Almost three years ago, the Chianti Classico growers and producers created a new top classification for their wines. It’s called Gran Selezione, and until now I have maintained a studied silence about it. Some recent tastings that I’ve been doing, however, have persuaded me that I do have something to say about Gran Selezione, and, while it will hardly be news, I think it may be useful for Chianti fans and general consumers to read.
I have long been a partisan of Chianti Classico, extolling its many pleasures, sympathizing with its unending skirmishes with the satellite Chianti denominations that so often ride on its coattails, and appreciating the public relations campaigns that its producers have had to wage for decades as its regulations have time and again been revised. The road of Chianti Classico has not been smooth: Its evolution has been marked by successive waves of seeming modernizations, as the 19th century formula for the wine’s blend, devised by Baron Bettino Ricasoli, was gradually and repeatedly modified.
First came the reduction, then the elimination, of white grapes from the official DOC blend. Later, growers were given permission to make a Chianti Classico of nothing but Sangiovese, and still later, permission to use – at different times, different percentages of – “international varieties.” Somewhere in there the DOCG happened, as well as the introduction of regulations about Riserva status that were supposed to guarantee not only quality but also a certain consumer-reassuring consistency. Unfortunately, they didn’t, and Riserva became a very iffy category – at its best, splendid, but too often just the basic wine aged for an extra year. Now, on top of Riserva, we have Gran Selezione.
Chianti Classico’s heart is Sangiovese, and I love Sangiovese. I think it is one of Italy’s noblest red grapes. When Sangiovese vines are properly cared for on one of the Classico zone’s distinguished terroirs, I think they are capable of enological greatness. I just wish the Tuscans could stop tinkering with Sangiovese and let it be itself, without the intrusion of French grapes or French oak or “international” styling. For the uninitiated, in this context “international” style means a wine designed for what many Tuscans still wrongly perceive as “the American market.” This phantom they understand to be a single entity, thirsty for fruit bombs and with lots of oak sweetness disfiguring them even further. What damage such emphases have done to a wine as elegant in its nature as Chianti Classico I leave to your judgment, but you can easily guess that the “international style” wines are not the Chianti Classicos I love.
When I first heard about Gran Selezione, my initial reaction was “Oh no! Not again! Not another classification change that really won’t change anything but will leave consumers – American consumers, at least – further confused about what is in the bottle they might be interested in buying if they could figure out what it is.” Remember, I love the wine, I’ve been following it for years, I have great admiration for many Chianti Classico producers and nothing but good will for all of them – but my fear was this just might be the last straw for many consumers. So I decided to keep my mouth shut and wait and see.
I’m happy to say that what I have seen lately is encouraging. In the past, many of Chianti Classico’s most distinguished wines were cru wines. Even though that is not an official category, Chianti Classico labels often sport a cru designation – Fontodi’s Vigna del Sorbo, or Felsina’s Colonia, or Castello di Volpaia’s Coltassala, for example. When such truly top crus were vinified as Riservas they made extraordinary wines, deep and complex and capable of long aging, all the while preserving Chianti Classico’s characteristic elegance.
What I am seeing now is that wines like these are migrating to the Gran Selezione category, whose requirements go far beyond simple extra aging and include quality and typicity tests, as well as strict control of things like acidity and extract. This is right and just, and it is where top-flight wines like these belong.
If the producers and the consorzio can maintain the quality level they have thus far established, Gran Selezione may finally give consumers the kind of confidence in the name Chianti Classico that they have until now hoped for. If they do that, Gran Selezione could be the most important of all the changes Chianti Classico has undergone. If, however, the producers and the Consorzio fail to maintain that level of quality, if Gran Selezione is allowed to become a promiscuous designation, then it could be the final nail in the coffin of consumer confidence in the Chianti Classico name.