Chianti DOCG: 110 million bottles and almost as many issues.
A statistical look at my tasting of 97 Chiantis from 2009 – for fun and, hopefully, education.
First taste of 2009 Chianti Classico. Looking good – producers have coped well with this hot, dry vintage.
Fantastic tasting of extra virgin olive oils from the DOP Chianti Classico area. Controlled appellation oils are really classy – unlike for wine, DOP for oil is a seriously reliable endorsement.
Is Chianti becoming Italy’s Roussillon? Sounds absurd but a string of recent hot vintages such as 2007 is driving alcohol levels higher than ever. I don’t enjoy Chianti at 15%. Luckily there’s an amount of very good – and refreshing – 2008s too. Click to find out the best ones out of 80 tasted.
Well, as we learn from the Chianti Classico 2000 programme, it’s not the whole story. Historically – i.e. in pre-phylloxera and pre-scientific replanting times in the early 1800s and 1700s – there were far, far more varieties grown in Chianti, and Sangiovese was anything but dominant in the vineyards. The plantings were universally mixed and a single harvest was operated where all varieties were picked and then pressed and vinified together. This traditional system persists in some areas of Germany and Austria where it is known as gemischter Satz whereas in France or Italy, the complantation has been largely abandoned. Italians have a term for a blend of grapes made in the vineyard and vinified together: uvaggio.
Now here are some of the excitingly obscure name of historical Chianti varieties that were examined with the CC2000 study:
Albano, Cascarella, Lugliola, Malvasia Bianca Lunga, Orpicchio, Perugino, Salamanna, San Colombano, Trebbiano Dorato, Vermentino Bianco, Zuccaccio (these are all white) and Aleatico, Canaiolo, Colorino del Valdarno, Foglia Tonda, Formicone Bonamico, Grossolano, Lacrima del Valdarno, Mammolo Nero (in several subvarieties including Primaticcio, Piccolo, Sgrigliolante) Mammola Tonda, Morellino, Passerina, Primofiore, Pugnitello, Rossone.
Before you smile asking ‘who on earth needs all these obscure useless grapes’, it is worth remembering that many grapes that were on the verge of extinction just a decade or two ago are now firmly established as some of the world’s most exciting. (Viognier is one example).
Mannucci Droandi, meanwhile, are offering varietal bottlings of other obscure historical grapes. The Barsaglina 2007 is a wine of some body and extract, quite tannic on end (I wonder how much of this derived from wood, of which there’s obviously been a little), rich but restrained and structured – which perhaps sums up the Chianti terroir somehow. The colour is moderately deep and the bouquet is modest: a little reductive and animal at first, with some bright red berries underneath. The fruit register and highish acidity are in fact Sangiovese-reminiscent, though the fierce tannins are not. Made in a rustic, challenging, not very elegant style, but surely with interest, though it’s hard to see exactly what this would contribute to a Chianti blend. The Foglia Tonda 2007 is altogether a better wine, with a cleaner and deeper aroma and a more balanced palate where the tannins are more integrated; there is some wood support but better digested than the Barsaglina above. An attractive wine with broad, assertive fruit and very good concentration, smoother and easier than a comparably sized Sangiovese (indicating Foglia Tonda as a softening and perhaps enriching grape in the blend).
Yet the most excitement comes with the regular, Sangiovese-based Mannucci Droandi bottlings. The Chianti Colli Aretini 2007 (coming from the historical core of the estate, the Campolucci vineyard located outside the Chianti Classico zone) is a typical Chianti with strong acids and mineral tannins, and plenty of seriousness too: most of Colli Aretini wines are for immediate drinking while this, aged in oak, can easily wait 4 or 5 years. Good impressions too for the Chianti Classico Ceppeto 2006 (Ceppeto is the name of a different, recently acquired property), riper and broader than the Colli Aretini, structured and tight and still somewhat dominated by the oak and extract, but with good fruit, length and potential. The Chianti Classico Ceppeto Riserva 2006 basically continues along the same lines, extractive and powerful with a tight mineral kernel wrapped in semi-intense crisp cherry. I’ve retasted these 2006s recently in Tuscany and they are evolving quite well (if slowly). Really distinctive and engaging stuff for a winery that only started bottling in 1998.
That’s why in recent years, I have increasingly favoured producers with a ‘light touch’, and especially those that use old large oak barrels instead of new French barriques. I won’t be making a huge discovery in saying that Sangiovese doesn’t take new oak very well. If the grapes are really concentrated and the ageing is done deftly, wines such as Percarlo,Flaccianello or Fontalloro can be excellent, but there is a unique airiness and transparence in Sangiovese that only sees the tighter grain and cooling effect of traditional Italian botti. In a restaurant in Castelnuovo Berardenga last week, I picked up a bottle of Castell’in Villa. It is an estate that somehow I have never tasted before. A strange one at that. It is mysteriously absent from many Italian wine books (meaning, probably, that they just don’t send tasting samples), and there isn’t even that much opinion about it on the internet. Yet among Chianti cognoscenti, Castell’in Villa enjoys an enviable reputation, especially for its older, pre-1990 vintages that are said to be among the finest examples of the above-mentioned airy, perfumed, acid-driven style of Chianti.
In recent years, this producer has introduced some small oak barrels in the ageing of its top wines, but this Chianti Classico 2005 only saw large botti. And it is a fantastic wine. Exactly the sort of unadulterated Sangiovese taste I was looking for. Colour is a bit darker than I anticipated for this traditional style: a transparent purple with not so much rim. Nose is delightfully fresh and fully announces what will happen on the palate: a solid core of the cleanest, juiciest crisp dark cherry. On the finish there is a moment of assertive, if unaggressive, perfectly pitched peppery tannins. The epitome of what a real Chianti Classico should be: clean, refreshing, driven, medium-bodied, serious, with good concentration. I honestly do not remember so much excitement in any other bottle of 2005 straight CC.
Castell’in Villa is located in Castelnuovo Berardenga,
on the southern outskirts of Chianti Classico.
Paolo de Marchi, owner of Isole e Olena.
Paolo De Marchi’s family comes from northern Piedmont, the land of Nebbiolo, so it is no wonder he brought with him quite a different wine sensitivity. His Sangiovese is among the palest-coloured, crispest, and most elegant in Chianti. We spent a lot of time in the vineyards, talking about the impressive vineyard replanting and clonal selection work that has been done here since 1976, when Paolo joined the estate. Replanting was necessary because all the vineyards planted after the massive migration were of insufficient quality. As heroic as the effort was for the owners in the 1960s to build their operations from scratch, vineyards were planted with vigorous high-yielding clones, at low density so as to allow mechanisation, etc. It took a good decade to experiment and select the best old genotypes of Sangiovese, and another to re-establish them in the vineyards. Meanwhile, white grapes were eliminated, French varieties introduced, plantings densified, cellars modernised. Modern Chianti is only now coming out of this painful adolescence.
The hamlet of Olena.
We tasted very good Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon but the Sangiovese wines shone above all else. I really like the Isole e Olena Chianti Classico for how unextracted and ‘unambitious’ it is. This is a wine not about power or concentration but zest and invigoration: precisely what Chianti should be in my book. Not a winemaker’s Chianti – even less so than Fèlsina’s – but a restaurant-goer’s. Buy as much of the 2006 as you can find. For Isole’s top Sangiovese, Cepparello (still bottled as an IGT, not a Chianti), we tasted the 2005 and 2006 (the latter unreleased). Back in October, the 2005 was tight as a fist, like a crouching tiger in the dark jungle of which you only see the glowing eyes. Now it has opened into a gem of floral, cherry-scented juiciness.
Sunset over Isole.
This long visit ended with a delightful dinner at the Michelin-1* restaurant Albergaccio in Castellina. The rather traditional food there paired well with older wines from Isole. Cepparello 1995 showed a little inert but the 1991, from an underrated vintage, was excellent, fresh and pitched. There was also a light but elegant Chianti 1988 and a more complex, satisfying 1982 Riserva, but the surprise of the night was the 1995 Chardonnay, saline and stony like a good Chablis!