Sunday, December 08, 2013

Chianti: An Elusive Arrangement, Wrapped in a Fiasco, Inside a Conundrum

How is it classic wine regions like Bordeaux, Napa, the Mosel, are relatively easy to follow but Tuscany’s Chianti zone is still baffling to me and others? This question has been one I have asked for decades. I’ve read every book I could get my hands on. Traveled to the region countless times. Tasted, tasted, tasted, year after year. And still the idea of Chianti has yet to set up in my mind in a way in which I actually can say “I get it.” Is this my grail?

Last week I traveled across Texas to hold seminars for the trade on Chianti. It seems simple at first. One of the most popular wines to flow from Italy to America for many generations. Way ahead of other places in the market grip they hold. Wines that are fundamentally simple and full of pleasure. And wines that dovetail without glue or nails with the staples of popular American food: burgers, steaks, pizza, spaghetti and meatballs.

Maybe I am looking too deeply. I really am not sure. I know I have pulled out the magnifying glass these past few years and have been giving the area a good look. I easily understand the hierarchy in other places previously mentioned, but Chianti, I could not tell you without a shred of doubt who is on top.

Yes, there are estates that are classic and worthy of being in the top spots. There's probably a list somewhere you can find that lays out the hierarchy.

What conspires to obfuscate my understanding are the different layers. The difference between Chianti and Chianti Classico. The difference between Chianti Superiore and Chianti Riserva. The difference between Rufina and Montespertoli. The difference between Gaiole and Radda. The difference between Chianti Classico Riserva and Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. So you see where I am going with this? I’m paying attention and I am perplexed. Imagine the folks whom I was standing in front of and trying to explain it all in 90 minutes?

I know the Chianti Consorzio and the Chianti Classico Consorzio have their people running around the world trying to explain their missions. I have sat in some of those seminars. I’m still searching for a way to explain it to the folks we really need to reach: the wine drinking public.

With all the layers and classifications, I’ve simplified it for my purposes. This is really so I can maintain my sanity, more than anything. In no way does it represent the solution to my quandary. But it does allow me to move on.

Chianti - The basic wine. Whether it is in a fiasco (straw covered) bottle or a regular (Bordeaux shape) bottle, this wine is fine for everyday pleasure. Nothing too special, the wine shouldn’t be stored in a cellar. It is a wine that should be drunk up.

Chianti Superiore - This category ultimately confuses me. I have spent several years trying to explain it. I’m done explaining. Either make the wine a Chianti, a Riserva or a Rosso. Give us some peace.

Chianti Riserva - While there seem to be some good values here, what I have found is that a segment of restaurateurs see an opportunity to sell their unwitting clients a wine that they represent for more than it really is. It isn’t a Chianti Classico Riserva; although on many lists a Chianti Riserva will sell for as much as their Classico Riserva counterpart. I think it allows for bad behavior and confuses the public. And those Classico Riservas that are really deserving of the name are lumped into an “also ran” category where they are deemed too expensive.

The other Chianti’s - The 7 sub zones. I’m a fan of some of these from Rufina, Montespertoli, Montalbano, etc. But they have an uphill battle. They have to compare themselves to Chianti Classico or they must distance themselves from the bottom rung industrial Chianti wines that flood the world. They are neither. But who really knows what they are? They live in the middle, a nether world, whereby they always have to tell their story, over and over again.

Chianti Classico - Now the Chianti Classico Consorzio want us to call it Chianti Classico Annata. Well, that ain’t gonna happen in America, folks. One more foreign word? Nope, not here. Not now.

Chianti Classico Riserva - Here is one bright spot that needs polishing. The wines are all over the map. Some use small oak, some don’t. Some use Sangiovese 100%. Some blend Cabernet and Merlot. Some are delicate, some are linebackers. Some are $20 and some are $50. What the hell? Someone, please explain it to me so I can relay the information to all the folks who ask me every day.

Chianti Classico Gran Selezione - Really? Isn’t this exactly the reason folks like Piero Antinori and Sergio Manetti decided to get out of the Chianti-calling business? Here’s how one sommelier put it to me this week during a Q&A session. “So winery X decides the wine they would normally make as a Riserva they will now make as a Gran Selezione and charge $10 or $20 more?” Exactly.

What I’d like to see is coming. Masnaghetti is doing the maps. So far he has done Gaiole in Chianti, Panzano and Radda in Chianti. And while this won’t offer me a hierarchy of quality, it will give the map lover in me a chance to look at things differently. I know there are folks who do know the difference between Castelnuovo Berardenga and Greve. What I am looking for is a way to explain this to the many groups I address during the year. I want to help de-mystify it. And I'm not alone.

Is that asking too much?

Further exploration:
Chianti: The Land, the People and the Wine - By Raymond Flower (now available as an E-book)
Consorzio Vino Chianti 
Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico
Chianti: Still Tuscany's Flagship Wine? by Ed McCarthy
The “Concept of Chianti” at a Seminar and Tasting by Charles Scicolone
A Modest Proposal for Chianti Classico by Tom Maresca
Chianti Classico - Restoring Some Luster by Tom Hyland
Chianti Classicos with an Identity Crisis by Eric Asimov
Report from ‘Chianti Classico Collection 2013’, Florence: ‘Gran Selezione’ or ‘Gran Casino’? by David Berry Green

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Gary York said...

Welcome to Italy. No one said this was going to be easy. But the best things in life seldom are.

Paddy Murphy said...

Good points Alfonso. Classifying by commune is a very attractive solution and seems to be the most logical solution. As Gary notes though, no one said this was going to be easy.

Also worth noting that Masnaghetti has also produced a map of Castellina.

TuscanVines said...

An age old battle my friend. And yes, Gran Selezione is going to be largely meaningless, although I share your cynicism that it will simply add to the price.

Chianti Superiore is Chianti that's older. Will that explanation work for you? It certainly shouldn't imply anything superior.

As you correctly state, there are $20 Chianti Classico Riservas that aren't as good as some $12 Chianti Classicos.

Oddly, and I don't advocate creating a sort of heirarchy ala a Bordeaux classifcation, but the best way to get around this is to understand the producers that make better wines. That comes from education. And that's where folks like you and I come in!

I get you're tired of explaining it. I haven't had to beat my head as much as yours. Send them to me, I'm a glutton.

And for now, drink Felsina, Fontodi, Isole, Cafaggio and Monteraponi and be happy! :)


Alfonso Cevola said...

@Gary - Yep. this is a lifetime commitment. I'm all in. As are you.

@Paddy - thanks for the Castellina map update info. good to know

@John - The odd thing, I've been to Bordeaux a handful of times and I get it. I've been to Tuscany multiple handfuls (and featfuls) and I'm still trying to find a way to explain it to myself, let alone others. Thanks for the recommendations, many of those are also my faves.

Paul Wagner said...

Alfonso--interesting comments, although I don't think that Chianti Classico is as confusing as you do. You have to put it into the context of all of Tuscany...

And you think Bordeaux has it nailed down? So how do you explain Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur in terms of blends...or even wine quality?

Alfonso Cevola said...

@Paul – I’m glad you don’t find it as confusing as I do. Although your comment references Chianti Classico and I am talking about all of Chianti. And the two different Chianti’s are part of the confusion.

I find Bordeaux Superieur to be as vapid a designation as Chianti Superiore. My reference to Bordeaux is the classification system. One can look out from Chateau Latour and see several other First growths, among with some Seconds, Thirds and Fourths. And while it may not be fair (in the 21st century) it is nonetheless a standard by which all wines from the area are gauged. And that is something we do not have in all of Tuscany.

Thanks for stopping by and also thank you for trying, in your way, to make Chianti Classico easier for all of us to understand.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Yes, I love Rufina as well... Selvapiana is as pure an expression of Sangiovese and Chianti as one could ask for

Roberto Stucchi - Badia a Coltibuono said...

I believe the time has arrived for Chianti Classico to evolve towards it’s natural future, by recognizing, describing, and communicating (and possibly regulating) the local comunal and village appellations that compose this beautiful territory. This zone is too large and diverse to remain locked in the current docg regulations which make no distinction between the extremely diverse expressions of Sangiovese in its original territory.
The first natural level of evolution above the simple “Chianti Classico” appellation would be naming the Comune of origin of the grapes for wines that truly represent their territory. The 9 Comuni of Chianti Classico: Castelnuovo Berardenga, Gaiole, Radda, Castellina, Greve, San Casciano, Tavernelle, Barberino and Poggibonsi would clearly establish a link between the wine and it’s actual territory of origin.
The next step would be to define the village appellations, the smaller zones that are distinctive and that would clearly define some of the top wines in the appellation. So we could have Panzano, Monti, Lamole, as possible zones as well as the many others that have a common geography and history; this process of defining the subzone identities would take time and would help in the process of narrating the multiple identities of this extremely varied territory. Few wine regions are as complex and diverse as the Chianti Classico zone, by way of soils, microclimates, and altitudes. Sangiovese amplifies these differences, and the 130 complementary traditional varieties and the use of international ones now allowed further increase the diversities of expressions. It’s time to give names to this galaxy of wines, starting from naming the specific area that the grapes come from. To be clear, this wouldn’t in any way remove the name Chianti Classico which is and will remain the name of our zone, it is a way to strengthen the name by giving it depth and meaning. It is a campaign that is finally reaching a critical mass and I believe that in 2014 we'll see it taking off in the consorzio.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thank You, Roberto...Sounds like an excellent plan.. Thank you for your insightful comment

Fabio said...

The way things stand at the moment, the system is almost understandable by foreigners and Italians not in the wine business, which is a state of affairs that cannot be allowed to continue. I believe that more bureaucrats should be employed to obfuscate the issue completely and so not leave the job unfinished. :)

Paddy Murphy said...

I share Alfonso and Jeremy's love of Selvapiana - a great expression of Sangiovese.

I'm also heartened to hear that Roberto feels that 2014 may see some movement at the Consorzio in relation to the commune of origin designation.

David Berry Green of London merchant Berry Bros & Rudd also extolled the virtues of the commune of origins in a blog post that gained a fair bit of traction in the wine press this side of the pond - it's well worth a read

Anna Maria Baldini said...

I'm not so enthused about the "terroir" concept being applied to Chianti or even Chianti Classico. I've said why briefly here:

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