Chianti's Top Tier Grows Up

The rolling hills of Chianti have made wine for centuries, but it didn't always live up to the hype.
© Viator | The rolling hills of Chianti have made wine for centuries, but it didn't always live up to the hype.
The introduction of Chianti Classico's Gran Selezione classification was controversial, but it's starting to work, our US editor reports.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Tuesday, 31-Mar-2020

Chianti Classico still has an envy problem, but it no longer has a classification problem: Gran Selezione has grown up.

In 2014, the Chianti Classico consorzio introduced a new highest-level classification, Gran Selezione. The goal was to get recognition – and more money – for some of the top wines being made in that part of Tuscany. Montalcino was getting paid, and Chianti Classico producers believed, not without justification, that their best wines should be on that scale.

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"We are challenging the producers in Montalcino," Baron Francesco Ricasoli told Wine-Searcher. "We have Sangiovese that has an elegance that you won't find in Montalcino."

At first the classification was haphazard. Only a couple dozen wineries bothered to use it; many feared it would undermine their Riserva level. Some tried to make their wines more awesome, using new oak and extremely ripe grapes.

In 2018 I checked in on Gran Seleziones. There were more, and many were much better. However, some also didn't resemble what people like me who love Chianti Classico, love about it. What I most remember about tasting 50 of them in a day is that I met two fellow wine journalists for dinner that night. They had also tasted Chianti Classico all day, but not Gran Seleziones like me. I begged for us to order a Chianti Classico for dinner. They refused: you had all day to taste those, they said! I said, but I tasted Gran Seleziones. They said, well, that was your choice.

Parting ways with Parker

When it's good, Chianti Classico is one of my favorite wines in the world. Part of the region's struggles to earn more money for the wines is that the classic taste profile didn't fit the Parker era. A good Chianti Classico offers dried fruit, savory notes like leather and tobacco, plenty of food-friendly acidity and a firm but not overpowering backbone. You can drink a good Chianti Classico with fish, pizza, pasta, chicken ... you name it, and I might have enjoyed Chianti Classico with it.

Chianti Classico Gran Selezione has been a challenge for the European concept of regional identity. Take Burgundy, for example. The difference between a good Montrachet and a great Montrachet may be easy to taste, but they're both supposed to taste like Montrachet. It's strange for Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva to taste like one thing and Gran Selezione to taste like another. Ideally, you want the Gran Selezione to taste like the Riserva, only better. But I found in prior years that sometimes it was completely different. Moreover, sometimes a winery's Riserva or even its entry-level Chianti Classico was better than the Gran Selezione.

I wasn't planning to taste Gran Seleziones again this year. Every February in the pre-pandemic world, journalists gathered in Florence to taste the new Chianti Classico releases. There are hundreds of wines to taste, too many for two days, so I always look for a theme. In 2019, I tasted all the largest-production wines, which I found surprisingly satisfying, and better for readers because those wines are easiest to find. I was talking about this with an Italian wine journalist: what should I taste? She said I should revisit Gran Seleziones, because, she said, a lot has changed in the two years since I last checked on them: they were a lot more elegant.

I didn't have a better plan, so that's what I did. When I did this in 2018, I could taste every Gran Selezione: there were only 82. The number of wineries making a Gran Selezione expands every year. In February of this year – we were there just as the first cases of coronavirus were being diagnosed north of Tuscany – there were 112 to choose from. That's more than I want to taste; I needed to winnow.

Fortunately I had the magic of Wine-Searcher. I looked up all 112 to see which are available in the US, which is Chianti Classico's biggest market. Surprisingly, only 44 are. This not only made my tasting more manageable; it allowed me to taste with context, because I could then also taste entry-level and/or Riserva wines from the same wineries. So I could actually see – well, taste – whether Gran Selezione has a family resemblance now, and whether Gran Seleziones really are the best wines the winery makes (I didn't find this to be true as recently as 2019.)

I was surprised that only 39 percent of the Gran Seleziones are available in the US, especially because we famously pay more for wine than consumers in other countries. Count Sebastiano Capponi, owner of Villa Calcinaia, explained that many of the outliers are made in small quantities to sell from the winery to visitors, and many of those visitors are Americans. So we are buying them as the top of the portfolio. Are they worth it?

From what I tasted in February, the answer is yes. I wouldn't recommend all of the 44 wines I tasted. But in each case, when I compared it to the other wines the winery made, the Gran Selezione was the best. Also, the familial resemblance with Riservas was much stronger than before. If a winery's Riserva has pretty floral notes, its Gran Selezione has them too. Gran Seleziones tend to be picked a little riper, but not Parker-era ripe. The fruit is often more fresh than dried, but the resemblance is there.

Filippo Corsini, owner of Principe Corsini winery, told me the change has been more in all of Chianti Classico than just in the Gran Seleziones.

"It's about the change in perspective in general from the producer," Corsini said. "They began understanding that overdress is overdress. They had an excess of concentration. They used oak to cover it. They were not confident in the grapes. Fashion is moving into openness. Terroir. The flavors of the terroir. You have more harmony. So many excesses have been mitigated since, I would say, 2015. We are moving into emphasizing the value of the grape. Emphasizing the freshness of the fruit. The integrity of fruit is exactly what we want to get integrity in the wine."

Not coincidentally, I was tasting mostly 2016s and 2017s this year. So my fellow Italian journalist was right!

The better wineries are producing Gran Selezione wines that bear an obvious resemblance to their lower-tier stablemates.
© Morrell | The better wineries are producing Gran Selezione wines that bear an obvious resemblance to their lower-tier stablemates.

The pick of the bunch

Here are the current-release Chianti Classico Gran Seleziones I liked best. All of them I rated 90 points or higher; your scores may vary, but if you like Chianti Classico, you will like these wines. All wines 100-percent Sangiovese (much more common now with Gran Seleziones) unless otherwise noted.

2016 Bibbiano Vigna del Capannino Chianti Classico Gran Selezione A refined version of an archetypal Chianti Classico: cherry and dried cherry flavors with notes of tobacco and noticeable but tame tannins. 

2017 Castello di Ama San Lorenzo Chianti Classico Gran Selezione One of the best of these wines, it includes 13 percent Merlot and 7 percent Malvasia Nera, A savory aroma piques the appetite, and it follows through with dark cherry fruit, nice freshness, silky tannins and perfect balance. It's sleek, elegant and delightful.

2016 Castello di Bossi Chianti Classico Gran Selezione A pretty floral aroma adds lift to the classic aromas of dried cherry and tobacco. Good freshness, nice dried cherry fruit, elegant finish.

2017 Castello di Fonterutoli Badiola Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Fresh cherry fruit with a nice lipsmacking mouthfeel. Graceful and restrained: the fruit is bright but it stays in its frame.

2015 Castello di Gabbiano Cavaliere d'Oro Bellezza Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Nice characteristic Chianti Classico, with notes of dried cherries, a bit of tobacco and leather. This reminds me of a Riserva in that its tannins are more noticeable than many Gran Seleziones. The Gran Selezione category might be most useful for these large-company wines; this is a very characteristic Chianti Classico that I'd happily drink.

2016 Castello di Verrazzano Sassello Chianti Classico Gran Selezione A delicate wine; not the kind I found in this tasting two years ago. Dried cherry fruit with a hint of tobacco, smoothly mingling. This would be very easy to quaff without noticing, but it's worth stopping to pay attention.

2016 Dievole Vigna di Sessina Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Nice freshness, with lively cherry fruit that stays in its structure. Leaves a nice dried cherry aftertaste.

2016 Il Molino di Grace Il Margone Chianti Classico Gran Selezione A ripe version, but with good balance and freshness. Ripe cherry fruit and silky tannins. Clean and fruit-driven; this would be a crowd-pleaser.

2016 Lamole di Lamole Vigneto di Campolungo Chianti Classico Gran Selezione The fruit has a darker note from 5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, but it's vibrant, and has one of the longest finishes of any of the wines. There's a pretty violet note in the aroma. Lovely wine.

2016 Marchesi Antinori Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Gran Selezione A well-made, straightforward wine with cherry fruit and nice freshness.

2016 Principe Corsini Villa Le Corti Don Tommaso Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Intensely fresh up front, with juicy fruit on the finish. The acidity is almost eyewatering, and maybe that's why there's 20 percent Merlot in it: to smooth it out. This will be even better in several years.

2016 Ricasoli Ceniprimo Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Dried cherry fruit with a gravelly note, nice freshness and smooth tannins. Very well made.

2016 Ricasoli Roncicone Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Ricasoli makes four different Gran Seleziones from four different vineyards, and they're all good.This one has good freshness, nice cherry fruit, a touch of minerality, and an elegant finish. You can feel the tannins but they don't grip. Really nice balance.

2015 Rocca di Montegrossi Vigneto San Marcellino Chianti Classico Gran Selezione An elegant, well-balanced, archetypal Chianti Classico with a nice long finish. Tannins are present but at the right level for the experience. The Italians would praise it as finishing with a "classic bitterness," and it's true, but it's more pleasant than that sounds. Includes 6 percent Pugnitello.

2016 Terra di Seta Assai Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Taut dried cherry fruit with lipsmacking acidity on finish. Very drinkable and it cries out for food.

2016 Tolaini Vigna Montebello Sette Chianti Classico Gran Selezione This may be what Gran Seleziones are evolving into: the archetypal Chianti Classico style, but with brighter, fresher fruit. Excellent.

2016 Vecchie Terre di Montefili Vigna Vecchi Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Dense without being rich; bright cherry fruit with good freshness and balance. Elegant and satisfying at the same time.

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