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Chianti Classico
Nestled in the rolling countryside between the patrician, renaissance piazzas of Florence and the medieval warrens of ancient Siena lies one of the world’s great wine regions;Chianti Classico, the historic heart of Chianti. The hillsides are dotted with all manner of fortifications, a testament to the once deadly rivalry between these two proud and powerful city-states. These days, the most deadly aspect of the region may be the winding country roads that are chock full with lane challenged Brits on summer holiday in “Chiantishire.” Hordes of tourists aside, Chianti Classico is a great place to eat and drink. This is in no small part due to the quality and value of the region’s flagship wine.

The Chianti production zone has actually had a reputation for exceptional wines since the 1200s. For centuries the area has been planted to Sangiovese along with Canaiolo, Trebbiano, Malvasia, and several lesser-known varietals. It was not until 1872, however, that the modern formula for Chianti was devised after decades of experimentation. This recommended that Chianti be based on Sangiovese with the addition of small amounts of Canaiolo to soften the wine. Additionally, if the wine was meant to be drunk young it could be further softened with a dollop of the white grape, Malvasia.

We have written extensively about the sea change sweeping Chianti Classico over the last two decades. Suffice it so say that perhaps no other region in the world has put so much effort into viticultural practices over the last 30 years. The “Chianti 2000” program sought to isolate the best clones of Sangiovese, plant them where they would produce the “best” wines, and identify which methods of vinification were most appropriate to Sangiovese.

The program was started largely in response to the fact that Chianti in post-war Italy had lost its way. In contrast to the thin table wine being produced 30 years ago, Chianti today is almost unrecognizable. The question is, is this wine still Chianti as we have come to know it?

In May 2000 the region’s growers applied to modify the DOCG regulations covering the production of Chianti. They sought to abolish the inclusion of white grapes by 2005 and to increase the percentage of Sangiovese in the blend from 75- to 80-percent. The remaining 20-percent could either be comprised of traditional varietals such as Canaiolo, or international varietals such as Cabernet and Merlot. It is probably no accident that this 80/20 ratio is the preferred blend of most of the appellation’s Super Tuscan bottlings. Subsequently, each succeeding vintage sees a handful of producers fold what had been their flagship Super Tuscan bottling into their Chianti Riserva. Does this mean that Chianti Riserva is likely to become a formalization of the Super Tuscan blends that have garnered so much praise over the 30 years? Not necessarily.

The work with Sangiovese over the last 30 years has led to a varietal that Tuscan vintners increasingly think will stand on its own merits. This has led to a backlash of sorts against the inclusion of French varietals and, increasingly, the use of barriques. The leading Chianti enologist, Roberto Stucchi Prinetti claims that “virtually no one” is incorporating 10- to 15-percent of the international varietals in their Chiantis anymore.

He also claims that vintners are coming around to the view that “barriques can internationalize and overrun Sangiovese” and that their use seems to be fading as more and better clones of Sangiovese are being used in today’s blends of Chianti. The view in the region seems to be that the ongoing study of Sangiovese has improved clones to the point that international varietals are increasingly being rendered moot. There has even been a trend within Tuscany and the wider Italian press to blame the international media for “pushing Cabernet on Tuscany.”

It would seem then that the Super Tuscan trend is increasingly viewed as having served its purpose. Namely, to reawaken the region to its nearly limitless potential to produce world class wines. Now the goal is to promote Chianti Classico as the region’s flagship wine and restore the Chianti name to its pride of place in the wider wine world. Simply put, while Tuscany has demonstrated that it can produce Cabernet that can compete with the best examples from around the world, only Tuscany can produce world class Sangiovese. Chianti producers thus firmly believe that their futures are inextricably linked to Sangiovese.

Will international consumers accept expensive flagship Chianti Riservas, however? It would seem so. Prices for many have topped the $50 mark in the States, yet at the same time sales in the U.S. have increased dramatically. In 2000, the United States bought nearly 27% of the Chianti Classico produced (over 10 million bottles). It would seem that U.S. consumers can’t get enough Chianti these days.

This is probably with good reason. Chianti has never been better and current trends seem to be simplifying the legendarily muddled system of labeling in Chianti. Increasingly, it seems Chinati is poised to follow a two-track system where Chianti Normale will be a pure, well-cut Sangiovese that works brilliantly at the table for near-term drinking and offers an excellent price-to-quality ratio. Chianti Riserva, on the other hand, will be a limited production wine made to keep in the cellar and stand as one of the world’s great wine styles. Some will continue to be made in a Super Tuscan style with small percentages of French varietals and barrique aging, but the majority will be botti aged Super Sangioveses, sort of a more nervous and elegant style of Brunello.

The Super Tuscans will still no doubt be produced, albeit in perhaps more limited quantities, but they will be de-emphasized in producers’ portfolios. The next phase in Chianti’s development will likely see investment in the promotion of the region’s unique terroir. Proposals are already underway in the grower’s consortium to formalize a system of classification and labeling by sub-appellation. Such a system would complete the region’s transformation from a chaotic mish-mash to an appellation that is easier to understand and appreciate for both experts and novices alike. Being Italy, however, this final step may take another generation. In the meantime; however, it will certainly be entertaining to track their progress. (Wine/Appellations)