Gran Selezione shows its potential

As has been rehearsed on previous pages, there is widespread confusion among wine drinkers about ‘Chianti’ and ‘Chianti Classico’. The legacy of the decision to attach the Chianti name to wines from a large area of central Tuscany (and not just the hilly area between Florence and Siena) is that it has been difficult for top Chianti Classico producers to get high prices for their best wines.  This issue has been made more critical with the rise and rise of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. With the latter often getting to the £50 per bottle mark (and sometimes way beyond), it must have been particularly irksome to top Chianti Classico producers that their wines were stuck around the £25+ mark.  In a completely unscientific piece of research the cheapest Brunello being offered by Berry Bros today (13 August 2017) is one option at £30 and all the others at £50 and rising. By contrast Chianti Classico starts at £15 and even a top level Gran Selezione can be had for £26.  

If that was the challenge, the response came by way of a tweak to the quality pyramid in 2014.  In recent times Chianti Classico has been marketed as either annata or as riserva. This means either ‘of the year’ (intended to be drunk young, say within five years) or for ageing for 10-20 years.  While the riserva category was intended for the best wines, it clearly did not have sufficient traction in the market. To address this, the Chianti Classico consortium introduced a new category at the top of the pyramid called, suitable drumroll, Gran Selezione.  The idea was that an estate’s best wines, which had to be made from the estate’s own grapes, should be clearly visible. And it was clever to chose a name for the category which is easy to say for English speakers.  The rest of the technical requirements were not that demanding: minimum 13% abv, aged for 30 months, higher standard at the point of official tasting.  

There was initially much scepticism about this move.  The wines did not have to be single vineyard, would this not just introduce another layer of confusion, why was there no attempt to define the sub-zones and, I would add, why is minimum 13% abv a quality marker in a world in which wines are routinely too alcoholic?  But even in a couple of years, the new category is getting a warmer reception from the wine press.  Kerin O’Keefe comments on this here. And the reasons appear to be a) we have begun to get used to the idea and b) the wines have been compelling.  

In a small tasting with Andover Wine Friends in August 2017 we happily traipsed up and down (well mostly up) the quality pyramid.  What did we find?  

Chianti Classico annata can still be a joy

We should not give all the glory to the top bottlings.  If you want a reasonable priced, everyday wine, with freshness, acidic zip, decent sour cherry fruit and moderate alcohol, look no further than Castello La Leccia, Chianti Classico, 2013, 14%. OK, this was from a great vintage but it really could not be faulted at the £10 mark. 


The producer’s name really matters

You can introduce as many quality tiers as you like but sometimes the most important information is the producer’s name. Our other annata bottling was Fontodi, Chianti Classico, 2013, 14%. It is getting on for twice as much as the previous example, but it is superb: excellent depth of fruit while retaining elegance and lightness of touch, fine integration of subtle toasty oak from old barriques, textured mid-palate (even more on its big brother, Vigna del Sorbo), plenty of structure, long and savoury. This could easily age for a decade if you can stop yourself drinking it young!  

The blend and the style are just as important as the quality level 

Chianti Classico has to be, by law, a predominantly Sangiovese wine: minimum 80% to be precise.  The latest revision to the rules of production has not tackled the vexed issue of the choice of blending varieties. Producers can decide from a long list of local (Canaiolo, Colorino, Malvasia Nera etc) and international red varieties (the two Cabernets, Merlot, Syrah and more).  As Sangiovese is a subtle variety the final wine is hugely influenced by the blending varieties.  Equally it makes a big difference if you age your wine in new French barriques (deepens the colour, overlays the fruit with toasty vanilla notes) or in large format, neutral oak casks.  

The Barone Ricasoli annata and riserva wines are both modern interpretations of Chianti Classico. Here 80% of Sangiovese is joined by 15% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. The ageing is in barriques and tonneaux.  Merlot undoubtedly adds a softening and rounding effect to the wine and the colour is moderately deep too.  Both international varieties in this climate add black fruit flavours.   As a result we are some way from the lithe, sometimes acerbic, sour cherry and herb pleasures of traditional Chianti Classico.  

Interestingly, the Ricasoli Gran SelezioneCastello di Brolio, 2013, 13.5%, their offering in the new top tier, ups the Sangiovese quotient to 90%. This sets us off in a more traditional direction. However, the blending varieties are a punchy 5% of each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.  The ageing is in French tonneaux and barriques, 20% new. The overall result is what I would call moderated modernist. There is plenty of black fruit alongside sour cherry, evident but not overdone vanilla and clove from oak, and a big tannic structure. This one should develop in the cellar for decades.  

At the opposite end of the scale is Il Grigio da San Felice, Chianti Classico Riserva, Gran Selezione, 2013,13.5%. This excellent offering from the San Felice stable is 80% Sangiovese but the blending varieties are all local: Abrusco, Pugnitello, Malvasia Nera, Ciliegiolo, Mazzese. The Pugnitello is a pretty fierce tannic beast (but is present in tiny proportions here), the Malvasia Nera adds some perfume and the Ciliegiolo some red cherry fruit.  Abrusco is said to add colour and Mazzese, well, even Jancis & Co in their monumental Wine Grapes don’t know what it adds!  But, as we will see, that is not the point. The ageing regime is also muted: 24 months, half in large Slavonian oak casks (no added flavour) and half in a mix of barriques and tonneaux. This is a wonderfully subtle and layered wine, with the complexity of a blend. One could say: Sangiovese with a quiet symphony playing in the background.  Bravo! 




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