Chianti Classico, May 2010 – a point of view



After visiting 41 Chianti Classico cantina over 11 days I now feel a certain grasp on what’s going on among the Tuscan hills. I also got a grip on the twists and turns in the road, aided and abetted by my mate Tom (Tom). True ‘he’ occasionally threatened to lead me up the garden path, requiring a gentle tap on the ‘shoulder’ bringing ‘him’ back in line. It’s a nice metaphor, in my view, for what’s going on ‘down under’ in ‘Chiantishire’ that is…

That view’s very different to the one I’m used to here in the Langhe, Piemonte. It’s not simply because of the predominance of (Tuscan) woodland over vine – leading to a certain isolation, non? –  but also there appears to be a cultural aspect too. Despite an ancient Etruscan history, I found that in too many cases the ‘cultural’ bit seems to have been lopped off the prefixes ‘viti’ and ‘vini’. Surely ‘viticulture’ and ‘viniculture’ are more than just the cultivation of grapes and production of wine thereof? What of that interaction between the land and its people, preserving heritage and communities; enriching lives at all levels through cultural and product integrity? It’s what makes wine more than just an alcoholic drink, does it not?


I arrived in the expectation that Sangiovese – a cultured rosy (not black) pearl if ever there was one – had never tasted so good. Since the DOCG was awarded in 1984, the Chianti Classico Consorzio (representing the growers) has reduced the defective wines of the immediate post war period. Via the ‘Chianti Classico 2000’ project they’ve helped producers improve their viticulture through better clones, advice on training methods, planting densities etc.. The upshot being vineyards designed for quality wine production and not ones that characterised the polycultural existence of yesteryear. Significantly it’s also reduced disease pressure and so in theory the use of chemical sprays. In short the potential for Chianti Classico producers to make delicious, elegant Sangiovese, in pale purezza ideally, that sings, as only it can, of the prized alberese (calcareous) and galestro (schistous) soils of Gaiole, Radda, Panzano, Castellina, Greve and Castelnuovo Berardenga is well within their reach, and yet, and yet…

…the market has changed. Recent enlargements of the (7,500 hectare Classico) zone, particularly an additional 1,200 hectare of (unpoliced) IGT Toscana, along with eyebrow-raising investments in nearby Montalcino (again in less than prime soil) and further south ‘on the beach’ – sorry – in the Maremma, has only added to the woes. The marketplace is crammed, especially in the USA but also at home, with producers of every size forced to go that extra mile to catch the eye.

toscana_blackboard_1This has led to too many producers seeking an exaggeration of colour, fruit and concentration in their once elegant wines. High planting densities might work for Merlot or Cabernet but don’t suit Sangiovese, leading to high alcohol fruit bombs that could have been made anywhere in the world. Then there’s the noble adoption by artisan producers of organic and biodynamic techniques in the search of terroir expression and differentiation…aped by larger entities chasing the same labels for other less honourable reasons.

Crucially I sensed that there are too many absentee landlords, whether displaced  internationals or historic families who should know better, now relinquishing control to ‘(in)famous’ consultents in return for wine journal points, access to ‘key’ journalists and to favourable sales channels….just as they once handed the keys to the contadini tending their land according to the Medieval ‘mezzadria’ system. This has in turn led to a compromise of the unique Chianti Classico brand; something in my view that needs to be articulated and protected, both in content and style. Among those on the right track, despite (they admit) sacrificing ‘Points’, are Badia e Coltibuono, Isole e Olena, Il Borghetto, Felsina, Bibbiano, Montevertine, Poggerino, Villa di Geggiano, Castello di Ama, Riecine, Monte Bernardi and San Giusto a Rentennano…

As Marco Pallanti, mercurial winemaker at Castello di Ama, and also President of the Consorzio, points out: ‘There’s a risk that the consultant becomes too important, for it’s the land that should lead the winemaker, not the other way round. He quotes Henri Jayer in saying that we need to understand the technology more so as to be able to do less.