A Change Has Come to Chianti Classico

You're invited to a dinner party and you ask your hosts "What should I bring?".   It's an Italian themed affair, so they suggest you bring a bottle of Chianti (Key- awn- ti).  Chianti is the name of a large area between Florence and Siena, with seven subzones that surround the Chianti Classico zone in Tuscany Italy.  When Italians speak of "Classico" they are referring to the original or heart of an area. 

If you're unfamiliar with Chianti it's pretty easy to find entry level Chianti in the $7 to $12 range.  If you want a bottle with more power and fragrance you should search for a  Chianti Classico or a wine from one of the appended regions surrounding the classico zone such as Chianti Rufina (Roo- fee- nah) or Chianti Colli Senesi (Coh- lee Say- nah- zee).  Price points for these wines range between $12 and $25.  Next up in quality is Chianti Classico Riserva.   Riserva signifies that a wine has received extended aging in either wood, bottle or both.   Riservas typically represent the best that a producer has on offer and you can expect to spend between $20  and $40.  If this wasn't confusing enough the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico members ratified new rule changes for Chianti Classico in 2013.  There is now a new classification for Chianti Classico: the Gran Selezione (Say- Lek- zee- on- eh). 

Chianti Classico Gran Selezione wines are just now coming onto the market and we were fortunate to be invited to the Chianti Classico trade walk around tasting on May 11th 2015, in the Crown Room at The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. 

Perched atop Nob Hill with breathtaking panoramic views, The Crown Room was a perfect venue for the premiere debut of the new Chianti Classico Grand Selezione wines.  Grand Selezione is being trumpeted as another tier at the top of the DOCG quality hierarchy.

 For a detailed primer on the regulations involving Chianti Classico click this link http://italianwinecentral.com/chianti-classico-gran-selezione/.  For a concise explanation of Chianti Classico with respect to its traditions and how its changed over the years pick up a copy of Matt Kramer's book; Making Sense of Italian Wine. 


What is Chianti Classico Gran Selezione?  The rules regarding the production of the various types of Chianti vary greatly.  Unfortunately, strict codification does not correlate in any way with whether the producers wine is good or not.  Albeit a good starting point, the ultimate proof of a wines worth isn't found in the classification but in the finished product.  The rules of production for Chianti Classico Gran Selezione call for estate grown fruit, 30 months minimum aging, 13% minimum alcohol content and certification by authorized laboratories and special tasting committees. On the surface it sounds great, but here's the rub.  Most quality Chianti Classico producers have been meeting these quality standards for years.   It seems that there isn't much to distinguish between a Gran Selezione or a Riserva Chianti Classico except the premium price one has to pay for the six months additional aging of the former.  Most of the Gran Selezione wines start in the $40 range with several producers pushing the envelope at $150.  Are the Gran Selezione Chianti Classico wines really that much better than the Chianti Classico Riservas we've been enjoying up till now?  Having just added  a bunch of wonderful 2010 Chianti Classico Riservas to my wine stash, none of which I paid more than $30 a bottle for, I can't help but wonder if this new category is an attempt to shake up the stagnant pricing for Chianti Classico?  Are there controls in place to stop a producer from sitting on their Riserva wines for an additional six months, then simply relabeling them and up-charging the consumer for the same wine?  This was a common practice in California back in the seventies and is the reason why in general the words 'Reserve' on a bottle of wine from the Golden State is essentially meaningless. When a producer markets a Gran Selezione, will that product by default declassify their  Riserva; denigrating its value?  How will this new category affect the other wines in a wineries portfolio?  That said, the overall quality of the wines we tasted were outstanding.

Most of the producers line-ups included their Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva and their Chianti Classico Gran Selezione.  One over-riding theme that kept coming up as I tasted the wines presented was that in general I preferred the Riserva and Chianti Classico wines.  Some of the producers may be trying too hard and the input from the winemaking side made the wines seem  too powerful.  They seemed to have the slap you side the head, look at me make up in their DNA.  Stunningly wonderful wines for sure, representing the best of the best and sure to reward careful, patient cellaring.   And to taste oh what a treat, but if I were choosing a bottle to take to a dinner party, a less ambitious Chianti Classico from a quality minded producer, with its gregarious nature, clarity of fruit and refreshing acidity would be more appropriate.  There's drinking wines and there are tasting wines and a fair number of the Gran Selezione wines as good as they are now fall into the latter category.

The conundrum  the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico must deal with, is confusion in the marketplace.  The minimum grape variety requirement for Sangiovese Chianti Classico is 80%.  Many producers elect to make 100% Sangiovese wines, but the rules allow you to add up to 20% of indigenous varieties or international varieties such as Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  In my opinion any of those varieties, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon added at those percentages, combined with over ambitious barrel aging hinders the delicate floral nature of Sangiovese.  From a consumer viewpoint three bottles side by side on a retailers shelf bearing the same Gran Selezione designation, could have strikingly different sensory profiles.  Chianti has always been a blended wine and it wasn't until as recently as 2006 that white grapes such as Trebbiano and Malvasia were eliminated from the prescribed blend.  This myriad of choices for blending only serves to baffle the consumer.  Most producers decided to stay at the 10% and below line if they elected to include Cabernet Sauvignon in their blend.  The wines on offer were well blended and I could not detect any out of balance wines with regard to varietal correctness.  In fact I was surprised to discover after tasting Fontodi's Vigna del Sorbo that it only included 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, having mistaken it's wound tight, firm backbone on initial tasting for a wine that sported a healthy dose of Cabernet.       


There were several producers at the event who candidly disclosed  they were in favor of the Consorzio adopting a 100% Sangiovese disipline, similar to the regulations observed by their neighbors to the south, in the region of Brunello di Montalcino.  Their sentiment has merit.  What brand Brunello di Montalcino has achieved in less than fifty years with regard to prestige and pricing is remarkable.  Whether Brunello's notoriety is a result of excluding any complimentary grapes from the wine is up for debate, but it does offer the consumer (discounting recent scandals) a greater surety of the type of wine they can expect when they make a purchase.              

At this point I have more questions than answers, but I must reiterate the new Gran Selezione wines are high-quality cellar candidates.  These are statement wines of power and panache.  Try as many of the 2010's and 2011's as you can afford and please leave a comment letting  us know what you discover.  Almost half of my recommended wines have not made it to retailers yet, so while you're waiting the smart money is on the excellent and reasonably priced Chianti Classico Riservas from the 2010 and 2011 vintage.  As with any new classification there is always room for refinement and as the dust settles and  we see more of the wines come onto the market, we'll get more of a sense of where the Gran Selezione category is headed.  Grazie Mille to the Consorzio and its producers for hosting the event.

Stay tuned for our Recommendations!