CHIANTI REBORN

Our tasting panel samples more than 150 Chiantis and discovers that, thanks to new laws and new methods, anything goes and everything's changing, even the very nature of Chianti itself.


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Few names in the wine world are as well recognized as Chianti. Most non-wine drinkers are familiar with it, if only from the uninspired juice in the traditional fiasco, the now largely retired straw-wrapped bottle of melted candle fame—the bottle that those of us of a certain age remember from youthful romances. But this Tuscan red, whose backbone is the Sangiovese grape (the name means "blood of Jove") has recently been through some major changes.

The 1990s saw a significant rewriting of the laws in Italy which govern permissible grapes. These changes were accompanied by measurable advances in vineyard management and winemaking practices, not to mention the intense competition of the international wine scene.

In addition, after a great 1990 vintage, the region suffered difficult weather in the early years of the decade. Ripening picked up with a good 1995 harvest, a fair 1996, and an excellent 1997 vintage. 1998 again was good, and 1999 better still. Although the 2000 wines are not yet available, the vintage has already been touted as historically great.

The Wine Enthusiast tasting panel set out to investigate the state of Chianti in the light of all these developments. Have the wines changed, and if so, how? We were also eager to see whether the riservas (reserve) wines from the highly touted 1997 vintage supported the hype that followed that year's harvest; at the time, it was referred to as no less than "the vintage of the century" by Marchese Piero Antinori of the Chianti house that bears his name.

The Tasting
We rated more than 150 wines: 102 normales, or regular Chiantis, and 59 riservas, the wines made according to more stringent standards—a smaller selection of grapes, greater attention during winemaking and longer barrel and bottle aging prior to release. The results? We found a broad range of quality, with a wealth of good (83-86 points) and very good (87-89 points) offerings as well as a healthy selection of excellent (90-93) wines. (See "Tasting Feature Procedures" on page 32 for a description of how we conduct our panel tastings.)

The Chianti Region
Chianti is the name of a district, and also the wine from that district. Grapes for wine labeled Chianti may be grown on land north of Florence down to the border of Umbria, and from as far west as the area near Livorno and Pisa on the coast to east of Arezzo. Within the broader Chianti district, the Chianti Classico region is the hilly and picturesque, classically beautiful heart of Tuscany that stretches from south of Florence almost to Siena. In the medieval era, this region witnessed almost incessant warfare between the two city-states of Florence and Siena. The constant turmoil led to the development of defensive forts, or castelli (singular: castello) throughout the region. Many of those still standing are the great houses of today's wine estates. (Interestingly, one of our panelists noted what he dubbed "the Castello effect"—producers with the word Castello in their name did quite well overall in our tasting—but we can't offer any linguistic-vinicultural explanation for this phenomenon.)

Rich with the echoes of history, this is land trod by the Romans, and before them the
Etruscans; Tuscany is a variant of their name. California's wine estates measure their heritage largely in terms of a few decades; Bordeaux does so over a few centuries. Tuscany is a region where individual families trace their lineage, and sometimes landholdings, back to the 1300s and 1400s. In fact, the first document referring to Chianti wine was written in 1398 by a member of the Fonterutoli family, active estate owners today.

The distinctive silhouette of a black rooster was adopted as an identifying symbol by the consorzio (governing association) of Chianti Classico producers; the image is displayed on the necks of their bottles, identifying them as a product of the Classico DOCG, or authorized district. Chianti Classico is surrounded by other authorized regions whose wines might simply be labeled Chianti, or labeled for specific regions, such as Chianti Rufina, Chianti colli Fiorentini or Chianti colli Senese, the latter two referring to the hills outside of Florence and Siena, respectively. While the majority of top performers in our tasting bore the Chianti Classico designation, a wine from Chianti Rufina tied for the top rating, and there were impressive performers from all districts. Many represent excellent quality at reasonable prices, and reflect the strides in winemaking all over the region.

Outside Influences and Change
Of all the changes that have occurred in Chianti over the past decade, the one that could affect the style of the wine most dramatically is the revision of the laws governing production, which allows the use of grapes not native to Tuscany—Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Traditional Chianti had to be made according to laws adopted by the Italian authorities in the 20th century, which codifed a formula devised by Baron Bettino Ricasoli in the late 19th century. Sangiovese comprised 50 to 80 percent of the blend; the remainder was a blend of Canaiolo, Malvasia Bianco or Trebbiano, Ciliegolo and Colorino. By law, the white grapes (Trebbiano and Malvasia Bianco) had to be included. The new law almost immediately became change in practice, with the often overcropped, weak white grapes soon gone from many wines.

"We have exercised our right under the revised laws to completely eliminate the white grapes from the blends," comments Valter Giovannuzzi, winemaker at Villa Maisano since the 1970s. "And we have embraced the new varietals where we find them appropriate. Our normale is still made using only Tuscan grapes —Sangiovese and Cannaiolo—but Cabernet Sauvignon is part of the blend of our riserva and our single-vineyard Questo." The 1997 Villa Maisano Riserva (rated 90, $27) and the 1997 Questo (rated 90, $30) both placed in the top 20 wines in our survey.

The recent changes in approved varietals came about largely as the result of positive feedback from the world's wine writers and wine lovers alike to the Super Tuscan class of wines. These top-end offerings incorporating the Bordeaux grapes in their blends were deliberately produced outside the restrictions of the governing laws, as a protest against the decline in quality that had been allowed to occur under the existing system. Antinori's groundbreaking Tignanello was the first such wine from the Chianti Classico district, but it had Tuscan precedents: Sassicaia was produced in neighboring Bolgheri, and Pomino, a Bordeaux blend, was produced by Fresobaldi near the Chianti Rufina district. Although generally expensive, the Super Tuscans originally bore the modest vino da tavola (table wine) designation, as if to say to the authorities, "We can make better wine outside of your laws than within them."

The governing body eventually responded with the creation in the 1990s of a new designated class: IGT (indicazione geographica tipica). The Super Tuscans, and now many other wines throughout Italy, bear the designation IGT, which means (roughly) that a wine represents the character of a region, but is produced from grapes not approved under the older DOC and DOCG classifications. Italian law, like French appellation law, embraces both territory and grapes; in contrast, the American AVA system imposes only geographic limitations on a designation.

"We have taken advantage of the new laws, but not to the exclusion of producing Chianti along traditional lines. The changes allow us more freedom, and we use the flexibility to better realize the intent of our wines," says Piergiorgio Castellani, whose wines showed well in our survey. We now allow our Sangiovese to remain on vine much longer than we used to. We prefer its character when riper; the flavor improves and the tannins are firm, but less sharp. "For a wine like our Campomaggio, a single-vineyard Chianti, we blend in Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, which add color and dimension, but the basic character of the wine is still from the Sangiovese, and in this case definitely from the particular terroir."

Vineyards and Winemaking
Over the past decade, viticultural practices around the world have evolved significantly. California, Australia, Chile, South Africa and the south of France—these are all regions that have seen extensive replanting in the 1990s. Not only are the new varietals being planted, but much more care is being taken to match grape and location for the most beneficial results. Chianti is now evolving along the same lines.

"We have done extensive replanting," winemaker Lamberto Frescobaldi confirms. "The new vines have been planted at a higher density per hectare than previously, and we have paid more attention to site aspect and row orientation. Early indications are that we will experience truly great fruit as these vines come into fuller maturity and their peak production years." Frescobaldi turned in an impressive performance with their '97 Montesodi (rated 92, $54) tied for first place and the '97 Nipozzano Riserva (rated 91, $22) just behind it. Their $13 Castiglioni from 1999 received 89 points.

1997: How Great?
So was 1997 the vintage of the century? A quick count indicates that 15 out of our top 25 wines, or 60 percent, were from the 1997 vintage, making it clearly the strongest of the vintages tasted. No doubt, this was an impressive year, and is acknowledged as such. "The warm, sunny days of September and early October contributed to the superb quality of the 1997 vintage by allowing wonderful ripening," says Frescobaldi. "It was an excellent, outstanding year for Tuscany, and will be long remembered, despite the limited quantity."

But the vintage of the century…or of the decade? "1997 is very good, but not as exceptional as perhaps first promised," reflects Castellani. "However, for us and many others, I think it marks an important moment, as it is the start of many new vineyards coming into production and the first really good harvest under the new laws. To me, though, it is not as classic as 1990."

Our tasting panel agrees. There is delicious fruit in the 1997s, but overall, the 1990s—of which I tasted a great many when they were young—possessed better depth and structure, if less flattering fruit. The 1997 wines in general are more forward and approachable; the best are certainly in the same league as the top 1990s. They may indeed be more sumptuous. However, a surprising number seemed superficially attractive, but lacked the stuffing or backbone to last very long. Some even seemed tired already, a rather unusual finding for a wine that generally comes into its own —even the lesser wines—after three to five years, and longer for the riservas.

So, has winemaking and viticulture improved that much, and if so, why aren't the wines from a fine vintage even better?

There may be more than one answer. First, not all Chianti producers have embraced new techniques, and of those adopting them, not all have done so with uniform speed or completeness. There have always been very discernable differences in quality among producers in all regions, and there always will be. Second, we experienced a notable increase in the use of oak in many of these wines. Traditional large oak casks, usually from Slavonia, are increasingly being abandoned in favor of barriques (smaller French oak casks). In more than a few wines, we found what we consider the injudicious use of heavily toasted barriques, yielding wines whose taste was based on oak rather than fruit. Oak can be delicious in a proportion that supports and complements the fruit, allowing it to shine through. Where the fruit is merely a platform for the oak, taster beware, as this works only sometimes. To yield a harmonious wine, Sangiovese, notwithstanding the new blends, seems to require greater finesse in the use of oak than do Cabernet or Syrah.

Finally, the case may be made that some producers put their very best fruit (especially in 1997) into their Super Tuscans, which command prices significantly higher than most riservas. If so, then the difference between the normale and riserva bottlings might not be as great as would be expected. A quick look at our survey shows that to be true in many cases. Frequently, we observed a spread of only a point or two, and in some instances, both wines received the same rating.

The End of the Beginning
So what kind of contender is Chianti in today's marketplace? Although there has been significant price escalation in the top-end wines, many great values are still to be found. Seven of our top 25 wines—more than a quarter of them—are priced under $20, and savvy shoppers will note 22 wines rated 87 or above costing $15 or less.

As more recently planted vineyards come into production and a younger generation of winemakers takes over, there is every reason to expect the wines to continue to improve in quality. The stylistic and substantive difference noted—the more defined structure of the 1990 wines when compared to the 1997s—will likely continue. Most regular Chianti is sold in a market segment that demands an easy-drinking wine. In this range, market factors dictate a movement away from the firmer, traditional style. The inclusion of nonnative grapes will support this trend. Above this range are many wines worthy of cellaring for three to seven years, some for significantly longer.

History runs deep in Tuscany, and change comes slowly; however, the modern era has arrived, and the evolution should continue to accelerate. Chianti's next chapter is just beginning to be written.

Under the Tuscan Sun—
Visiting the region's wineries

Tuscan wineries are set among some of the most beautiful wine country in the world. The hills of Chianti Classico, rising up to 3,000 feet in places, have tight, steep slopes, where vines mingle with olive trees and huge expanses of pine and oak forests frame the landscape. The red-roofed villages generally straggle along a ridge, high above the valleys, built high up for protection against enemies in the Middle Ages. At either end of Chianti Classico are two stunning, internationally renowned wine capitals: Florence and Siena. In half an hour, you can drive from the quiet countryside to the bustling narrow streets of two of the most beautiful cities in Italy.

CASTELLO BANFI RISES UP OVER THE TUSCAN HILLS

You can use Siena as a base to visit two of the other important wine regions of Tuscany. To the east, overlooking the Val di Chiana, the flat pastureland that yields the cattle for Tuscany's famed bistecca Fiorentina, lies the hilltop city of Montepulciano. The vineyards of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are planted on the slopes that run down from the city into the valley. And to the south of Siena, remote on its own hilltop, is the smaller city of Montalcino. Here, the vineyards that produce Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy's most prestigious red wines, are planted on hills and slopes that lead toward Monte Amiata, Tuscany's highest mountain. (At 5,200 feet, it protects the Montalcino vineyards from rain and gives them extra sun.)

Many of the Tuscan wineries are open to visitors. However, travelling through wine country in Tuscany is not like driving through Napa Valley. You won't find the huge tasting facilities, picnic areas and theme parks that adorn some of the California wineries. In Tuscany, in general, everything is much smaller and in some ways more welcoming. You might well find a member of the family, or the manager of the winery, pouring wines in the tasting room. A tour of the winery will often be conducted on a person-to-person basis rather than in groups. And there will always be the chance to walk in the vineyards, since at many of the estates, the vines come right up to the front door. At the end of the tour, there is often a chance to buy not just wine, but olive oil, grappa and often local delicacies such as salamis and cheese.

Distances in Tuscany can be deceptive. What looks like a short drive between wineries often turns out to involve crossing a couple of mountain passes and negotiating any number of hairpin turns, so be prepared to drive slowly—and always watch out for tiny Fiats coming round the corner on the wrong side of the road. Some wineries are closed on Sundays, so it's wise to check in advance. And don't forget that whatever the opening hours indicate, between 12.30 p.m. and 2.30 p.m., wineries close for the sacred lunch hour—you should never get between an Italian and his pasta.

Here's a selection of my favorite wineries to visit in Chianti Classico, Montepulciano and Montalcino.

Chianti Classico
Villa Francesca, Barberino Val d'Elsa: A Small winery, with its own hotel and restaurant specializing in local dishes. Tel: 055 807 2849. Fax 055 807 2694. Winery open from April to September, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-5 p.m. Closed Mondays.

Castello di Fonterutoli, Castellina in Chianti: A beautiful ancient estate that has been in the same family since the 15th century. Tel: 0577 740476. Fax 0577 741070. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Castellare, Castellina in Chianti: A small estate built on the site of a 12th century monastery, whose ruins are still visible. Tel and Fax: 0577 740490. Open 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2:30-7:20 p.m.

San Felice, Castelnuovo Berardenga: A big, modern winery set in its own village, with a luxury hotel and restaurant attached. Tel: 0577 359087. Fax: 0577 359223. Open from March 15 to November 30, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.

Tenuta di Arceno, Castelnuovo Berardenga: Remote estate, now owned by Kendall-Jackson, which has just released its first wines. Tel: 0577 359346. Fax: 0577 359344. Open Monday through Friday, 8-12 a.m. and 1-5 p.m.

Badia a Coltibuono, Gaiole in Chianti: Beautiful abbey in a stunning position on the edge of the Chianti hills overlooking the Arno valley. There is a restaurant. The modern winery is a half-hour drive away. Tel: 0577 749498. Fax: 0577 749235. Closed in February; open Sundays in April, May, September and October, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-7 p.m

Riecine, Gaiole in Chianti: Boutique winery, owned and run by an Irish winemaker, Sean O'Callaghan, in a beautiful, isolated setting. Tel: 0577 749098. Fax: 0577 744935. Open 9-noon and 1-6 p.m.

Castello di Querceto, Greve in Chianti: A 16th century castle in the hills east of Greve. Self-catering apartments for rent. Tel: 055 854 9064. Fax: 055 854 9063. Open 9 a.m.-7 p.m.

Castello Vicchiomaggio, Greve in Chianti: Ancient hilltop Lombard fortress, dating from the 10th century. There is a shop at the foot of the hill, and a restaurant and the winery in the castle. Tel: 055 854079. Fax: 055 853911. Open: 8:30 a.m.-8 p.m.

Fontodi, Greve in Chianti: Exciting winery in the hilltop village of Panzano. Tel: 055 852005. Fax: 055 852537. Open Monday through Friday: 8 a.m.-noon. and 1:30-7:30 p.m.
Castello di Volpaia, Radda in Chianti: The Volpaia winery occupies much of a beautifully preserved fortified hilltop village. Tel: 0577 738066. Fax: 0577 738619. Open 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m.

Rocca delle Macie in Chianti: The winery also owns the nearby Riserva di Fizzano, a restored medieval guest village with 21 apartments. Tel: 0577 7321. Fax: 0577 743150 (Riserva Tel: 0577 7371; Fax: 0577 743163)

Montepulciano
Avignonesi: There are two sites to visit: a country villa, surrounded by cypress trees houses the winery (by appointment only). A shop in the center of Montepulciano sells the wine. Tel: 0578 757872. Fax: 0578 757847. Shop open: 9 a.m.-12.30 p.m. and 2.30 p.m.-8 p.m.

Contucci: One of the ancient wine families in Montepulciano, whose 16th century cellars in the city center are a must. Tel/Fax: 0578 757006. Open: 9 a.m.-12.30 p.m. and 2.30-6.30 p.m.

Poderi Boscarelli: Family estate of the Marchese Corradi, set in an oak wood on the edge of Montepulciano. A shop in the city sells wine. Tastings and winery visits by appointment only. Tel: 0578 767277. Fax: 0578 767277. Shop open: 8 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3-8 p.m.

Montalcino
Castello Banfi: Spectacular American-owned estate with high-tech winery in the valley and an ancient castle with restaurant and shop on the hill. The glass museum in the castle is a must. Tel: 0577 840111. Fax: 0577 840205. Winery tours by appointment only. Shop and museum open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Fattoria dei Barbi: Francesca and Donatella Colombini Cinelli run an idiosyncratically furnished winery, with exhibits of history and geography muddled between the barrels. There is a restaurant serving local food and you can buy homemade pecorino sheep cheese and salamis. Tel: 0577 848277. Fax: 0577 849356. Open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday by appointment.

Caparzo: Innovative estate which, unusually for Montalcino, also makes white wine (a Chardonnay) and a Sangiovese/Cabernet blend. Tel: 0577 848390. Fax: 0577 849377. Open 9 a.m.-noon and 2:30-6 p.m.

—R.V.

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