If you find Chianti confusing, you're not alone
The basket-bottomed bottle which once carried Chianti is called a “fiasco” in Italian. How the word came to mean an utter failure in English is unknown, but the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium seems to be doing its part to make the correlation. They’ve recently introduced another level of qualification to its DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controlata e Garantita) Chianti Classico called “Gran Selezione.”
One of Tuscany’s best winemakers, Alessandro Cellai of Castellare di Castellina talked about the new designation last week over lunch at Osteria Tulia in Naples. “Gran selezione is more like gran confusione,” he remarked over Tulia’s famous eggplant caponata, “even though many of our wines would qualify for this classification we will not participate. It seems like just a way for large producers to sell wine at higher prices.”
Italian wine and the laws that govern them are known for fluidity, outlawing what falls out of favor and offering opportunities to capitalize on what’s popular. Chianti is a poster-child for how confusing things can get. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that vineyard managers started planting sangiovese with sangiovese and canaiolo with canaioloo. Before, vintners relied on field blends in which indigenous red and white varietals were grown and harvested side by side and vinified together.
Further regulation in the 80’s allowed international and more fruit-forward varietals to be used, because fruit driven wines were driving the market. And now we have the introduction of a “new summit of the denomination,” creating an “authentic overhaul” according to the Chianti Classico Consortium’s web site. What is the difference? Mainly, the new level requires all the grapes are grown on vineyard-owned land and it must age for a minimum of 30 months. International varieties (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, etc.) are still allowed in the 20% of the blend that is not required to be sangiovese.
Here is a cheat sheet:
Chianti: must have at least 70% sangiovese in the blend, from area designated Chianti, aged at least 4 months.
Chianti Classico: minimum 80% sangiovese, from an area designated Chianti Classico. aged about a year (until October the year following harvest)
Chianti Classico Riserva: minimum 80% sangiovese, also from Chianti Classico area, aged minimum 24 months with additional 3 months aging in bottle.
Chianti Classico Gran Selezione: Minimum 80% sangiovese, all estate grown, aged 30 months with additional 3 months aging in bottle.
And this isn’t taking into consideration other notable Tuscan appellations such as Montalcino, Montepulciano or Chianti sub-regions like Colli Aretini, Rufina, or Montespertoli.
Confusing enough? That’s why a number of traditional Chianti Classico winemakers oppose the new designation.
To experience some of the best traditional Chianti Classico try Alessandro Cellai’s Castellare di Castelina wines. He uses only indigenous grape varieties (no cab, merlot,or syrah) because, he says, “it is our religion, not because we want to comply with rules. It is the authentic Chianti Classico.” The vineyard’s flagship wine, I Sodi di San Niccolo can be special ordered at local retailers and has gotten more than 90 points from wine critic Robert Parker almost every year since its first vintage. The current 2010 vintage scored 95 points.