Tag Archives: Chianti

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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How old is old?

Aged wines are something of an acquired taste.  They set up all sorts of conflicts.  Unless you are very fortunate or rich, laying down wines for the future is only for the patient.  Buying something that will be at its peak in 10, 20 or more years is extremely counter cultural.  Then of course there is the big decision on when to drink the wine – unless you have bought a case, it’s all or nothing.  Finally, there is the matter of taste – do you actually prefer young fruit-led wines or the bready aromas of aged champagne, the distinctly farmyard smells of old Pinot Noir or oxidized styles of old sherries and Vin Santo? 

A few recent bottles illustrates some of these dilemmas. 

Selvapiana Bucerchiale Chianti Rufina riserva 1998 This bottle illustrated the adage that simply ageing a wine will not make it great.  Most wine is best drunk young.  This riserva from one of Rufina’s best IMG_4230 growers may have been one of them despite its pedigree from an excellent winery in one of Chianti’s most northerly (and usually age-worthy) areas.  But if it’s a poor year to start with, the wine may just not have the fruit to develop, and that was the problem here.  Despite several hours in a decanter during which cleaned up a slight off smell in the bottle, it never really sang.  Remaining refreshing acidity but mono-linear. Disappointing. 

As commented on in the previous post, the expensive (£120) Taittinger Comtes des Champagnes 1998 still tasted rather closed – so in this case ‘old’ probably means a twenty year weight, rather than ten.  By contrast, 1999 Pannier Egerie is now ready to drink being in that fascinating state of tension between youth and decline, freshness and bottle age.  The sharp apples of the fruit were complemented by mushroomy notes and nice weight in the mouth.  To add to these treats a very generous host recently shared Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes d’or 1998 with us.  Feuilatte is widely available as a entry level Champagne in supermarkets but also has prestige lines of which this is the top offering.  Quite a lot of money had gone on the packaging – special plastic outer capsule, then a honeycomb style bottle.  The wine itself showed real class in the glass with a persistent mousse of ultra fine bubbles.  On the nose it was in mid-life, pastries and yeastiness and then rounded and civilized on the palate.   Probably the right time  to drink it – limited prospect of further development. 

here for the long term? Red Burgundy certainly repays ageing, again if it is of sufficient quality to start with.  At a recent Caviste tasting a Vallet Frères Gevrey Chambertin 2000 was superb – the lovely raspberry and redcurrant fruit now accompanied by a perfect accompaniment of earthly, composty goodness … Not old but perfectly mature.  As we like to think of ourselves. 

Finally, there are a small handful of wines made for the very, very long haul – they make all the preceding wines seems like children in the nursery.  Chenin Blanc can make almost every sort of wine from supermarket shelf-filler, to fizz, to grand white to off-dry or sweet wine that will outlast most of us.  Richard Kelley, an expert on the wines of the Loire, showed a range of these marathon wines for a Caviste tasting of the wines of Domaine Huet in Vouvray, Loire, France.  The reasons for their extreme longevity is the high level of malic acid in Chenin Blanc and then the northern latitude of the Loire.  All the acidity is retained and the wines are aged for decades in bottles; most will have residual sugar to offset the acidity.  Though I didn’t get to the full tasting, Richard still had a precious few drops of:

1947 Le Haut Lieu Moëlleux – as I tasted these wines in the hurly burly of a crowded shop, I am going to quote Richard Kelley’s own tasting note to give some idea of the complexity of these old wines:

1947 Le Haut Lieu Moëlleux (original cork)
The most highly respected Loire vintage of the 20th Century and in Gaston Huet’s own words ‘The greatest vintage I ever made’. The harvest commenced on the 19th September. Polished. Complex appearance with orange bronze moving to olive green at the rim. A mature nose with some positive oxidation. Complex and smoky with aromas of brown sugar and cinnamon. Beautiful on entry, it has poise and perfect balance. It is delicate, elegant, textured with a fresh, pure apple purée nose combined with toffee apples, crème brûlée and pommeau. There is a pure, racy acidity that contributes to the incredible length and persistence. This will continue to age indefinitely. A perfect wine. (08/04)

1938 Haut Lieu Demi-Sec – it’s difficult to believe that this bottle is more than 70 years old and still going strong, but it is.  You might be relieved to hear that it is beginning to plateau! Kelley says: 

Mid-full and polished appearance. Yellow/orange. Exotic nose with dried oranges and a mineral edge. Some mushroom, but retains good fruit to the palate. Bone dry on entry and finish with severe, but not unpalatable acidity. Quite simple. Drinking now or soon. (07/06)

1990 Clos du Bourg Moëlleux 1ere Trie.

By comparison, a babe in arms: easy to appreciate, lush, sweet, ripe apples, excellent acidic finish. In this company the strapping 19 year old comes over like a mere youth. 

There are many yet older wines still available – port, madeira, claret.  Michael Broadbent’s classic Vintage Wine. Fifty years of tasting over three centuries of wine is an excellent guide.  But these few bottles at least begin to  open up the complex question of how old is old – at least in terms of wine.

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