A Modest Proposal for Chianti Classico

A few weeks back, the Chianti Classico Consorzio reported that its members had approved a new category for Chianti Classico, in addition to the existing ones, Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva. This new, yet-to-be-named category will “exclusively denote the Chianti Classico wines made from grapes grown solely by the pertinent winery. So there will be no percentage of grapes grown by or wines made from other wineries.”

One possible response to that is “Huh? Why hasn’t that been a basic requirement of the denomination all along?” Another and far more serious one, I think, is “Oh no! Not one more name to deal with.” Chianti Classico is already not one thing but a collection, as the name of its annual new-release presentation – which I attend each year – implies – and that is probably the root of its market identity problem, which another new category and name can only intensify.

This year’s new-release presentation: The Chianti Classico Collection

To begin with, the soils and expositions of the Chianti Classico zone are extraordinarily varied. This would make the wines of different estates markedly different from each other, even if they were made from the same grapes in the same style – but they are not. Classico Chianti can range from 100% Sangiovese (from many quite various clones) down to 80%, and the remaining 20% can be from varieties as diverse as the native Canaiolo and Colorino to the international Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot.

Additionally, fermentation and aging can take place in everything from multi-hectoliter casks of unassertive Slavonian oak down through the whole range of sizes and woods to the extreme of French or American oak barriques – and those can be new or used (one, two, or three prior times), raw or toasted. Many, many of the 2006 Riserva Chianti Classicos that I tasted last February at the Chianti Classico Collection presentation, for instance, were marked by an assertive (too assertive for my palate) aroma and taste of toasted oak – espresso on the nose and char on the palate.

But that is by the way: The real point is that all these variations produce very different versions of the wine, so that the name Chianti Classico on the label actually tells you very little, unless you know the style of the individual producer – and with 350 of them bottling their own wine, that’s asking a lot from consumers.

Compound that big number by the fact that many of these producers make several versions of Chianti Classico – a normal bottling, a cru or a special selection, a riserva, maybe a cru or special selection riserva – and now maybe one more label, indicating that these are all their own grapes.

Then add to all that the fact that several other zones are entitled to call themselves Chianti (without the Classico of course, but already-dazed consumers don’t always notice that) – well, you’re left with a situation where many consumers will simply shrug off the whole scene and buy something else; or buy on price alone; and, if they’ve made a poor choice, conclude that Chianti just isn’t very good.

It’s a horror story for consumers and serious producers alike, and something drastic ought to be done about it – but not, I think, what the Consorzio has just done: its opposite, rather.

So here’s my not-so-very-modest-after-all proposal for clarifying the Chianti situation. It hasn’t got the chance of a snowball in hell of happening, but it’s the direction that I believe the Consorzio and its members ought to be pursuing for the sake of market clarity, consumer sanity, and – ultimately – producers’ profits.

Step 1: Restrict the use of the name Chianti only to what is now the Classico zone. All the other pseudo-Chiantis should be obliged to use their region’s name, as is pretty much normal elsewhere in Italy – so we would see wines clearly labeled Rosso dei Colli Fiorentini, or Rosso Senese, and not large-print CHIANTI with all the other information hidden in tiny typefaces. Even though I would suggest that these wines retain their present DOC or DOCG status, I’m sure this idea will be greeted with cries of pain and outrage from all the regions that surround the present Classico zone. Nevertheless, it would remove one large area of market confusion for all the wines.

Step 2: Within the reduced Chianti zone, the use of the name should be further restricted to estate-grown wines made with Sangiovese alone or Sangiovese blended with other native Tuscan varieties (e.g., Colorino or Canaiolo or Mammolo) to 20% maximum. All other blends should be categorized as IGT wines, along with all the other so-called Supertuscans. This suggestion will also certainly be greeted with cries of pain and outrage – this time from producers all over the present Classico zone – but it removes the other large area of market confusion.

Step 3: Because nostalgia (aka, often, respect for tradition) remains strong in producers and in consumers, create a DOC (as opposed the DOCG for the wine described in Step 2) for a wine that uses something like the old Ricasoli formula that not too long ago was normative for Chianti, which would permit (not require) the use of native white grapes in the blend. A nice example of this kind of wine is Casa Sola’s Pergliamici, now an IGT. Many people loved that old Chianti and would happily make it again and drink it if it were available. And hey! If blending white grapes with red is good enough for Côte Rôtie, it’s nothing to be ashamed of in Chianti. This wine could be called something easily distinguished, like Chianti Antico or Chianti dei Giorni Passati – all in large print, to be sure.

What I’m suggesting here is largely driven by a perception of the problems Chianti Classico faces in the American market. That is, after all, the one I know best. Significantly, however, the US is the largest single market for Chianti Classico wines – larger even than Italy, larger than Canada, Germany, and the UK combined. I make no claims to seer status – but just plain common sense tells me that ideas like these are worth exploring, if Italian producers want to keep recruiting more and more American consumers, and not frustrating them with compounded labeling confusions.

8 Responses to “A Modest Proposal for Chianti Classico”

  1. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Chianti dei giorni passati? I love it! But I doubt the prices will reflect such deference to history.

  2. tom hyland Says:

    Tom:

    All good ideas that are not likely to pass, especially #1 – can you imagine a producer of Chianti Colli Senesi or Chianti Colli Fiorentini agreeing to drop the term Chianti from their wines? They’d probably lose a lot of sales, if only through name recognition.

    It’s interesting to note however, that this is exactly what is being proposed in the Chianti Rufina district, where some want to call the wines simply Rufina. This would tell consumers where the wines are from and one would think that consumers would know these wines are primarily Sangiovese. Of course, it’s the more distinguished producers from that district that want the change. The lesser quality producers want to hang on to the term Chianti like a crutch.

    The problem came when every Chianti wine – even the cheapest bottles simply labeled as Chianti – were awarded DOCG recognition. No one wants to lose any possible prestige.

    I agree that Chianti Classico is having problems getting increased sales in the US. It’s easy to understand why, as you have pointed out, as there’s no direction aimed at quality. Until that gets addressed, it’s going to be tough. But how do you get hundreds of Italians to agree on anything?

  3. Matt Paul Says:

    Its all a bit of a mess in one of my favourite regions unfortunately and fast becoming even more confusing for the consumer. Interesting comments from you, especially #3. Here’s what I would have liked to have seen:

    •Increase the minimum percentage of Sangiovese (in all categories) from 80% to 90%
    •Allow the producer to promote their village/sub-zone in all categories should they wish to do so. This could be as simple as listing the village/sub-zone in a certain font size.
    •Tighten the regulations for the existing Riserva category – this should already be estate grown fruit only.
    •‘Selezione’ should be reserved for Chianti Classico Riserva from a single vineyard within an estate.
    •Allow wineries to use screwcap, at least beginning with Chianti Classico

    Salute
    Matt

  4. Ed McCarthy Says:

    I’m with you especially on proposals #1 and 2. Right now, Chianti is a mess, with the international varieties and the barriques. There are about a dozen Chianti wines that i like. The rest I avoid.

  5. Nevin Says:

    Great suggestions that would clarify the name while appreciating tradition. Too bad it will never happen.

  6. Jonathan Levine Says:

    Well-stated. But a posting about Chianti on July 4?

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Why not? With the amount of Chianti the US consumes, it’s a reasonable candidate for the national drink.

  7. Charles Scicolone Says:

    Ciao Tom- If they would only follow all your suggestions!

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