Chianti has come a long way since the days of fiasco bottles in straw baskets. From what I saw on my recent trip to Tuscany, the best is yet to come.
I spent a week in the Chianti Classico area visiting wineries from San Casciano to Castelnuovo Berardenga. This is Italy’s Sangiovese country, though other varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah, not to mention the indigenous Colorino, Canaiolo and Mammolo—are planted and authorized for up to 20 percent of the blend in the Chianti Classico D.O.C.G.
The I.G.T. designation permits more flexibility in blending. Some labels, such as Fontodi’s Flaccianello, are 100 percent Sangiovese, while Castello Monsanto’s Nemo Il Mulino is 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and Barone Ricasoli’s Casalferro is 100 percent Merlot. I.G.T. bottlings are some of the least expensive as well as the most expensive wines from Chianti Classico, ranging from an introduction to a winery’s range to its flagship label.
The Chianti Classico zone is a rugged area, with a lot of treacherous roads. I didn’t need the GPS instructing me to “turn right” off a cliff to realize driving slowly and carefully was necessary.
The zone’s series of ridges and valleys offers a variety of soils, altitudes and exposures for Sangiovese. This in turn creates several different types of wines, from rich and powerful to elegant and racy.
The Sangiovese grape, with more than 100 different biotypes (Banfi claims to have found 600 on its property), is sensitive to where it is planted, and its quality depends on the soils, exposure and mesoclimate.
Sangiovese performs at its best between 250 meters (825 feet) above sea level and 500 meters (1,650 feet). The lower elevations tend to have more clay soils, while the higher sites are stony and calcareous. Two major types of stone are found there: the friable schist of the area, known as galestro, and the harder albarese.
There tend to be more stony soils in the northern end, near Florence. The closer you get to Siena, the landscape opens up, with more gentle slopes, a higher clay content in the soils and warmer climate.
As in most northern hemisphere vineyards, the best sites face south, southeast or southwest, although there are some north-facing sites.
The varying elevation, exposure and soil type, like in these vineyards at Fontodi near Panzano, all have an influence on the quality and style of Sangiovese.
Most importantly, the focus has been on quality since the 1970s, and there has been significant research into developing the best clones and matching them to the correct rootstocks (i.e. low-vigor rootstocks for lower yields and, where necessary, rootstocks tolerant to active lime in the soil) and planting in the best sites. Most of the estates I visited have replanted their vineyards in the past 20 years, or are in the process of doing it now.
Some, like the Mazzei brothers at Fonterutoli, Ricasoli at Brolio and Gioia Cresti at Carpineto Fontalpina have experimental plots with several different clones. Others, like Giovanni Manetti at Fontodi and Laura Bianchi and her father Fabrizio at Castello di Monsanto, used massale selection, replanting the vineyard’s best cuttings, to continue the best plant material for their respective estates.
As a result, the average age of Sangiovese vines in the region is still young. Nicolò d’Afflitto, enologist for Frescobaldi’s estates feels confident that “in the correct site, with the right rootstock, Sangiovese vines can get very old.” In the past, vineyards were replanted every 25 years or so, but at Frescobaldi, they are now aiming for 60-year-old vines. At Il Molino di Grace near Panzano, the Gratius vineyard has 70-year-old vines.
Planting densities have also increased, mostly from about 3,000 plants per hectare (1,200 per acre) to 5,000 plants per hectare (2,000 per acre) and in some cases even higher (6,600 per hectare or 2,700 per acre at Ricasoli). The training is mostly cordon and spur, but there is also Guyot, as these are similar ways of guiding vine growth.
Some of the most elegant, pure Chianti Classicos I tasted were at Castello di Ama, where Marco Pallanti farms several rocky sites at an altitude of 500 meters (1,600 feet). It’s a cool area, giving the wines freshness and plenty of perfume and mineral elements. I also liked the floral, raspberry and mineral-flavored Colli della Toscana Centrale Flaccianello from Fontodi.
Fonterutoli also plants Sangiovese at around 500 meters, but its vineyards are open to the west and benefit from the ocean breezes. Nonetheless, its Castello di Fonterutoli, a blend of 90 percent Sangiovese and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, combines elegance with restrained power. Barone Ricasoli’s Chianti Classico Colledilà 2008 also shows elegance, with ample flesh, and Antinori’s Chianti Classico Badia a Passignano Riserva 2007 was delicate and ethereal, yet intense and long.
The more powerful, richer Chianti Classicos were represented by Tenute di Nozzole’s Chianti Classico Riserva 2008 and Chianti Classico La Forra Riserva 2007 (the former is pure Sangiovese, while the latter adds a dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon). Carpineto Fontalpina makes a lush, black cherry- and blackberry-laced Chianti Classico Riserva 2008.
With wines this full of character, I can only imagine in another 10 years, once the vines are older and each estate understands its parcels and specific clones better, that the quality of Sangiovese from Chianti Classico should be superb.
Bryan Hassin — Houston, TX — May 10, 2011 7:33pm ET
Tom Blair — Little Silver, NJ — May 10, 2011 10:40pm ET
John Wright — Palm Beach Gardens, FL, USA — May 11, 2011 10:02pm ET
Bruce Sanderson — New York — May 17, 2011 10:47am ET
Kyle Hight — Atlanta, GA — May 17, 2011 1:53pm ET
Juan Morales — Monterrey NL Mexico — May 20, 2011 7:39pm ET
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