Is there a wine anywhere in the world that has improved as much as Chianti Classico? I very much doubt it but you’ll likely need a good memory and some grey hairs to clock the change, which dates to the late 90s and early 00s.
A diner at one of the UK’s typical Italian restaurants, back then, would have encountered a world of slightly supercilious service from besuited men of a certain age, perfunctory pasta, garlic bread (which is not remotely Italian) and, to crown it all, candlesticks in empty ‘fiascoes’, the straw-clad bottles that looked almost as rustic as their contents tasted. This was the era of wine discovery for me – and what I found sent me straight off to the New World in search of alternatives.
Top bottles of Chianti Classico now stand, neck held high, alongside the likes of Brunello di Montalcino
Italy is a country of noble traditions – in 1716, Chianti was one of the first demarcated wine regions anywhere in the world – blessed with beautiful landscapes, bountiful produce and charming people but it’s also one that has occasionally caused itself problems by overexploiting its riches. This happened with Chianti in the 20th century: the wine was a hit, with recognition to die for, the production zone became larger and volume went through the roof, courtesy of high-yielding clones of its signature variety, Sangiovese. A consequence was that the region ended up with the wrong clones planted in the wrong places, resulting in unremarkable wine. To make matters worse, a 1967 edict dictated that those wines should be diluted with up to 30 percent white grapes, from Malvasia and the decidedly dreary Trebbiano (aka Ugni Blanc, a worthy candidate for distillation, its primary use). The result was, well… a fiasco, in the more widely used sense of the word.
So what explains its remarkable renaissance? In 1996, the Chianti Classico DOCG was established in the original production zone, at Tuscany’s heart, followed by an expensive research programme, commissioned by the region’s consorzio, to identify the best suited clones of Sangiovese (rather than the most productive) and the optimum sites. Out went those white grapes and in came indigenous ones such as Canaiolo and Colorino, along with the international varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which were already fuelling the rise of the rival ‘Super Tuscans’. The introduction of the new UGA subzones strongly favoured by smaller scale producers who wish to focus on individual site specific quality may potentially herald the next phase in Chianti’s upward trajectory.
By some measure Italy’s most planted grape, Sangiovese must constitute 80 percent of a Chianti Classico but it often makes up 100 percent. Sometimes still denigrated as rustic, Sangiovese is actually vibrant, elegant and juicy, with those various changes, combined with the latest winemaking know-how, resulting in a step change in quality. The top bottles of Chianti Classico now stand, neck held high, alongside the likes of Brunello di Montalcino, its exclusive neighbour (also made from Sangiovese, of course).
It is a parable and the reward for producers, most of whom were tearing their hair out in the late 90s, has been a significant rise in prices. Yet I strongly believe that Chianti Classico, identified by the black cockerel crowing from its label (one of the world’s more successful appellation labels) still offers serious value now that it properly occupies its rightful place as one of the world’s finest wines.
WHAT DAVID HAS BEEN TASTING THIS MONTH:
- San Felice, Poggio Rosso, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2018 (£260 for a case of six, Millesima) – 100% Sangiovese from select parcels of the Poggio Rosso vineyard, this is a wine that’s emblematic of the revolution in quality in the DOCG. Tasting at a recent dinner at Oblix in London’s Shard, the nose offers raspberry, hibiscus and balsamic notes, while the palate, faintly flinty, elegant and precise, offers beautiful concentration, velvety smooth tannins and enticing ageing potential.
- Edouard Delaunay Gevrey Chambertin Le Village 2019 (£66, Majestic) – From an historic Côte D’Or estate, re-established in 2017 by Laurent Delaunay, great grandson of the estate’s original founder, Edouard, this notably bright, sweet-scented Pinot Noir offers delicate spice, plush tannins and impressive depth of plump cherry, berry fruit. Delicious now, this is also a keeper, if you can keep your hands off it.
- Chateau Léoube, Rouge Collector, 2016 (£65, Daylesford Organic) – When Daylesford’s owner, digger baron Lord Bamford (of JCB fame), decided he wanted a ‘Super Tuscan’ produced from his organic Provençal estate, the task fell to winemaker Romain Ott, a rosé pioneer. No mean feat but the resulting wine, equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (a rarity in Provence), is bold but beautiful, with a delicacy to its wild fruit aromas, tea-leaf notes and maquis (the dense dry scrub that’s similar to garrigue). On the palate, there’s muscular heft to rival the heavy bottle, lustrous complexity but also well integrated oak, making it perfect for a winter’s night by the fire.