Tag Archives: Chianti Rufina

Chianti classico finds its soul

The thirty miles between Florence and Siena takes you through one of the most famous landscapes in the world of wine.  But while the landscape has enduring appeal – gently undulating hills, now smart renovated farms, vineyards, cypresses, woodlands, more vineyards, medieval towns and castles – the wine is little understood.

Line drawing from Hugh Johnson, Tuscany and its wines

This is because the second half of the last century saw this famous name go down all sorts of blind alleys.  It is an undoubtedly an historic wine but one that has only recently begun to settled down with a clear identity. The debate has focused on:

  • the zone:  the classic area was given its first designation by Cosima III de’ Medici back in 1716 but in the 1930s the name of Chianti was bestowed on a vast area of central Tuscany between Pisa and Arezzo and well south of Siena.  It was not until 1996 that the Classico zone was redefined as the historic area between the two historic Tuscan cities.  But how many consumers know the difference between Chianti Classico and Chianti?
  • mass market or quality wine? The 1970s and 80s saw subsidised expansion of  land under vine at the lowest cost and with no regard for quality and the result.  The result was a lot of IMG_5366mediocre wine.  By contrast the Chianti 2000 project undertook research into clones of Sangiovese and has enabled Chianti Classico to head in the quality direction. It was spurred on of course by the fame and fortune that was being made by those creating the Super Tuscans, wines made from French grape varieties especially on the Tuscan coast.
  • the blend: at least since the later nineteenth century this has been Sangiovese plus secondary additions of other grapes to soften the wine.  Up to 20% of the other local grape varieties (usually Canaiolo, Malvasia nera, Colorino) gives you one result; 20% of Merlot, Cabernet or Syrah a completely different one.  So should Classico be a defined Tuscan style or a international red with a Tuscan twist?
  • oak ageing: should the wines be aged in small French barriques, older or newer, or in traditional, larger Slavonian oak barrels?  Or in other words should the fruit have a suave aroma of vanilla and tobacco or the more neutral if perceptible notes of balsamic, cloves and leather?

These questions were given a pretty clear answer in a blind tasting of Chianti Classico wines from the very good 2006 vintage, mostly sourced from the Wine Society.  The selection may of course simply reflect the preferences of their buyers but it showed that Classico does now have a clear identity:

  • pale to mid ruby red
  • distinctive aromas of sour cherry, fresh and dried fruit plus a moderate veneer of oak ageing
  • an absolute maximum of 10% of non-IMG_5388Tuscan grapes.  More than that and the wines may be good but they won’t be Chianti Classico in style, whatever it says on the label
  • good fruit on the palate (but certainly not fruit led) with moderate to high acidity and tannins. The wine at this quality level is  no longer either thin or tough as it was in the past, but it is no pushover either – it is quite rightly a wine of medium intensity, complex, lively and refreshing.
  • an excellent wine to accompany food including fatty/salty food such as prosciutto or tomato based sauces; good persistence.

Chianti Classico seems to have found its proper and distinctive place in a world awash with big, fruit led, wines – and long may it continue in this style.

The wines

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Monteraponi 2006, £14

90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo, 12 months 70% in 23hl casks of Allier oak and 30% second passage barriques.  Pale ruby, medium intensity aromas, nice pretty palate of cherry leading in the raspberry and strawberry direction, lowish acidity, subtle.  Good plus.

Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Chianti Classico 2006, made by Cecchi from the Villa Cerna estate, £7.50 Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino grapes, but the proportions not declared.  Mid ruby, not a fruity nose but spices, eg cloves, good fruit on the palate which faded in intensity quite quickly but then persisted at a lower level, good plus.  Worthwhile introduction to the style and held its own with wines up to nearly twice the price

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Villa Calcincaia 2006, £11.25

80% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo, 10% Merlot, 18 months in Slavonian oak.  Initially muted nose which then opened up, quite perfumed, slightly intenser than average of this field, greater acidity, powerful, quite long if not very complex finish.  The relatively substantial amount of Merlot does not dominate the wine.

IMG_5364Brolio 2006, £13 The website unhelpfully says: Sangiovese with small addition of other grapes, but probably with some French grapes in the mix because of a deeper colour with a continuing purple tinge. Very good fruit but not a clear Sangiovese profile (?Merlot), good persistence.  Very good if heading towards an international style.

Fonterutoli 2006, £16. 90% Sangiovese; 5% Malvasia Nera and Colorino; 5% Merlot.  Purply red, denser colour; rich, clove nose; velvety dense fruit, more obvious tannins, very good if slightly international in style

Villa di Vetrice, Chianti Rufina Riserva 2006, £8.50: 90% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo.  Not Classico of course but from the Rufina area directly East of Florence.  The most traditional wine in this tasting. Quite a dense ruby, rich and demanding, Sangiovese very dominant, more tannic than acidic, very good plus if very traditional

An older wine for comparison’s sake, with thanks to David Thomas of Caviste:  Castello dei Rampolla, Chianti Classico riserva 1998, generally viewed as a decent but not outstanding year in Tuscany. No grape variety breakdown available.  Colour very similar to the 2006s, lively pale to mid ruby red, no signs of ageing; complex nose, cloves, some red fruit, leather, fading fruit on the palate but still quite drying tannins.  Drink up.

Favourites

The clear favourite of the tasting group was the Monteraponi with its subtle ripe fruit.  Then came Brolio.  My choice was the traditional wine from Vetrice in Rufina – but that’s just a matter of which style you prefer.

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Vinitaly 4: high altitude Sangiovese

Sangiovese, the most important red grape of Tuscany, is famously variable.  It produces both thin sour wine (though today there is really no excuse for this) and some of Italy’s most magnificent, structured and age-worthy reds.  The May 2010 edition of Decanter magazine gives the Brunello riserva of 2004 from Biondi-Santi an amazing 20/20 score – apparently the perfect wine, even if it is a breathtaking £200 a bottle.

A huge range of Sangiovese styles was available of course at the recent Vinitaly.  My tastings of the wines from the Maremma (eg the very traditional and wonderful Podere 414 or the warm climate Parmaletto wines of Montecucco) will be added to the Tuscan Maremma pages of this site.  Here I want to concentrate on a favourite Chianti zone, cool Rufina, and one classic wine from southerly Montalcino. 

The Rufina zone is easy to reach as it is basically just east of Florence on the steep hills which rise from the Sieve river.  It is the coolest of the Chianti zones and can produce the most wonderfully austere wines with long ageing potential.  Fortunately this style is not to everyone’s taste so the wines are good value too.  

The Rufina consortium’s stand at Vinitaly gave a wonderful opportunity to taste a number of wines side-by-side and to compare each growers normale with the riserva.  Mind you, there is nothing ‘normal’ about these normali. 

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Here are the two offerings from the large firm of Galliga e Vetrice.  A trick of the light makes the normale on the right look rather darker than in reality, while the ageing of the riserva can clearly be seen in the brown tinge on the right.  The latter is available at a great price from Berry Bros.  

It would be tedious to rehearse all the wines here.  The pair shown above illustrate the two main styles, with the normale (2008) having wonderful freshness, a real zing and some classy minerality. By contrast the riserva of 2007 is very young and still showing tobacco and leather notes from oak ageing and is very tannic, very distinctive and will no doubt be wonderful in 5-10 years time. 

We also tasted wines from the very cool sites of Marchesi Gondi (their 2005 riserva has lots of potential but is still a sleeping giant), while Castello di Trebbio riserva 2006 has more fruit and is already drinking well – but then it was a better year.  We also enjoyed Dreolino’s two offerings. 

By complete contrast, at the Castello di Argiano stand we managed to catch up with a modern cult classic.   Argiano is one of the big names of the world famous Montalcino area which is a relatively high plateau with a distinctive geology and a local form of Sangiovese known as Brunello, the ‘little dark one’.  From these special berries – and three to five or more years in large, neutral, oak barrels – emerge wines of great complexity, structure and longevity.  Our short tasting started with the Brunello di Montalcino of 2005. Such is the richness of the experience at Vinitaly that you can occasionally skip all the ‘lesser’ wines and start with Brunello.  2005 was a mixed year but this now has nicely browning edges to its medium ruby colour, an attractive nose of red fruit and violets, and good balance. 

But the bottle we really wanted to taste is simply called Suolo – soil.  When we visited Argiano four years ago, I tried to buy a bottle of this not knowing how much it cost (€70), but it was sold out.  It is not Brunello in its typical style at all but a wine made from the same 100% Sangiovese grapes from 50 year old vines.  The principal difference is that the wine is aged for 18 months in new and one year old barriques, not the traditional larger botti.    This treatment means that it is a rather more modern style, with more obvious vanilla and leather aromas from the new oak, luxurious rather than austere. But the real triumph in this 2007 vintage is the beautiful, ripe fruit which shines through.  There is plenty of room in my (sadly hypothetical) grand cellar for brilliant new wines of this quality alongside traditional Brunello which will go on developing for years or decades. 

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Old style Chianti

Old style Chianti probably conjures up wicker baskets (in Italian – fiasco, which seems a little harsh) and thin, sharp wines.   In truth much of the cheap, commercial wines of previous decades was pretty awful.  Today’s wines are vastly better – quality wine making, vibrant if still sharp fruit, well judged use of oak-ageing in the premium wines.  If anything, the temptation recently has been to make international style wines with the Chianti Classico rules allowing up to 20% of grapes other than Sangiovese. That’s fine if the other grapes are Cannaiolo, Colorino or Ciliegiolo, the local varieties but not if they are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah.  The latter are such powerful characters that less than 10% will change the character of the wine completely.  Most growers have now understood this and retreated to a more traditional stance – Sangiovese plus local varieties, and if you must, a small percentage of French grape varieties for colour and upfront fruit. 

IMG_4284 A few growers have had nothing to do with these changing fads.  They can’t be called complete traditionalists because if they were they should still be adding some white grapes to their blends as happened in the past.  But they have stuck to Sangiovese plus locals.  Equally importantly they are looking for a style that does not focus on primary fruit flavours.  This Chianti Rufina, from a north easterly part of Chianti, East of Florence, is genuinely different – it’s perfumed.  There is some cherry fruit there, and some dried fruit flavours, but there is also something which has elements of both mushrooms and, well, Turkish delight …  The blend here is 90% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo nero.  This style takes time and this bottle was five years old and had many years ahead of it. But it’s a wine to celebrate because it couldn’t really have come from anywhere but the northerly hills of Chianti.  Available in the UK from both the Wine Society and Berry’s, between £8.50 and £10.50 a bottle.  Grati/Galiga e Vetrice also produced some premium wines and some great Vin Santo, but they don’t appear to be available here.  A good excuse for another trip to Chianti …

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