Earlier this month, Slate featured an article by Mike Steinberger about Chianti. Mike is a good writer and a careful researcher, so the article is well worth reading. What he has to say about the merits of basic Chianti Classico – the normale as opposed to the riserva – and its versatility with all sorts of food chimes perfectly with my experience. (That last point was also made more broadly, about Italian wines generally, by the redoubtable Ed McCarthy in Wine Review Online.) I would disagree with Mike on only one issue: I think more highly of Chianti Classico riserva than he does.
For the moment, however, I would like to elaborate on another point he made, about the great changes in the Chianti formula over the past 20 years or so. Those shifts – and the producers’ honoring of them or refusal to do so – have caused a lot of confusion for consumers. The situation has been further complicated by the occasional “scandal,” all of which has made some consumers wary of Chianti specifically and Italian wines generally.
No one ever said the Italian wine situation was simple. But I’d like to explain just why it’s as complicated as it is, and what most of the so-called scandals amount to.
Basic fact: Italian wine law is a very new creation. Italians had been making wine for almost 3,000 years with only minimal legal guidelines. When the DOC (denominazione d’origine controllata) rules were called into being in the mid-1960s, they were modeled on the French system of AOC (appellation d’origine controllée) – itself in those days a much simpler system covering far fewer wines and regions than it now does. That seemed like a good idea at the time, since French wine stood at the pinnacle of prestige and set the quality standards for the world.
That was precisely the problem. The French legal system covered a wine situation in steady state. Bordeaux winemakers worked with Cabernet and Merlot and Sauvignon blanc. Burgundians vinified Pinot noir and Chardonnay. Alsace had the white varieties – Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Gewurztraminer, Riesling – and the Rhone had the reds, principally Syrah and Mourvedre. The primary purpose of the AOC laws was to protect those established grands vins against shoddy imitations exploiting the classic names. There was no reason on earth for a winemaker in any of those regions to change a thing.
Italy, on the other hand, was playing catch-up, from a position of antiquated cellar equipment and field conditions dictated by an almost feudal sharecropping system (the mezzadria) and the most stubborn peasant conservatism about farming. There was every incentive for serious winemakers to change the way they vinified, to alter what they did in the fields, to try new grape varieties, new blends, new anything and everything. And at that moment a set of laws came into existence that said “You must make wine this way and no other.” Bada bing.
So from the beginning, the producers most interested in skirting the law, breaking the law, changing the law, were the ones most serious about making better wine. The ones who just wanted to sell a lot didn’t care what the law said: They would make the same wine they always had, and sell it to the same markets they always had. But enterprising winemakers, individuals who wanted to make a great wine, often felt hamstrung by the regulations. Italian winemaking was and is cinema, and the laws were and are a snapshot, a freeze-frame that was to meant to continue forever. It takes no genius to see that laws that are patently inappropriate, that do not reflect reality, are not going to breed great respect or rigorous observance anywhere, and especially not in Italy.
The Chianti Classico zone was the most intense focus for these tensions. First there was the name itself, for centuries belonging exclusively to a hilly, castellated area lying between Florence and Siena. In the 1920s, the right to use the name Chianti was extended to a cluster of satellite zones – Colli Fiorentini, Colli Senesi, Colline Pisane, Colli Aretini (I deliberately omit Chianti Rufina from this list because that zone, by virtue of its different soils and microclimate, has always maintained itself as a distinct wine). As one former president of the Chianti Classico Consorzio remarked to me, “They hijacked our name, and they diffused our identity.”
After that initial confusion came the law. The first DOC legislation took a formula from Barone Ricasoli, the great 19th century statesman and agriculturalist, and made it the mandatory blend for Chianti Classico. Unfortunately, what the law set up was what Ricasoli had meant as the lowest common denominator for Chianti – a blend of Sangiovese and Canaiolo, plus some white grapes, to make a wine for ordinary, everyday drinking. Not a good formula for a wine meant to last, like a riserva, and not even a good start for a wine with aspirations. Sure, given the varied topography of the Classico zone, a few producers could make a very nice wine this way, but for most it was the road to mediocrity.
So some winemakers started by reducing or eliminating the white grape component. This of course was completely illegal and very quickly gave rise to whispered allegations of “cheating” and “adulterating” the wine. Most producers who did this did it surreptitiously, so as not to lose their identity as Chianti Classico. Some did it openly, surrendering the Chianti Classico name and going their own way with 100% Sangiovese wines or Sangiovese blended with foreign grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot – and so the Supertuscans were born.
There followed over the next 20 years a series of changes in the legal formula, itself playing catch-up. These accreted alterations reduced and finally eliminated the white grapes, allowing more and more Sangiovese (now, a 100% Sangiovese can call itself Chianti Classico, and many do) and up to 20% of a host of other red varieties, including Cabernet and Merlot.
The remaining problem – and it is a big one – has been the perception of these changes. As one legal formula has succeeded another, and as whispered or shouted allegations of illegality continued, the press – both the specialized wine press and the general news organizations – conspicuously failed to provide any sort of background or analysis that might help readers understand the situation. Instead, the sensational aspects – corruption, crime, allegations of pervasive fraud – were what was emphasized to the public. It’s no wonder consumers were and still are confused: We in the press let them down, even in some cases actively misled them.
The simple fact is that almost all the changes, whether legal or otherwise, have been tending to allow better winemakers to produce better wines. That’s true of both the normale bottles and the more costly (to my palate, more impressive) riserva bottles – of which more next post.