for the consumer: you cannot just open a bottle and drink it straight away." He explains his take on Chianti somewhat poetically: "Chianti Classico reflects the people of the region: the people are shy, and don't open up and laugh and joke with you immediately, but once you get to know them...."

I enjoyed this range of wines, which had a certain gravely, smoky quality. Whether terroir or the higher proportion of Canaiolo is responsible I do not know, but these are distinctive wines, some of the older examples just touched by a little Brettanomyces that, thankfully, I did not detect in more recent vintages.

for tasting notes on 7 wines from Castello della Paneretta

Go to Part II, with profiles of seven estates plus a round-up of a dozen other Chiantis


Villas in Tuscany