Will The Real Chianti Please Stand Up?

By Thomas Madrecki

Chianti is an old land, and this is an old post, taking literal months to think through a whirlwind tour of Tuscany — and to digest the full experience, food, wine and culture.

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What is Chianti?

Well, there is a definition according to the region’s authorities themselves, which seems to offer up a strict set of guidelines. But as we will see, those guidelines can play out differently in different places. There is more than a “bit” of wiggle room, even in Chianti Classico. Chianti wine is first and foremost wine made in Chianti, and the authorities tell us that:

Other fundamentals and other requisites concern the ampelographical base—or the types of grapes that can be used in the preparation of the wine. The rules provide for a minimum ratio of 80% for Sangiovese, the typical red variety of the zone. Along with the Sangiovese, other red grapes of the area can be used in a maximum percentage of 20%. These grapes include natives like Canaiolo and Colorino as well as “international” varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, all recommended and/or authorized for the production zone. Among the principal sensory characteristics indicated by the production rules, there is the ruby red color that can become at times intense and profound, depending upon the wine’s origin. The odor offers floral notes of violets and irises combined with a typical character of red fruit. The flavor is harmonious, dry and sapid with a good level of tannin that fines in time, becoming soft and velvety. Other requisites requested include a minimum alcohol level of 12 degrees for young wines and 12.5 degrees for the Riserva.

A quick analysis of these guidelines gives us an initial picture of a lithe, drinkable, sanguine wine, originating from the native Sangiovese grape and perhaps a scattering of local field varietals. Flowers and raspberries dominate the palate, and at 12 percent alcohol, it’s quite sessionable.

That is Chianti… or is it?

A more pointed analysis would highlight that the guidelines only specify 80 percent Sangiovese, and that the authorities allow international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 20 percent of either varietal is enough to change the structure and personality of the wine into something much more forward. It’s more robust, perhaps showing oak and age-worthiness. And because the guidelines only specify a minimum alcohol… it can climb higher, into the 14-15 percent range sought by many consumers, especially those in America.

So which is the real Chianti?

Our mid-September trip to Castello di Gabbiano showed us a full range of Chianti wines, from acid-driven, chuggable table wine at Dario Cecchini’s steakhouse to serious reserve bottlings like the Castello’s “Belleza,” which earned the mark of “Gran Selezione.” The Gran Selezione is a new moniker created by the Chianti Classico authorities to designate the most prestigious wines in the region. A panel of winemakers and region experts grades submitted wines on taste and overall character, approving only the “best.” As a whole, the new practice is a clearly bold move to bolster Chianti’s claim as a region producing high quality wines … and to appease to an international export market that demands high-scoring, slightly bigger wines than the kinds of Chianti wines brought to U.S. shores years ago.

And oh, those wines. Straw-covered bottles and served alongside crockery thin-crust pizza, or Americanized Italian red-sauce dishes on checkered table cloths. They were nothing to write home about, and that’s part of the problem for many regions like Chianti that used to produce such inferior wine for export. On the one hand, some of traditional Chianti wine has always been a little lighter, more like good Beaujolais or Loire than ultra serious Napa or Bordeaux. And as in places like rural France, there has always been a culture of table wine or home-made wine, which wasn’t ever intended to compete in magazines for top awards. Moreover, the Chianti region historically viewed wine and food as nearly inseparable — both originate from the terroir of the region. The downside is that, at export, these lighter Chiantis earned a reputation for being second-rate, downgrading the region as a whole. New winemakers and large holding companies believe Chianti has the potential to be a world class region, and so they’ve taken it upon them to produce something different… more developed, bigger, riper. And as in many places around the world, this generation of winemakers and companies is doing so through the use of modern technology and winemaking techniques, to get the most from grapes while meeting international demands. It’s smart business!

But again, that brings us back to our original question… what is Chianti?

At the Castello, I tried several times to push winemaker Federico Cerelli on the question, urging him to elaborate on his vision and what motivates him to make the kind of wine that he does. I wanted to get at the soul of Chianti wine, at least from his perspective. He is a very smart, personable winemaker, and he clearly knows the kind of wine he wants — and needs — to produce, to achieve the results he and his employers want.

Parsing that last sentence out, Federico is, at his core, a modern winemaker. He is well-trained, and the latest releases from Castello di Gabbiano all have a level of quality derived from that training. Looking at the range of wines and Federico’s influence on the winemaking of Castello since coming on board and since the the property was purchased by the Australia-based Treasury Wine Estates, there is a progressional blending of New and Old World attributes as the wines increase in price. The reserve wines, including the Gran Selezione “Belleza,” have an enhanced mouthfeel and gravitas that exudes a certain richness, aging and “proper” correction. You know these are good, ripe, balanced wines. They are well-made and display a consistent value-quality proposition.

For this, Federico and the Castello team should be congratulated, for they accomplished the very rare feat of producing good wine at affordable prices, and secondly, producing good wine that many people will enjoy. One thing gives me pause, though, or at least raises the specter of the original question again — that the wine I enjoyed most at Castello wasn’t a reserve bottling, but the standard Chianti Classico, which is lower in alcohol and lighter overall. And, in discussing that fact with the Castello’s chef, Francesco Berardinelli, we seemed to be in general agreement that the cuisine of Chianti harkens back to these kinds of wines, although there is a clear time and place for more expressive, age-worthy bottlings.

So, what is Chianti? Is it a lighter, more local style? Is it something increasingly worldly and serious? Is it old-fashioned? Is it modern? Is it more natural? Is it more corrected/influenced?

Chianti, as it turns out, is all of these things. The beauty is that we, the consumer, can select a Chianti for every occasion.

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