Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – September 30, 2017

Tuscan Sangiovese and Assorted Whites
By John Szabo, MS with notes from Sara d’Amato

John Szabo, MSThis report has been written on the fly, directly from the field in the heart of sangiovese territory – Tuscany – and specifically the Chianti Classico district, one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in the world mapped out by Cosimo dei’ Medici in 1716. The timing of this visit is particularly fortuitous, coinciding with the VINTAGES release theme of Sangiovese this Saturday. Micheal Godel and I have spent the last several days shoulder-deep in Tuscany’s most planted variety, stepping in sands, clays and hard marly-limestone galestro and albarese rocks, striving to draw a coherent picture of the grape’s malleable character as it expresses the region’s steep, cypress-clad hills and valleys. A more detailed report will follow in the coming weeks, but here I’ll share a few observations along with a couple of sangiovese picks from the (sadly average) September 30th release, along with some additional Chianti Classico estates with a serious sangiovese game, and a bonus round of sharp whites.

Chianti Classico: An Emerging Region

The story of wine grown in the hills between Florence and Siena is as old as any in the Italian Peninsula. Etruscan artifacts establish the production of wine long before the Romans. Today, the region known as Chianti Classico refers to an area of some 7,500 hectares of vineyards, distinguished from the greater Chianti area that covers over 35,000ha. It is generally higher and hillier than the surrounding land, very steep in some cases, with poor, rockier soils with less clay and sand than is found in the rest of the area called simply Chianti. This heartland of production, the ‘zona classica’, was demarcated by Tuscan Grand Duke Cosimo dei’ Medici III in 1716 in an effort to protect the wines originating from these hills, already considered special at the time. But it has taken a long time for the wines to live up to their supposed reputation, and though historic, Chianti Classico could be considered an emerging region.

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One would think that a territory with such deep history would have things more or less figured out by now in terms of how to make top wines, but the reality is otherwise. The truth is that, like so many other regions in the old world and especially in Italy, wine wasn’t considered a commercial good until just a few decades ago. In Tuscany, wine was equated with calories, with quenching thirst, treated like a daily staple as basic as bread. (Still today it’s common in the region for children to be given a piece of wine-soaked bread sprinkled with sugar as a little mid-afternoon pick-up.) The aim, needless to say, was not often what we’d consider quality wine today.

Virtually all vineyards planted before the 1960s and even 1970s were conceived and planted with one singular purpose: high volume production. The various clones and biotypes of sangiovese, and there are over one-hundred (it’s a variety as prone to mutation and as variable as pinot noir) which had been selected over centuries had been singled out for their capacity to produce large yields to satisfy thirsty sharecroppers and greedy landowners. Also promiscuous agriculture was the norm, with vines sharing space with olive trees and other crops, so those breaking their backs to make quality wine were very much in the minority.

Topping up large old casks of sangiovese

Topping up large old casks of sangiovese

And to make matters worse, when vineyards were ‘industrialized’ in the post WWII period, lower-yielding terraces and rocky vineyards were ripped out and large tracks of easily farmed, mechanized vineyards on more productive soils were installed. The most prolific grape producing clones of sangiovese took over vineyards. Land was cheap, countless farmhouses were abandoned, and the region became a poor backwater.

And yet the region enjoyed some measure of commercial success in the 1960s and 1970s, due to ubiquity and price. No red-and-white checkered tablecloth in an Italian restaurant anywhere in the world was not covered by a straw-covered flagon of Chianti. But the fame gained had another edge: the proliferation of the image of Chianti as cheap, basic table wine. Consider now the 1980s and 1990s, in which a changing commercial reality saw consumers increasingly seeking quality over lowest price, and it’s easy to see why Chianti fell out of favour. The wines were poor. Ironically, in this same period, land prices started to rise as more and more foreigners (and anyone from outside of Chianti is a foreigner) wanted to buy up their own little piece of paradise under the Tuscan sun. There was a big disconnect between the increasingly glamorous image of the region, and the decidedly undistinguished wines produced therein.

Felsina Berardenga's superb Rancia vineyard

Felsina Berardenga’s superb Rancia vineyard

This is of course not news to anyone who has followed, even from a dispassionate distance, the history of Italian wine. But anyone interested should take note of the major changes that have happened in the last ten to fifteen years.

The consortium of Chianti Classic growers, banded together under the Black Rooster symbol, realized that drastic changes needed to be made. Chief among these was a re-shaping of vineyards, and a rigorous research program was undertaken to re-identify, select and propagate clones of sangiovese whose biological agenda was quality wine, not maximum fruit. Called the Chianti Classico 2000 project, eventually a dozen clones found in old vineyards throughout the region were identified and made commercially available. Savvy growers who had seen the writing on the wall began replanting vineyards with fine wine in mind, and slowly but surely, like a large cruise ship making a u-turn, Chianti Classico started to head in the direction of fine wine.

The iconic Black Rooster at Rocca delle Macie

The iconic Black Rooster at Rocca delle Macie

And sangiovese is clearly a variety with enormous potential. It’s not easy to grow, and it has the advantage, or arguably disadvantage, of being hyper sensitive to growing environment. “Sangiovese will never try to pull the wool over your eyes”, says Tommaso Morrochesi of Castello di Bibbiano when I ask him about the variety’s general character. “If it’s a poor sangiovese, it will always be a poor sangiovese. It is what it is.”

The definition of good or poor is, of course, important. Sangiovese comes in many styles – it’s the principal reason why even within Tuscany expressions of the three marquee appellations, Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino, can vary so dramatically, and why for the most part no other country outside of Italy has had much success with the grape.

And even within Chianti Classico, elevation, and especially soil types, can yield hugely different results in the glass. One finds, for example, that sangiovese grown on the heavier clays (generally in lower elevations) gives wines with plenty of body and abundant, chunky tannic structure. The sandier sites yield fruity, perfumed, light wines for earlier consumption, while the rocky, limestone-marl galestro and alberese vineyards (in a few cases staggeringly poor and rocky), gives in my view the, most sophisticated, classy and delicate wines with ultra-fine-grained tannins and otherworldly perfume, not to mention the greatest ageability.

Galestro rocks, Chainto Classico's classiest terroir

Galestro rocks, Chainto Classico’s classiest terroir

Higher elevation, cooler sub-zones like the commune of Radda in Chianti for example, once considered a poor cousin where sangiovese struggled to ripen, now find themselves in a position of privilege in an era in which ever-hotter summers can easily burn off sangiovese’s delicate floral and tart fruit aromatics.

Yet much is still being discovered, and mapping out sub-regional character is further muddled, at least from a consumer’s perspective, by the fact that blending other varieties in with sangiovese has been the tradition for centuries, and is still, leading to style variation less directly tied to vineyards. The reason, here as elsewhere, was mostly to hedge bets in a variable climate and stretch production. The reality is that no other local grape comes close to sangiovese in potential quality, and the international varieties likes cabernet sauvignon and merlot that were so fashionable in the ‘80s and ’90, make for utterly different wines.

But in Tuscany especially traditions die hard. And so without intimate knowledge of an estate’s production, one is left wondering how the wine in the glass before them came to be: regional character? Vintage variation? Other varieties blended in?

There has been a strong push by many producers to focus solely on sangiovese, though there’s still some progress to make. But in any case the most significant development of late is a growing interest in, and exploration of, communes, sub-regions, and even micro parcels within them. This terroir awakening has been a revelation not only for avid followers of the DOCG, but also for the producers themselves, many of whom barely knew their neighbours a decade or less ago, let alone understood their winemaking process or estate vineyards. You see, Tuscans are not a very cohesive lot. Campanilismo – the mentality of rallying around one’s own bell tower and distrusting everyone from outside – is rampant in the area, underscored by the legendary rivalry between the city states of Florence and Siena, but also played out in every village and hamlet throughout the land.

“The best part about our new association is the fact that we had a chance to get to know one another”, reveals Alessandra Bindi-Sergardi of the eponymous estate, referring to the newly formed association of producers in the commune of Castelnuovo Beradenga, a sentiment echoed by many in other newly-formed associations.

Grapes drying for Vinsanto at Felsina Berardenga

Grapes drying for Vinsanto at Felsina Berardenga

The movement towards collective marketing, but even more importantly towards the understanding of individual terroirs and early efforts to sketch out the general characteristics of each in relation to the performance of sangiovese is significant and deep. It now reaches into every corner of Chianti Classico.

“I see 400 producers heading in the same direction, not just one person leading many people”, comments Duccio Corsini of Le Corti winery in San Casciano. “Producers are searching for their own identity, in order to more clearly distinguish their wines  but also to understand the territory in general”.

And in the last few years, the fruits of this massive effort have started to be harvested. All discussions tend to revolve around the dramatic improvement in quality of the last decade, and how to shed the poor image lingering from the 1970s-1980s. Chianti Classico has likely never been in a better place and the number of wineries making top quality products increases every year. There are still many big questions to answer, such as whether communication should be focused on individual estates’ unique expressions, along the lines of Bordeaux, or collective sub-regional designations in the Burgundy style, and how best to relate to consumers the multiplicity of sangiovese expressions. But the region is heading in the right direction. I’m looking forward to following the story of this emerging historic region, and with two superb vintages in the pipelines, 2015 and 2016, there’s ample to look forward to.

In the meantime, track down the following wines from the VINTAGES September 30th release and look for wines from the recommended estates below.

Recommended Chianti Classico Producers (with Ontario agents where known):

  • Dievole (Family Wine Merchants)
  • Le Fonti (Rob Groh – The Vine)
  • Carobbio (Apparition Wines)
  • Villa Calcinaia (Nicholas Pearce Wines)
  • Il Molino di Grace (Frontier Wine Merchants)
  • Fèlsina Berardenga (Lifford)
  • Badia a Coltibuono
  • Volpaia (Rogers & Co.)
  • Querciabella (Rodgers & co.)
  • Fontodi (Rodgers & co.)
  • Brancaia
  • San Giusto a Rentennano
  • Podere Ciona
  • Rocca di Castagnoli
  • Bindi-Sergardi

Recommended Value Producers

  • Rocca delle Macie
  • Castello di Gabbiano

September 30th VINTAGES Buyers Guide

Tuscan Sangiovese

Carpineto 2012 Chianti Classico Riserva, DOCG Tuscany ($29.95)
John Szabo – Earthy and dusty in the old world style, with old leather, dried fruit and resinous-herbal flavours, this is a typical old world style Chianti Classico to be sure. …


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That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

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