Chianti Classico's French Influence

The grand estate, vineyard and grounds of Barone Ricasoli sits pretty in the Tuscan hills.
© Barone Ricasoli | The grand estate, vineyard and grounds of Barone Ricasoli sits pretty in the Tuscan hills.
Has Chianti Classico finally outgrown Cabernet and company?
By James Lawrence | Posted Wednesday, 31-Mar-2021

We squander most of the household's spare moolah on Chianti Classico.

My favorite purveyor of weekend resuscitation was offering Fontodi's 2017 (now sold out) for £22. That's an obscene bargain. Few regions can compete with Chianti Classico in the vinous Holy Grail of price/quality ratio. It's the reason I fell in love with wine. It's pretty much the only example of posh plonk that I can afford. And this sorely underrated fine wine seems to be ascending an unstoppable upward curve.

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Yet, as I'm often reminded, it was not always so. When I interviewed Albiera Antinori in 2011, she described a historical era of turgid mediocrity: "Fifty years ago, many wines produced with Sangiovese were coming from vineyards planted for quantity and not for quality, and techniques of vinification and aging were coming from old traditions; the wines lacked color, they were highly acidic, with little aging potential, and did not travel well."

Fast forward 60 years and today the region brims with world-class producers of Chianti Classico, and a sizable collection of IGT Super Tuscans who refuse to be stymied by the rules of the Classico DOCG. Or original interlopers like the reliably brilliant Tignanello and Solaia.

Change has come thick and fast in Chianti Classico – most of it sensible and progressive. In 1996, the Chianti Classico DOCG allowed the production of 100 percent Sangiovese wines. Ten years later, the consorzio outlawed the inclusion of white grapes like Trebbiano (Ugni Blanc) into the blends, an annoying variety, if ever there was one. Unless we're talking about Cognac, Trebbiano is rather like the novels of E.L.James; best forgotten. The only sticking point is the authority's stubborn refusal to ban French grapes from making an appearance in the wines. Rip it all out, I say.

There are numerous sound arguments for enforcing a Trotskyist, 'Sangiovese or nothing state' in central Tuscany, albeit the majority would only hit a nerve with wine geeks. I suppose the most important is simultaneously the most quotidian: Tuscany is full of delicious bottles which exploit the international renown of French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon. Why, then, do we need Chianti Classicos with dollops of Merlot and Cabernet?

Are they inherently better wines? Do they truly enhance the final product? I'd argue not: I've never tasted a blended style that was superior to a 100 percent Sangiovese hallmark. The minimum permitted under the DOCG regulations is 80 percent. Thereafter, the winemaker can indulge his whims and fancies, to a point.

I'll refer to his holiness Hugh Johnson. "The high-water mark of adulation of variety at the expense of terroir and the varieties indigenous to that terroir has passed. The aim is now – or should be – to find points of difference, not similarity. Sangiovese properly grown in Tuscany has both unique typicite (the Italians call it tipicita) and inherent quality of the high order," he rightly observed. There are more than a few growers in Chianti who sympathize.

"We think that the so-called international grape varieties, such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, shouldn't be used in the Classico blend because, even if in small percentages, they change the wine's nature. Here at Castello di Querceto we don't use these varieties in our Chianti Classico DOCG wines, as we prefer to preserve the traditional characteristics of Chianti Classico," says Alessandro Fran?ois, owner of Castello di Querceto.

Although Sangiovese is key to the identity of Chianti Classico, should its praises be sung more?
© Barone Ricasoli | Although Sangiovese is key to the identity of Chianti Classico, should its praises be sung more?

Francesco Ricasoli, President of Ricasoli 1141, adopts a slightly different tone.

"Chianti Classico is historically a blend of wines from different grape varieties, so I do not think it has to be 100 percent Sangiovese by law," argues Ricasoli.

"On the other hand, because of our improved knowledge of this grape variety, we are capable of managing the results we can obtain with it, so we are choosing more and more to produce 100 percent Sangiovese wines. Instances are our three top-of-the-range Cru's Colledilà, Roncicone and CeniPrimo, or the upcoming vintage of our historical Grand Vin 'Castello di Brolio' which is going to be 100 percent Sangiovese."

So why was France chosen as Tuscany's savior back in the twentieth century? Ten years ago, Antinori replied that importing Cabernet Sauvignon into the wines in the 1970s was "the only option to help with the acidity, color and tannins."

But that was before Chianti Classico replaced its over-productive, lackluster clones of Sangiovese with something altogether more satisfactory. The Chianti Classico 2000 Research Programme has done wonders for the region; numerous trials were conducted on different clones, to search for the perfect genetic fit. You can taste the results in the wines: recent vintages of Ricasoli and Fontodi top-end Chianti Classicos don't require any adulteration. They prove that Sangiovese can make magic without any help. Is there a strong case for keeping Cabernet Sauvignon hanging around?

"A 100 percent single-varietal wine transmits with greater precision a sense of place, and the wines showcase the typical aspects of that variety. However, blending with other varieties can add complexity," replies Antinori.

"Back in the days, traditional Chianti Classico was a blend due to the historical viticultural situation and conditions of the vineyards. One of the possibilities that is under discussion is choosing Gran Selezione as 100 percent Sangiovese, while keeping the Riserva with the 20 percent other varieties."

I had previously assumed that France's 'grip' over Chianti tightened when Albiera's father launched Tignanello in 1971. Thereafter, imitations started springing up all over central Tuscany and the amount of Cabernet and Merlot planted skyrocketed. Fortunately, Francesco Ricasoli set the record straight.

"French varieties have historically been present in Tuscany long before the 1970s. Bettino Ricasoli himself was writing about them in his renowned correspondence with Cesare Studiati (1856-1879), which also contains the famous historical 'formula' for Chianti Classico," explains Ricasoli.

"For a long time these grape varieties have been used with the intention to fill in 'missing aspects' of Sangiovese. It must be said that the grape is very difficult to manage when compared to varieties such as Merlot. In the 1990s French varieties were used exceedingly, but, starting from the decade 2000 – 2010 Chianti Classico producers have been using them less and less."

For Ricasoli, the path to a better understanding of this admittedly taxing grape variety started 30 years ago. One of its key milestones was a three-year scientific study undertaken in cooperation with the CRA (Center for Research in Agrobiology of the University of Florence). Its goal was to identify the diverse variety of soil types in the 240 hectares of the Ricasoli vineyards, and then find a perfect clonal match.

The admission that the consorzio is debating using the Gran Selezione classification to 'enforce' 100 percent Sangiovese wines gives me cause for hope. What better evidence that the grape doesn't need a supporting act, although a touch of the indigenous Canaiolo probably can't hurt. Antinori reports that 100 percent Sangiovese wines are becoming more common in the region. And so they should. The awkward, stroppy teenager has become Grace Jones.

Regions such as Barbaresco and Cote de Beaune have produced wine from their historical variety for centuries. While growers would concede that there is a variance in quality across the region, who would dare to suggest that Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo can't give great wines? Sangiovese seems tantalizingly close to achieving equivalent status. Cabernet Sauvignon had its place, but we've all moved on. It's becoming redundant, unnecessary -  the equivalent of another Alien film.

It's time to give French grapes the boot.

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