The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

How We Got Chianti Classico

Why Chianti Classico embodies the whole history of Italian wine


All roads lead to Chianti

As much as Chianti Classico is the embodiment of Toscana, it is also a quintessential illustration of how deeply problematic DOC laws can be. The history of Chianti Classico–both its geographical location and its wines–is more or less the story of a restless conflict between the wine producer and the governing body, and how, in the end, though the latter may try to shape the former, the wine producer wins.

In some ways, it all begins and ends in the eighteenth century. In 1716, the Grand Duchy of Toscana Cosimo III de’Medici wrote the first set of laws regulating the cultivation of grapes and vinification of Tuscan wine and designated the hilly region nestled between Siena and Firenze as Chianti. This geographical designation stayed in place until the 1932 Dalmasso Commission (a DOC precursor) expanded the region and added additional sub-zones to the Chianti name; these included San Casciano Val di Pesa to the west, as well as Chiocchio, Strada (in Chianti), and San Polo to the north. This enlarged area became the geographical basis for the 1967 DOC designation, during which time there was no DOC distinction between Chianti and Chianti Classico. It was all just Chianti.

What this rezoning meant was that Chianti Classico, other than gaining in size and going from a relatively tidy zone to a bloated region, also saw its wine tradition become suddenly more diffuse. This diffusion, however, wasn’t exactly anything new. Historically, Chianti had been made of Canaiolo, Sangiovese, and Mammolo and Marzemino. But Chianti also was as much a region as a style of wine, for historical slang called any vermillion or Florentine wine “Chianti.” In an attempt to codify his region’s most famous wine, nineteenth- century nobleman, Baron Bettini Ricasoli advised that the Chianti formula be crafted using Sangiovese for its basis, along with added parts of Canaiolo and white grapes, and in fact he mandated that the region’s vineyards grow specific percentages of these grapes.

Panzano's Fontodi gives a view of the Conca d'Oro

Panzano’s Fontodi gives a view of the Conca d’Oro

Taking the Baron’s somewhat apocryphal recipe as a form of gospel, the DOC officially made it the formula for Chianti in 1967, requiring Chianti to use Sangiovese (from 75-100%), with ample doses of Canaiolo (max. of 10%), and up to 30% of white grapes (Trebbiano Toscano and/or Malvasia Bianca). While the Baron created his Chianti mandates with the best of intentions, he ended up paving the road to bad wine, for those good intentions essentially gave a blank check to the impoverished producers of 1960’s and 70’s Italy to make wine for sheer quantity, not quality.  The cheap, pizza-place, fish-shaped, straw-covered fiasco Chianti was born.

But if it’s true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then it’s equally true that necessity is the mother of invention, and so in 1924 some producers in what had been the original 1716 Chianti region–and what would later become Chianti Classico–staged a revolt. These producers did two things: they banded together to create the Gallo Negro, or Black Rooster, a consortium of like-minded producers, and they made great wine that staunchly refused to fit the DOC paradigm.  Producers like Antinori, Fontodi and Tenuta San Guido rebelled by making wines that were 100% Sangiovese, or Sangiovese mixed with international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, and thereby they gave birth to the so-called Super-Tuscan movement. Sitting outside the DOC paradigm, these wines were called vin da tavola and designated IGT–or table wine–the lowest classification. It didn’t matter. People bought them. And soon the DOC realized they had to change.

In 1984, two DOCG designations, Chianti Classico and Chianti, were created that forever split the region. Chianti Classico’s geographical area essentially replicated the original 1716 Chianti designation. In addition to a smaller, neater region of 17,000 acres, DOCG regulations for Chianti Classico limited the grape production, so while those same 17,000 acres produced 8.5 million gallons of wine in the late 1980s, by 2004, production dropped to about 6.5 million gallons.  In fact, the 1984 DOCG Chianti Classico laws support the Black Rooster’s aim of making Chianti great: in addition to maximum production amounts, DOCG laws set minimum extract amounts (extracts are the solids in wine that provide flavor), longer aging requirements and more flexible varietal requirements.


Castello dei Rampolla unfolds in biodynamic rows

The Chianti Classico DOCG laws that followed in 1984 decreased the allowable usage of white grape varietals to a maximum of 6%. Conversely, the laws allowed international varietals—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah in a maximum of 10%. Producers responded by making improvements in the cellar like installing temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, replacing older botti with smaller barriques, and implementing longer maceration periods. The end result was Chianti that tasted like Toscana: bold, powerful, earthy, and redolent of fruit and violets.

In 1996, Chianti Classico DOCG once more revised the initial laws established in 1984 to include a maximum of 15% international varietals—making the white grape blessedly optional. In 2006, an additional provision was mandated; starting with the 2006 vintage, wines labeled Chianti Classico DOCG must be comprised of 80-100% Sangiovese and 20% other permitted red grape varietals. Other than geography, this elimination of the white grape requirement delineates the main difference between Chianti Classico DOCG and Chianti DOCG. (Chianti DOCG retains the 1984 laws, which allow for a higher percentage of white grapes and a lower percentage of international varietals.)

For a list of IWM’s fine Chiantis, go here. There are some beautiful Sangiovese wines from them there Tuscan hills. And don’t miss the 2010 La Maialina Chianti Classico featured in today’s eLetter. It’s under $19!

Expert Picks: Castello dei Rampolla and Querciabella

Two expert selections from Garrett Kowalsky

Garrett_8.6.14_72dpiA lot of wine passes through IWM’s cellar here in Manhattan. I constantly marvel at the treasures that lurk beneath our operations, but I am always equally thrilled with the impending arrival of more treasured bottles of vino. I got excited when I spotted an upcoming delivery of two of my favorite (and arguably underappreciated) Super-Tuscan wines. I’ve enjoyed both the ’09 Sammarco and the ’10 Camartina in the past and was completely blown away by them. Here they are for you, available again and delicious now—and for the next decade.

Castello dei Rampolla 2009 Sammarco $79.99

Castello dei Rampolla is located in the Chianti region of Tuscany and dates back to the 1300’s. However, the Super-Tuscan did not debut until 1980 when Alceo Napoli dreamed up a blend of his own as an homage to the great Sassicaia (a personal favorite of his). His twist however was making sure the Sangiovese, the quintessential Italian grape, was in the mix. 2009 was a splendid and warm vintage in Chianti that produced approachable and fruit-forward wines. Do not be fooled, however: this ’09 may drink well now but it has the stuffing to go another 15-20 years if you let it.

Querciabella 2010 Camartina $129.99

Querciabella is another elite estate from Chianti, however the root of this property date back to just the 1970’s. Almost falling in line with Sammarco, the Camartina debuted in 1981 but where it differs is in the blend. Its rich texture comes from being predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, but Camartina uses a higher percentage of—about 30 percent to Sammarco’s 5 percent. Also of note to wine lovers, the estate has been organic since 1988 and biodynamic since 2000, one of the first in the region to receive their certification, although Castello dei Rampolla has also gone completely biodynamic. Dark fruit and spice abound in this wine, which makes me dream of enjoying it alongside a NY strip steak. With decanting, drink now or cellar to  2030.

Changes in Chianti and Chianti Classico–the Chianti Classico Gran Selezione

How Chianti is changing–for the better!

unnamedToday’s eletter offered Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva 2008, so we wanted to revisit the latest changes to Chianti’s regulations.

Chianti Classico Gran Selezione made its United States debut last week in New York City, and I had the privilege of moderating its U.S. premiere to the press and trade. This action-packed day was the first look at the new top tier wine category of Chianti Classico. It began when I introduced Sergio Zingarelli, President of the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico and owner of on behalf of the nearly 600 members of the Consorzio and the 28 wineries in attendance, who gave opening remarks highlighting this new era for Chianti Classico on behalf of the nearly 600 members of the Consorzio and the 28 wineries in attendance. Sergio’s father, the famed Italian film producer, Italo Zingarelli, purchased Rocca delle Macìe estate in 1973. Sergio referred to Gran Selezione as the Chianti Classico Revolution, suggesting its importance.

unnamed-4The new Chianti Classico Gran Selezione designation will sit at the top of the summit of the Chianti Classico pyramid. Chianti Classico itself was born in 1716 when Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, delimited the Chianti production zone to the nine communes between the provinces of Florence and Siena. In 1932 a ministerial decree was issued to distinguish the Chianti made in its zone of origin by adding the suffix “Classico.” Today, the Chianti Classico production zone still lies between the provinces of Florence and Siena, entirely covering the Chianti communes of Castellina, Gaiole, Greve and Radda, as well as parts of Barberino Val d’Elsa, Castelnouvo Berardenga, Poggibonsi, San Casciano Val di Pesa, and Tavarnelle di Pesa.

In short, Chianti Classico now makes three types of Chianti:The suffix “Classico” is important because it distinguishes Chianti Classico and Chianti. The two different DOCGs have different sets of production regulations, production zones and consortiums. The total Chianti vineyard area is 24,700 acres, while 17,784 acres of vineyards are registered as Chianti Classico. Sangiovese reigns as the king of all grapes planted in both, although rules allow for the option of maximum 20% of red indigenous varieties such as Colorino and Canaiolo, as well as “international” varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. At the top of the DOCG Chianti Classico quality pyramid, Gran Selezione must be produced exclusively with grapes from single vineyards or selected from the estate’s best-suited vineyards. The technical and organoleptic characteristics are stricter, and the wines can’t be released to market before a minimum of 30 months after the harvest, including three months of bottle aging. The wineries will be obliged to declare in advance whether the intended wine is going to be Chianti Classico Annata, Chianti Classico Riserva, or Chianti Classico Gran Selezion, which will eventually account for about 10% of the Chianti Classico production. At the moment it is about 7-8%.

Chianti Classico Gran Selezione DOCG

• Gran Selezione must be made from exclusively from a winery’s own grapes

• A minimum aging requirement is 30 months, including 3 months of bottle aging

• Grapes permitted are Sangiovese from a minimum of 80% to 100% including the option of a maximum 20% of red indigenous varieties such as Colorino and Canaiolo, as well as “international” varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot

• A minimum alcohol content of 13%

Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG

• A minimum aging requirement is 24 months, including 3 months of bottle aging

• A minimum alcohol content of 12.5%

• Grapes permitted are the same as Gran Selezione

Chianti Classico Annata DOCG

• A minimum aging requirement is 12 months

• A minimum alcohol content of 12%

• Grapes permitted are the same as Gran Selezione and Riserva

The presentation was followed by a well-organized, focused tasting with 28 wineries presenting their Gran Selezione mostly from the 2010 vintage, with a smaller selection of 2011s and 2009s. As all good Chianti wine needs good food to showcase the glories of the vine, the Consorzio hosted a magnificent seven-course dinner prepared by famed Tuscan Butcher and Chef, Dario Cecchini at the Four Seasons Restaurant with thirty two Gran Selezione wines. It was, in all, a lovely premiere for a very exciting new designation.

The Singing of Sangiovese, in Pian del Ciampolo

Montevertine’s under $35 entry-level Super Tuscan

RD8533-2When we think of Super-Tuscan wines, we usually think of wines that are on the modern side, big and rich utilizing French oak and international grapes like Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah. But that’s only part of the story. There is also a side to Super Tuscans produced by those who are Sangiovese purists. These are wines made to express the Sangiovese grape and Tuscan tradition, with no international varieties added at all.

One exceptional producer is Montevertine. Restored by Sergio Manetti in 1967, the estate lies in the heart of Chianti 450 meters above sea level. Manetti produced his first vintage in 1971 and ever since Montevertine has been producing spectacular Sangiovese-based wines: Pian del Ciampolo, Le Pergole Torte and Montevertine.

Last night I had the entry-level bottle of the trio, a lighter wine that’s made for earlier drinking, Pian del Ciampolo 2012, a blend of 90% Sangiovese, 5% Canaiolo, and 5% Colorino—all grapes that are all native to Tuscany. The wine is aged in Slavonian oak barrels for 12 months before bottling resulting in a delightful easy-drinking wine.

The color is dark red—almost like blood. On the nose, you get all the typical Sangiovese aromas: dark cherry, spice, currants red berries followed by olives. There is earth that seems restrained and minerality in the background.  The palate is full and fruity with well-balanced tannins and clean acidity. If you’re in the mood for a Super Tuscan that is not an oak or fruit bomb, try Montevertine. Start with the Pian del Ciampolo and you’ll see how Sangiovese can sing on its own.

Inside IWM, April 28-May 1, 2014: Drink What You Love

A look back at the week that was

448px-Barbera_clusterMaybe it’s the spring eliciting all the feelings of love, but Inside IWM was driven by passion this week. We began with a paean to the “People’s Wine,” Barbera, and an articulation of why you should drink it early and often. On Tuesday, Camacho offered a history lesson as a reason to adore an under $25 Chianti from Priniepe Corsini. On Wednesday, Garrett let his feelings for French wines show in his simple guide to picking French wines for your cellar. And on Thursday, David Bertot offered a simple recipe that’s hard not to love: ramps pesto. He paired it with one of our favorite Sicilian whites, COS Rami.

Our Experts similarly let their love lights shine. David Gwo selected a pair of Sangiovese wines, one Chianti Riserva and one Brunello di Montalcino, to illustrate the beauties of the grape. Like David, Robin Kelley O’Connor took to Toscana, selecting two wines to keep you warm in spring’s changeable weather: Valdicava Rosso and Castello dei Rampolla Vigna d’Alceo. Justin Kowalsky answered this time-honored question: “Are there affordable Burgundies?” His answer is a resounding yes; both wines are fantastic bargains, neither more than $65. And Francesco picked a pair of delicious wines, a vintage Sassicaia and a value Sicilian Rosso from Graci.

Here’s to feeling the spring love this weekend, and toasting to it with excellent vino!

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