Chianti Classico is back – it was always there
After spending an exhaustive three days tasting Chianti and Chianti Classico in the heart of Tuscany, I walked away with one piece of great news I’d like to share with you: Chianti is back, baby.
Now, many of you are probably wondering where Chianti went. Hasn’t it always been there? The answer is obviously yes. Chianti has always been churning out wine by the barrelful. It’s on the shelves of every wine shop, and it’s definitely on our minds when we go shopping in the Italian section. After all, this is a wine region that has an annual output of 35 to 38 million bottles and exports its wines to 130 countries. The largest portion of exports go to the United States but Canada takes 8 percent — which, believe it or not, makes us their fourth-largest market. However, for this article, I’m focusing my attention on Chianti Classico.
Chianti Classico is possibly one of the most misunderstood wines because the word “Chianti” has been co-opted so easily by other wines in the area, which has led it to suffer from a bit of an identity crisis over the years. The “sign” of Chianti Classico is the Black Rooster, a logo that adorns the neck of every bottle that bares its name. If there isn’t a black rooster, it’s not Classico. The term “Classico” refers to the historic region of Chianti, specifically the 70,000 hectares (172,900 acres) that lie between Florence and Sienna.
Those identifiers aside, the differences between Chianti and Chianti Classico are not rightly apparent, especially to the consumer who sees the word “Chianti” on a bottle and immediately assumes “if you’ve seen one Chianti, you’ve seen ’em all.’” Speak with someone within the region and they are more than happy to spell it out for you: it is not just about locale, but that is still a major part.
Chianti Classico would claim itself to be the purer expression: Sangiovese makes up 80 to 100 percent of Classico while Chianti wines are 70 to 100 percent Sangiovese. Furthermore, 10 percent of white varieties are permitted in Chianti, while none is allowed in Classico. In addition, to be growing vines in the Chianti Classico area, you need a vine density of 4,400 plants per hectare, and only two kilos per vine. By contrast, in Chianti it’s 4,000 plants and three kilos per vine. Alcohol levels are also a factor: minimum levels are higher in Chianti Classico, starting at 12 percent, while Chianti’s minimums begin at 10.5 percent.
Chianti Classico also comes in three classifications — Annata, Riserva and Gran Selezione — while Chianti only comes in the first two. Moreover, if you buy a bottle of Annata Chianti, the equivalent Classico is already an older wine. By regulation, Chianti can be released a full seven months before Classico is allowed onto the market. Riserva-designated wines share a similar release date in both regions: they require 24 months of aging and their release dates are the same (from January 1 of the year following the harvest), but regulations state the Classico version must have a minimum of three months in the bottle before release, while Chianti does not require any additional aging. Finally, the newest level — Gran Selezione (established in 2013) — which only applies to Chianti Classico bottlings, requires the wine to be aged for 30 months in oak and then at least an extra three months in the bottle.
But to truly understand the difference between these two designations, one must look beyond just what’s in the bottle and examine the historical context.
In 1716, Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, delimited Chianti as the region between Florence and Sienna. As Chianti’s popularity grew, vine planting and winemaking began creeping farther and farther outside the delimited area yet the wines still bore the name Chianti on their labels. There was thus a feeling of need amongst the original growers and producers to protect the original zone. In 1932, the term “Classico” was added to distinguish wines from the original Chianti growing area from those made in the newly formed growing areas, which continued unabatedly to expand the outskirts. Chianti Classico also now has the honour of being a DOCG classified area — the highest quality designation within the Italian wine hierarchy. Finally, as of 2010, straight Chianti cannot be made in the Classico area. Which means, if you grow within the original delimited zone, you must follow Classico’s regulations and you cannot declassify your wine to Chianti standards.
As for my discoveries about the new 2015 vintage, it was a very good growing season for Chianti Classico (and Chianti) and it really shows in the bottle. I have attended the Anteprima (the tasting of the newest vintage) for the last four years and have never been so widely impressed with what I tasted as I was this year. And I tasted a little more than half of the over 400 wines on offer.
To get an overview of what is happening currently, I usually break it down by vintage and style, but there’s also the opportunity to taste some older wines (dating as far back as 2009 this time) to see how previous vintages are aging. This year, however, I kept returning again and again to the 2015 wines to see if what I was tasting was an anomaly — or if indeed 2015 was a special year. As a result, I can confirm that what was put in the bottle for 2015 Chianti Classico is truly something special and worth seeking out (and, by extension, 2015 Chianti wines are too — though to a lesser degree).
Antinori Pèppoli 2015, Chianti Classico ($24)
Antinori has crafted a real people-pleaser here with ripe red fruit that comes across round and supple in the mouth.
Banfi Fonte alla Selva 2015, Chianti Classico ($25)
Trust Banfi to take full advantage of the great vintage that was 2015. There’s plenty of dark fruit on both nose and palate, starting with plum and ending with black cherry and good acidity.
Bonacchi Chianti Classico 2015 ($25)
This is a really complex and giving version of 2015 Classico, layering in cherry and black cherry flavours while adding aromas of spiced plum, baking spices and smoky notes.
Brancaia Chianti Classico 2015 ($23)
Starts off brash and bold and ends with a real bite of acidity, but there’s also spice and a pleasant seam of black cherry.
Carpineto Chianti Classico 2015 ($21)
Some wines are biting and some feel chewy; this one does both. First, there’s a chewy, red fruit middle with pepper and spice layered on top, then it bites back with great acidity on the finish.
Castagnoli Chianti Classico 2015 ($18)
A fruit-driven Classico that delivers both the necessities of red and black fruit, followed by white pepper on the finish. Simply put, this one is gorgeous and will have you enjoying sip after sip.
Castello di Ama Chianti Classico 2015 ($35)
Aromas lure with a mix of cherry blossom, vanilla and cedar that follow onto the palate, picking up cherry and strawberry along the way. This one is balanced, focused and delicious.
Castello di Gabbiano Chianti Classico 2015 ($24)
Seemingly simple beginnings lead to a palate that’ll have you wanting more: dark fruit kicks it off, layers in cedar then finishes with smoky spices.
Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico 2015 ($40)
So much going on here and all finishing so elegantly. Cherry and raspberry fruit with dollops of other red berries, along with a hint of vanilla on the finish. The acidity helps to balance and keep everything in check.
Castello Vicchiomaggio San Jacopo Chianti Classico 2015 ($25)
Cherry seems to be the focus here, both the sweet red kind and sour variety fight it out pleasantly on the palate, while the finish loads in hints of cedar and smoked meat.
Cinciano Chianti Classico 2015 ($30)
Simple yet still elegantly fruity with ripe red fruits taking charge and finishing with a nice hit of spice.
Collazzi I Bastioni Chianti Classico 2015 ($25)
The wine is silky and appealing from beginning to end — it piles on black cherry, plum, vanilla and smoke all sweeping through the mid-palate and leading to balanced acidity on the finish.
Felsina Berardenga Chianti Classico 2015 ($30)
Deep in raspberry and cherry fruit. Starts off silky, while the mid-palate introduces some grippy tannins early, but then the acidity swings in on the finish to clean it up.
Montesecondo Chianti Classico 2015 ($35)
Cherry fruit dominates with good acidity on the finish — but it’s not a one-trick wine, there’s also a real nice spiced-plum note that shows up mid-palate and carries all the way to finish.
Podere La Cappella Chianti Classico 2015 ($30)
Robust dark fruit (primarily blueberry, black cherry and plum) that is balanced off beautifully with acidity.
Riecine Chianti Classico 2015 ($27)
A wine that takes a few sips to win you over; but once it does, you’re hooked. Strawberry and balsamic notes with vanilla, smoke and a touch of floral.
Tenute di Nozzole Chianti Classico 2015 ($25)
Pleasantly dark fruited with plum, cherry and a note of cedar on the finish.
Terre di Perseto Albóre Chianti Classico 2015 ($30)
A hot-vintage Classico that drinks like a cool-vintage Classico: starts with lovely red fruit, but adds in an herbal/savoury element for complexity and ends spicy with a good acid backbone.