Classico – the heartland of Chianti

Featured wineries

Chianti Classico (to distinguish it from the much bigger Chianti region) is now, broadly speaking, the hilly area between Florence and Siena with  a particular vocation for wonderfully characterful Sangiovese-based red wines.  Because of the altitude (up to 550 metres in places), it is a mixed landscape of dense woodland with vines and olives on the most favoured slopes.  In this regard it is quite unlike the Barolo area of Piemonte where every scrap of land seems to be planted with vines.  But it hardly needs to said that the landscape is very beautiful, with the woods, cypresses, olive groves and vineyards being complemented with traditional houses and farms … nor does it need to be said that there are a great number of estates producing excellent wines. 

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Our visits in the first days of August 2011 were mainly in the Radda/Gaiole area, ie the middle south-east quadrant of the Classico area.  This was partly convenience and partly to complement earlier visits to Fonterutoli (Castellina) and Fontodi (Panzano) in October 2006 and Vecchie Terre di Montefili, Poggio Le Scalette, Querciabella (Greve) and Casaloste (Panzano) in March 2008.   For a later trip to the mostly southerly zone of Castelnuova Berardenga click here.  And for discussion of the new quality pyramid, including Gran Selezione, go here.  

Chianti Classico continues to be a much debated wine – see my post on Chianti – what’s in a name?  The Super Tuscan debate appears to be dying down.  There is plenty of evidence that the area can produce both Sangiovese-based wines and permutations of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah.  They are not really competing with each other, except for what ‘Tuscan’ stands for in the world of wine. 

The regulations, however, continue to be controversial.  What is good about the current DOCG for Classico, last revised in June 2014, is that Sangiovese has to be between 80 and 100% of the grapes. In other words the wine can now be wholly Sangiovese.  What is not so good is that the lower limit should really be at least 85% Sangiovese and, even more importantly, the rules still allow up to 20% ‘recommended and authorized’ red grapes.  This completely ducks the key question of whether the other grapes are the traditional Tuscan blenders (Canaiolo, Malvasia Nera, Ciliegiolo, Colorino, etc) or whether they are Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah.  If you add 20% of any of the latter, you completely change the colour and the character of the wine.  Fortunately, most growers keep the French grape varieties to a maximum of 10%.  Since 2006 you can no longer use any white grapes, as happened long ago.  I don’t think anybody really misses this way of softening acidic/tannic Sangiovese – or indeed the peasant practice of whole field blends on which it was based.  Modern wine making and a decade or so of good weather means there have been other solutions – one of which of course is the entirely legal use of 10% of Merlot in your Classico!  The dream solution would be to have two DOCGs – a traditional Sangiovese-dominated blended wine called ‘Chianti Classico’ and a second called ‘Super Tuscan’ – it took ages to come up with those names!  Sadly, this isn’t going to happen and we can live with the current range of styles.  Always ask what is in the bottle. 

The other key features of the area are:

  • the soils must consist predominantly of sandstone, limestone, marl, clayey schist, sand and pebbles, all pretty free draining.  The traditional name galestro refers to the typical loose marl and limestone soil.
  • altitude, typically 200-500 metres, which increases the day/night temperature differential, producing the characteristic high level of acidity in young wines. Vines planted above 700m do not qualify, nor does any land registered for alternative possibility in this area, Chianti DOCG.  
  • a completely free choice as to what sort of vessel you use to age your wine in: old-fashioned and now trendy again concrete tanks; large format oak, traditionally Slavonian; French barriques and tonneaux; any combination of these. on the whole, the over-oaking lesson has been learnt, with a common solution being to use your new barrels for your lavish Super Tuscan and then use the second and third year barrels for Classico.  This freedom to choose means there are significant differences of styles in the wines. The two biggest decisions being the blending varieties if any and the choice of ageing material.  
  • The regulations state minimum ageing times for the wines: counting from January of the year after the harvest, Chianti Classico can be released in the following October, while a riserva has to age for two years (and Gran Selezione 30 months), of which three months must be in the bottle. As we have seen, unlike, Brunello or Montepulciano, there is no requirement to age in wood; this is left to the choice of the producers.
  • very few white wines of any interest and and an increasing number of worthwhile savoury, refreshing, rosés.
  • Vin Santo – as in other parts of Tuscany, a great use for the remaining Trebbiano and Malvasia Bianca if you have time, skill and patience. 

As with any fine wine area, the real interest is what the individual growers and wine makers create from a similar set of circumstances.  To return to individual wineries visited, click here

Other wines tasted

 

The Volpaia hamlet is one of the most picturesque in the Classico zone, and that is saying something. It is a  perfect medieval site, full of restored old buildings, interesting courtyards and, inevitably, tourists.  It also has a very fine restaurant with a spectacular view (if you look over the essential car park), which has the unusual combination of excellent food, lots of customers and extremely good value – La Bottega, you must book.  Excellent vegetable dishes and all the classic Tuscan carnivorous specialties.  Back to the wine: there is a good wine list but as we did not visit the estate, we had to try the Castello di Volpaia’s wine. 

Volpaia Chianti Classico 2003 – quite a full nose with very subtle leather, tea leaves, blackberry and redcurrant aromas; similar on the palate though here the oak is more dominant; good complexity, classic Chianti Classico, a good performance in a difficultly hot year.

Isola e Olena Chianti Classico 2006 – this estate’s wine came out top overall in a blind tasting of Chianti Classico 2008 and 2009 in Decanter’s vintage report, published in August 2011. My experience of it is entirely congruent with Decanter’s tasting. Janet and I had visited one of the big, top producers featured in this section on the Classico zone, and enjoyed their wines which were serious and well-made.  After such a demanding morning, we repaired for lunch to the local wine bar and had a glass of Isola e Olena and were taken aback by its sheer freshness, drinkability, subtlety and complete gorgeousness!  Sublime sour cherry to blackberry fruit and tea leaves, with accompanying dried fruit – prune – undertones; medium-light in weight and perfectly balanced – fruit, tannins, acidity in excellent harmony; medium in flavour intensity but very long.  The best ‘simple’ Chianti Classico of the 2011 visit.  Never mind the big, serious bottles intended for ageing – from £16 a bottle in the UK, this is pretty close to vinous perfection and is intended for drinking! Antonio Galloni (for Robert Parker) said of the 2007, another top vintage:  ‘Despite the wine’s ripeness, this remains one of the more understated, hushed Chiantis of the vintage. Readers who enjoy the Burgundian side of Sangiovese will flip out over this wine.’  I agree. But my private point scale would allow me to give it more than the in-any-case creditable 90 points he gave it.  It is a perfect example of why it does not make sense to mark all wines, irrespective of style, on the same scale. 

Page created August 2011; last update August 2017

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