Sangiovese on Edge: Tumult & Triumph in Chianti Classico & Montalcino

Chianti Classico is the first wine I truly loved. In the summer before my junior year of college, I spent two months studying opera in Arezzo, just east of the appellation’s edge. On that trip, I visited my very first winery, San Felice, where my singer friends and I were greeted with a full wheel of Pecorino. I can probably tell you more about the cheese than the wine, but the experience stuck. The following summer, when I took my first wine industry gig on a whim, the only thing I went into the job knowing was that I loved Chianti Classico. One week in, I asked my boss if she liked it, too. She shrugged and replied that she preferred Brunello.

And so goes the common tale of Chianti Classico—a wine imbued with as much nostalgia as a Fellini film, yet one so many feel pressured to graduate from. My experience was not dissimilar from that of many Americans. According to U.S. News, Italy was the second most popular study abroad destination for United States students in the 2017–2018 school year, trailing only the United Kingdom and chosen by 10.8% of all Americans, or nearly 37,000 scholars. The trend is neither new nor limited to the young. In the 1970s and ’80s, American travel to Tuscany coincided with decreased airfares, a burgeoning middle class, and the continued proliferation of red sauce joints across the United States, where patrons acquainted themselves with the straw-basketed, squat-bottled fiasco that encased cheap Chianti wine.

Along with Rome and Venice, “For all the Americans who go to Italy, [Florence is] part of the grand tour,” says Jeffrey Porter, host of the web show Sip Trip and former Beverage Operations Director for the Batali and Bastianich Group. “There are a lot of wine consumers that are introduced to Chianti Classico first because they go there.” Sandwiched between the tourist hubs of Florence and Siena, it helps that the region has invested heavily in enotourism. Over 90% of Chianti Classico wineries receive guests, and 27% even offer cooking classes. Nearby Montalcino welcomes more than one million people annually.

With so many people falling in love with Chianti Classico right in the place where it is born, why is the affair so ephemeral? The predicament isn’t new for the region. Chianti Classico’s past 300 years have involved a ceaseless battle of public perception, with its great opponent of the 20th century being the larger Chianti DOCG. That war is not yet entirely won. “The consumer doesn’t understand [that] if you’re buying a wine labeled Chianti, it can cost $8 or it can cost $150,” explains MS Laura DePasquale, Vice President and General Manager of the Artisanal Fine Wine division of Southern Glazer’s.

Like the fickle Sangiovese, Chianti Classico is in a constant state of flux. This stands in stark contrast to the grape’s other great home, and my former employer’s proposed upgrade, of Montalcino—where regulations for Brunello have been virtually unaltered since they were written in 1966. Yet regardless of their unique histories and market placements, recent events have compelled both regions to ask themselves similar questions. These past three decades, Chianti Classico and Montalcino have withstood challenges that have forced them to rebuild reputations and contemplate reinvention. For Chianti Classico, that journey has resulted in a dizzying display of diversity, while Montalcino has reconfirmed its stalwart devotion to monovarietal Sangiovese wines. In either case, the stories are not over, with pending decisions that will assuredly shape Tuscan wine for years to come.

The Burden of History

In 1716, Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, set the boundaries for where wines named Chianti could be produced, effectively creating the first demarcated wine region. (Porto and the Douro and Tokaj make similar claims, though what would morph into Chianti Classico appears earliest by several decades.) Despite Cosimo III’s intentions, the spillover of Chianti wines outside of these original borders is a problem that has plagued the Tuscan wine industry for centuries. In the midst of the phylloxera crisis, fraudulent wines were rampantly sold. Italian merchants got clever, labeling several Tuscan bottlings as vino tipo di Chianti, or “wine of the Chianti type,” to imply a similarly styled wine, rather than full-out lying about origin. Copycat Chianti was found as near as its northern neighbor Rufina and as far as California, where the Italian Swiss Colony offered Tipo Chianti wines, even appropriating the fiasco, which had been associated with the Chianti region since Renaissance times. Consumers worldwide took notice, and Chianti's reputation became one of an unreliable product that might be from anywhere.

Such has been the eternal challenge for Chianti Classico—separating itself from all of the other wines that bear the name Chianti. A 1924 Italian law officially acknowledged the right to state a wine type rather than place. In response, producers within what they called the historic Chianti classico zone ornamented their bottles with a black rooster, or gallo nero, which ever since has been the emblem for the region. In 1932, Chianti was officially expanded to include seven subzones: Chianti Classico, Rufina, Montalbano, Colli Fiorentini, Colli Senesi, Colli Aretini, and Colline Pisane. These subzones were further codified when Chianti earned DOC status in 1967.

Chianti Classico wineries steadfastly pursued efforts to distinguish themselves from the larger, and generally inferior, Chianti. Beyond the black rooster, producers began to abandon the fiaschi, and by 1969, more Chianti Classico wines were sealed in Bordeaux bottles. A greater issue lay with how Chianti and Chianti Classico were regulated. By law, the wines had to include 10 to 30% of the white grapes Malvasia Bianca Lunga and Trebbiano Toscano, which quality-minded winegrowers argued diluted the wines. Meanwhile, in Bolgheri, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta at Tenuta San Guido released his first vintage of Sassicaia in 1968, an immediate sensation that marked a new definition of premium Tuscan wine. Wineries to the interior took note, and in 1971, Mario’s brother-in-law Niccolò Antinori declassified his Tignanello Chianti Classico Riserva to Vino da Tavola, due to a deficiency of white grapes and the forbidden addition of Cabernet Sauvignon. He further aged the wine in French barriques—permissible, but atypical for the region. In all, Tignanello helped usher in a new age of “Super Tuscans” within Chianti Classico: modern wines bold both in flavor and in their abandonment of the DOC. In addition to wines with French varieties, the movement included a suite of exclusively Sangiovese wines, beginning with San Felice’s 1968 Vigorello (which today is a predominately Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend), and followed in the 1970s and ’80s by such important bottlings as Isole e Olena’s Cepparello, Fontodi’s Flaccianello della Pieve, San Giusto a Rentennano’s Percarlo, Fèlsina’s Fontalloro, and Montevertine’s Le Pergole Torte.

The burgeoning cult status of the Super Tuscans prompted response from the Chianti DOC, which wished to keep these Vini da Tavola under its banner. When the appellation was elevated to DOCG status in 1984, regulations were amended to allow 10% French varieties. The ensuing decades continued with a sequence of legal victories for Chianti Classico. In 1996, Chianti Classico was finally allowed to separate from Chianti, attaining its own independent DOCG. Regulations became more stringent, including delaying release dates, increasing minimum alcohol levels, and, most important, permitting 100% Sangiovese wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, among other authorized varieties, were also allowed up to 15%, increased to 20% in 2000. By 2005, white grapes were removed altogether, and in 2010, it became illegal to produce Chianti within Chianti Classico. By all accounts, Chianti Classico has successfully dissociated itself from Chianti on paper. But this restless region continues to grapple with an assortment of initiatives keeping its producers on high alert.

The New Sangiovese

While Chianti Classico fought for its myriad legislative wins, there was also work to be done in the vineyard. Alongside the region’s late-20th-century efforts to distinguish itself from the broader Chianti DOCG, the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico launched the influential Chianti Classico 2000 initiative. The project, first spearheaded by famed winemaker and consultant Carlo Ferrini, aimed to identify the most suitable Sangiovese clones for top-quality wine production. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Tuscan vineyard was generally planted to three clones: R10, R24, and F9. Developed at the Rauscedo and University of Florence nurseries, each was recognized for its high vigor and favored for quantity over quality. “All the clones are big, juicy bunches. The berries are massive. The skin-to-juice ratio is tiny,” says Manfred Ing, the South African-born winemaker at Querciabella. “You were making wine, and you just had to make lots of it.” In addition to yielding anemic wines, these clones demanded increased labor through necessary bunch-thinning and other efforts to keep the vines in check. R24 was generally perceived as superior to R10, and B-BS11, the important Brunello clone propagated by Biondi Santi, was also available but attracted little attention in Chianti Classico.

Between 1988 and 1991, the Consorzio commissioned 14 experimental vineyards, planted across Chianti Classico’s various subzones. In distinguishing high-potential Sangiovese clones, the Chianti Classico 2000 project established three primary criteria: smaller berries, thicker skins, and looser clusters. These first two points sought to increase the skin-to-juice ratio, which ultimately could be harnessed to vinify more extracted wines. The more open structure to the bunches serves to reduce disease pressure. Further, several winegrowers favored earlier-ripening clones of Sangiovese to guarantee successful harvests each vintage, before the autumn rains. Ultimately, seven Sangiovese clones and one Colorino clone were selected and logged as CCL 2000/1 through 8 in the Italian National Registry. Today, the registry counts over 100 separate Sangiovese clones, more than any other grape variety.

Over 60% of Chianti Classico’s vineyards have been replanted since the late 1990s. Budwood for the first four CCL clones was initially offered in 2001, and the entire CCL group has been cultivated as part of this massive vineyard renewal. And the reach of these clones extends far outside Chianti Classico’s bounds—from Montepulciano to Emilia-Romagna and beyond. Despite the common misconception that Montalcino relies exclusively on Sangiovese Grosso or Brunello clones—thick-skinned but larger-berried biotypes, such as B-BS11—other Sangiovese clones are permitted, with the CCL portfolio achieving increased importance for the appellation in the 21st century.

Beyond clonal material, the Chianti Classico 2000 project, as well as the work of individual wineries, reimagined most every major viticultural decision. Prior to the 1990s, the typical Chianti Classico vineyard was planted with 1,500 to 2,000 vines per hectare. With trial parcels as compact as 10,000 vines per hectare, which is not uncommon in Bordeaux, optimal density is now widely considered to fall between 5,000 and 7,000 (and DOCG regulations mandate a minimum 3,350). New rootstocks were selected to reduce vigor and amplify sugar production. Many new plantings were trellised to Guyot systems, rather than the historic alberello, or bush vine, training.

All these developments, along with the CCL clones, were products of international winemaking trends in the 1990s and 2000s. In essence, each performed to create fuller-throttle, higher-alcohol wines that could challenge the fiasco Chianti and chase the same praise awarded to Super Tuscans—and new competitors such as the Napa Valley—by influential critics such as Robert Parker and James Suckling. And although that effort might be viewed as a successful element of Chianti Classico’s big rebranding, today some question if it is still the appropriate approach. A global shift away from the borderline bombastic wines at the turn of the millennium has given new favor to higher-acid reds of more moderate alcohol and body—a style seemingly tailor-made for the Chianti Classico region.

“As always, it goes back and forth, the pendulum,” explains Albiera Antinori, President of Antinori and a member of her family’s 26th generation of winegrowers. “In the experience of researching concentration, you realize that perhaps it’s not only the concentration that you need to have, but it’s also a question of the quality of the tannins, of the elegance of the wine, of the use of the wood. So, it’s always a back and forth.” Beyond stylistic changes, Antinori points out that consistent ripening is no longer a challenge for Sangiovese, due to many of the aforementioned advancements in viticulture and the effects of climate change. She suggests a new study may be in order to secure Sangiovese’s future for the region. “The variable of the weather was not calculated at the time, so I think there is more to look for. . . . Perhaps the next project should be to look for varieties [or clones] that resist heat better.”

Isn’t It Gran?

In 2013, the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico announced the creation of a new pinnacle to the region’s quality pyramid: Gran Selezione. A tier above Chianti Classico Riserva, Gran Selezione wines are vinified from exclusively estate fruit (or vineyards with long-term contracts) and must represent a single vineyard or selection of top parcels. The wines are aged a minimum of 30 months beginning the January post-harvest (including 3 months in bottle)—a total of 6 months longer than Riserva mandates. Lastly, producers must submit wines to a tasting panel before they are approved as Gran Selezione. The new category took effect in 2014, retroactive for the 2010 vintage.

The precise ambitions of Gran Selezione vary depending on who is discussing them. “I think the Gran Selezione has been a good opportunity to talk about Sangiovese, to attract attention to Chianti Classico, and to talk about a modern Chianti Classico,” says Antinori. For her and others, Gran Selezione was the next step in differentiating Chianti Classico from Chianti. A far cry from fiasco bottlings, the pricing has always been ambitious, competing with top Brunello di Montalcino wines and reaching as high as $200. If there were any lingering questions as to the seriousness of Chianti Classico, Gran Selezione hoped to hammer a final nail in that coffin.

Marco Pallanti, winemaker at Castello di Ama since 1982, served as president of the Consorzio when Gran Selezione was implemented. For him, more than premiumization, the most essential advancement of Gran Selezione was the ability of wineries to better communicate a specific place on their bottles. “The producer decides, This is my best vineyard, and I make from this vineyard this wine,” he explains. Understanding the particularities of site has been a career-long passion for Pallanti, who swiftly underwent a meticulous parcellation project when beginning at Castello di Ama. He purports to have released the first single-vineyard wines within the Chianti Classico region, and today Castello di Ama offers three distinctive Gran Selezione wines: the single vineyards Bellavista and La Casuccia, as well as San Lorenzo, blended from top blocks.

Not every producer in the region was quick to support Gran Selezione. Some worried that Gran Selezione would cannibalize the Riserva level. Others feared that rather than widen the gap between Chianti and Chianti Classico, Gran Selezione simply added yet another wine to the mix with “Chianti” on the bottle. Furthermore, the consistency in quality and cost was vast. “At the beginning, there was quite a high number of wines being released as Gran Selezione at varying price points, which was confusing to us as a producer,” says Ing. “So we could only imagine how confusing it must be for the consumers.” Others still took issue with the tasting panel, arguing too many wines were approved without meeting appropriate standards, with particular favoritism toward large producers. Of the 33 wineries to present a Gran Selezione wine at the category’s February 2014 launch in Florence, 82% of total production was assumed by a mere six properties—and Ruffino alone accounted for nearly half of the total 1.1 million initial bottles of Gran Selezione. In its first year, only around 10% of Gran Selezione submissions failed to make it past the tasting panel.

Early press was similarly mixed. In his first set of reviews to address the new Gran Selezioni, critic Antonio Galloni in his publication Vinous questioned why, if these wines were supposed to represent the pinnacle of achievement for Chianti Classico, benchmark Sangioveses such as Cepparello, Percarlo, Tignanello, and Flaccianello della Pieve were still being bottled as IGT. Certainly, the Consorzio would have hoped to bring these cult-status wines under the Gallo Nero umbrella as part of the new program. A year later, Galloni continued, “When consumers buy a Chianti Classico Gran Selezione they should get a great wine. A Gran Selezione. Not an average wine, not a good wine. A great wine. That is what Gran Selezione should be. Today, not all wines are at that level.”

Now, in 2020, Gran Selezione still hasn’t fully found its footing in the global market. “I think it will be worthwhile in the long run,” says Jeffrey Porter, but he admits that more work is needed for consumers to understand the worth of Gran Selezione. Within the region, however, the conversation has shifted toward potentially amending Gran Selezione to either exclude French blending varieties or go so far as to mandate that Sangiovese comprise 100% of the wine. Many have noted that Gran Selezioni veer toward more extracted, internationally styled wines, demonstrating heavy marks of new oak. Cutting Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and their comrades could offer more regional identity to the wines, as well as brighten them a few shades. “Initially, it changes the fruit profile, and maybe the tannin structure,” says Ing of French varieties. “But in the long run, you open it up after 15 years, the first, the only thing you taste is the Merlot.”

For Pallanti, such an adjustment in regulations would spell the end for two of his Gran Selezioni in their current forms; both La Casuccia and San Lorenzo feature Merlot. But beyond personal inconvenience, his argument against amendment is one of historical precedence. Unlike Montalcino, whose heritage is rooted in monovarietal Sangiovese, in Chianti Classico, he says, “Our story is not 100% one variety. It is a blend.”

Reconsidering Riserva & Rosso

Down in Montalcino, the top of the quality ladder, Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, has not been immune to scrutiny. “With a few exceptions, I am not a fan of Brunello Riservas,” writes Galloni upon the release of the Riserva wines of the heralded 2010 vintage. “The trend to give what winemakers consider their ‘best’ fruit more time in barrel or more new/smaller oak often leads to Riservas aging faster than Annata wines of the same vintage.” Montalcino prides itself in having one the longest minimum mandated maturation periods for any dry, non-fortified wine (including Rioja Gran Reserva)—a minimum two years, followed by a minimum four months in bottle for Brunello and six months for Riserva. Further, Brunello cannot be released until January 1 of the fifth year following harvest, with Riserva tacking on a sixth year. Still, Galloni’s comments echo the most common criticism for the Riserva tier: with important exceptions, Riservas are often overly oxidative by comparison to basic Brunello wines.

“They want their wine to be appreciated immediately, and this means they have higher maturation in the vineyard when they harvest, and this results in lower acidity, less freshness and longevity,” says Giampiero Bertolini, CEO of Biondi Santi, whose Riservas are often viewed as a standard of what that designation should be. “At the end, it’s not really different than the Brunello. But, the price is different.” While longer élevage in smaller vessels might be commonplace for certain wineries, Bertolini argues that the bigger culprit is the extended hang time in the vineyard, resulting in higher pHs and fruit more susceptible to oxidation. Andrea Lonardi, winemaker for the Bertani group, including Montalcino’s Val di Suga, concurs that such decisions truncate shelf life not just for Riserva, but Brunello altogether: “I think it is more difficult to age for a long time a very rich and powerful Sangiovese.” He’s observed pH in Montalcino shift from around 3.35 in the 1980s to often higher than 3.5 today. Beyond harvest date, Lonardi has invested in attentive lees work in the hope of yielding a more reductive expression of Brunello. In addition to carefully choosing harvest dates, Lonardi transfers the lees from tank to botti post fermentation and allows autolysis to contribute what he considers to be a sensation of sweetness to his wines.

On the opposite end of the hierarchy, several find a missed opportunity in Rosso di Montalcino. The region releases approximately 4.5 million bottles of Rosso annually—half the production of Brunello (8 million) and Riserva (1 million) combined. Some find this counterintuitive. Shouldn’t the entry-level wine also be the largest in production? Part of the paradox results from how Montalcino is regulated. Winegrowers must obtain rights from the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino in order to bottle Brunello from their vineyards, as well as Rosso. Currently, all these permissions have been doled out, so any new producer must purchase the right to vinify Brunello from another winery, which then would have to forfeit Brunello production for an equal portion of its own vineyard. Since Brunello sells for more money than Rosso, producers have little incentive to make anything less than as much Brunello as possible. Moreover, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, only 15% of Montalcino’s landscape is allowed to be planted to vineyard—a maximum that has already been fulfilled. The situation leaves no opportunity for growth in Montalcino, effectively setting current production statistics in stone.

However, a number of wineries lament that Rosso is too often delegated the grape scraps that failed to become Brunello. “All the producers have always preferred to label their bottles with Brunello and get more money, despite the quality not being as high, instead of doing a great selection and having a much better Brunello and a larger base with Rosso,” says Bertolini. He views the Rosso category as an opportunity to introduce Montalcino to consumers who cannot yet afford Brunello, as well as an allowance for more stringent sorting that can improve the quality of both Brunello and Rosso wines. Lonardi says, “Making a very good Rosso di Montalcino is much more difficult than making a good Brunello.” He finds only a few cool patches within the appellation that are well-suited for Rosso, which he believes should aim for more vibrancy than Brunello and be considered a specific style with its own merits. With limited supply available, Rosso’s role in the market can also be somewhat confused. DePasquale enjoys Rosso as a preview for Brunellos that are still aging in the cellar: “When you have a great vintage like 2015, and you keep hearing all these rumors, but you have to wait four years for it . . . you can look at the Rosso and say, ‘Oh, yeah. It is going to be great.’” On premise, she also saw Rosso as a good competitor for Chianti Classico and an ideal by-the-glass-pour, but increased pricing has made this challenging for most establishments.

Brunellogate Revisited

Debate over the Riserva and Rosso categories is hardly the biggest blow suffered by Montalcino in the 21st century. In 2008, news broke that several of Montalcino’s largest wine producers were under investigation for tainting their 2003 Brunello wines with French varieties. Brunello, by definition, is a monovarietal Sangiovese wine—a point heavily marketed by the Consorzio to distinguish the region further from Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which are all allowed to be blends. Gossip had been bubbling for several years. Wine writers noticed the increasingly jammier, inkier Brunello wines that seemed to defy the naturally lower anthocyanin levels of Sangiovese. More damning were the 800 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah scattered throughout Montalcino without clarity around where those clusters were going. Unsubstantiated rumors spread that tanks of bulk Nero d’Avola and Spanish wine were stealthily entering Montalcino at night. Accusations crescendoed at Vinitaly, and the story went global.

Brunellogate or Brunellopoli, as the scandal was dubbed, ignited intense investigation by the Italian government. As Kerin O’Keefe explains in her book on the region, “Wine blending with other grapes may not seem like a big deal . . . [but] in Italy, breaking the disciplinare or production code is considered fraud, a serious crime punishable by either fines, jail time, or both.” Montalcino’s largest wineries endured the most attention, but the government oversight affected every cellar, where they inspected logs, lots, and vineyards and conducted laboratory testing. Trade in the United States, Montalcino’s largest export market, took additional precautions, and the TTB required certification of authenticity from the Italian government before accepting wines through customs. In October 2008, a press release revealed that more than 1.5 million bottles of Rosso and Brunello had been declassified to IGT, more than 4 million were still being analyzed, and that the 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 vintages had similarly been seized.

Twelve years later, does Brunellogate still haunt Montalcino? “You bring that up to a group of younger wine buyers, they have no idea what you’re talking about,” says DePasquale. In truly remarkable fashion, the appellation has seemingly repaired its reputation at breakneck speed. Alessandra Angelini, whose family owns Altesino and Caparzo, acknowledges Montalcino’s deus ex machina. “Then the 2010 vintage came. We had such a good vintage that people luckily forgot that something happened in Montalcino.” But that doesn’t mean all of the questions that the scandal conjured have fully dissipated. Some still raise an eyebrow when served a Brunello a couple notches darker than expected. DePasquale explains, “The reality is, when you pour yourself a glass of Brunello and you see the color, it needs to be light red.” Producers seem to believe that today, such hesitation is unwarranted, and the wines adhere to the rules.

But DePasquale continues, “There is still incredible pressure within that region to allow international grapes. And you have a few large firms that are sitting in the northwest region of Montalcino whose land maybe isn’t as good, whose grapes really aren’t as great . . . that are really pushing to change the appellation.” At the height of the investigation in 2008, the Consorzio put to a vote whether or not its disciplinare should be amended to permit a 15% addition of blending varieties. Though the resolution failed, it got significant backing by such prominent winegrowers as Angelo Gaja, who wrote at the time, “The majority of producers own vineyards that are simply registered for the production of Brunello but are not necessarily capable of producing transcendent wines.”

Montalcino does offer a place for Bordeaux and other varieties. The Sant’Antimo DOC, named after the medieval Benedictine monastery in the south of the appellation, was created in 1996. A reaction to the Super Tuscan era with lax winemaking limitations, the region follows the same boundaries as Brunello di Montalcino. Curiously, it’s never quite taken off. In addition to Bolgheri, Chianti Classico harvests a series of prestigious non-Sangiovese Super Tuscan wines (particularly Merlot). By contrast, between 2008 and 2011 alone, specified Sant’Antimo hectarage halved from 900 to a measly 450. Of the producers in Montalcino who do still cultivate Cabernet and company, many instead opt to label under Toscana IGT, hoping to benefit off the larger brand power of Tuscany over the rather unknown Sant’Antimo. “I think it’s a pity, because Sant’Antimo gives it a specific location,” says Angelini, who has property adjacent to the abbey. Nevertheless, the DOC has yet to identify any true icon wines.

There seems to be little interest in resuscitating Sant’Antimo. Maybe the moment has passed, especially as the wine world has energized around the promotion of indigenous grapes. If one can find a silver lining to 2008, several producers suggest that it offered the region a crucial stylistic reset. “There were those people that wanted to follow the Robert Parker trend,” says Bertolini. “There were people, like us and many other smaller producers, that kept their profile of elegance, freshness, acidity.” In the scandal’s wake, some suggest their neighbors are returning more toward these classical tendencies—and not just through varietal composition.

A Sense of Place          

The introduction of Gran Selezione opened the door for greater communication of place on bottles of Chianti Classico. Today, a chorus of producers is campaigning to take that notion further by identifying a set of subzones that can be printed more prominently on wine labels. “It is so diverse, between Greve, Radda, Gaiole, north to south, San Casciano—everything changes,” says Manfred Ing. “I think it would be a really positive step for Chianti Classico to pursue this.” Several neighboring estates in various areas of Chianti Classico have already formed their own vintners’ associations, notably the Unione Viticoltori di Panzano, established as early as 1995. Historically, the Consorzio has pushed back at the idea of subzone labeling, hypothesizing that an unofficial ranking of townships would form in the marketplace. Gevrey-Chambertin and Fixin are both Burgundy villages, though it’s difficult to deny that effectively the former is stratified over the latter, witnessed in perception and also in price. Nevertheless, the movement to create Chianti Classico subzones has never appeared as strong as it does right now, and many believe these will fill a critical void between single-vineyard wines and the region at large.

Precisely how a subzone labeling structure might play out in Chianti Classico remains unclear. Some advocate that it would only apply to Gran Selezione wines, while others fiercely believe that subzones should be available to all Chianti Classico wines, regardless of quality. There remains debate as to where boundaries should be drawn, if they would strictly follow the nine communes that comprise Chianti Classico, and—of greatest importance—whether these subzones will simply be menzioni for the DOCG, or if each will form a separate, new appellation with unique regulations. Ian D’Agata further notes in Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs that several hamlets within wider communes might want individual recognition, citing Lamole in Greve and Monti in Gaiole as examples.

Montalcino, too, is having similar conversations. What this would mean for Brunello is less clear, as Montalcino sits in a single commune of the same name. Several winegrowers, such as Lonardi, would simply like to see indications of whether wines were grown on the cooler north side of the Montalcino hill, or the sun-drenched southern slopes known to produce more opulent wines. As many as eight subzones have been proposed to the Consorzio, four at higher elevations, and four lower. Bertolini supports the initiative but notes that several larger firms are not in agreement. “They can play with more flexibility in production, if they source part of the production from the different areas,” he says. “They don’t want to complicate their portfolios.”

These discussions come during a decade of international movement toward greater specificity of place on wine labels. Propelled by a global Burgundian fever in the 2000s, which disseminated not only Pinot Noir but also the region’s terroir-centric ethos of both winemaking and wine marketing, these past 10 years have seen Paso Robles sub-divide into 11 separate AVAs; Bierzo, Rioja, and Rueda each establish its own village wine categories (following Priorat in 2009); and, most consequentially for Chianti Classico and Montalcino, Barolo cement its status as Italy’s answer to Burgundy. But detractors wonder in Tuscany (and in Paso Robles and Spain) whether these new designations benefit the consumer or simply serve the philosophical indulgences of the wine trade. In the short term, market confusion seems inevitable, though ultimately producers hope the move will bring both value to the region and fulfillment to the conscientious connoisseur.

What’s Working

At this point, one might understandably ask, “Well, what do Chianti Classico and Montalcino do right?” Quick answer: the wines!

The headline to a 2016 Wall Street Journal article by Lettie Teague reads, “Can Chianti Shed Its Dusty, Banal Image?” Last year, in The New York Times, Eric Asimov titled his piece, “Chianti Classico, Beyond the Straw-Covered Bottle.” Unsurprisingly, the accompanying image for each story is a straw-wrapped fiasco. Here on GuildSomm, in 2016, author and sommelier Jane Lopes called Chianti Classico, “a region that has regulated itself in ways that run counter to the production of fine wine.” She goes on, however, to assert, “Chianti Classico is the most underexploited fine wine region in the world.” Asimov and Teague similarly extol the DOCG’s virtues. By now, it seems the wine world is in agreement that Chianti Classico makes great wine. So why do we continue to qualify that achievement with the region’s beleaguered past?

Well, maybe that history is actually less of a burden than it seems. Looking at the bottles themselves, it’s impossible to imagine such a diverse and dynamic deck of wines could come from anywhere but a place that has spent centuries in identity crisis. A spirit of experimentation permeates Chianti Classico, with producers exploring alternative fermentation vessels, leaning further into indigenous blending grapes, and maintaining a tradition of exceptional wines from French varieties that somehow still taste of Tuscany. From quaffable pizza pairings to stoic Gran Selezioni, IGT Merlots to pure Sangioveses, Chianti Classico’s heated discourse has amounted to success where it counts most: in the glass. Fiaschi are even making a comeback, with producers such as Monte Bernardi and I Fabbri banking on their sentimental draw. “Kitsch is cool again,” says Jeffrey Porter, who’s pinpointed a new wave of Chianti Classico wines that is starting to gain traction with the sommelier set. “There’s this swell of cool producers that are making great wines,” he says. “Kind of like what happened in Champagne or in Piedmont, contracts are expiring and families are taking back their vineyard land to make their own wine.”

And what of Montalcino? Its stock seems to be on the rise, too. The recent reveal of the 2015s has some crying the vintage of the century. Quality across the region is impressively high, and in terms of price, Brunello remains Italy’s most expensive wine. Bulk sales for 2019 list Brunello di Montalcino at €1,085 per hectoliter, lapping Chianti Classico several times at €272.50, and well above Barolo (€665) and Barbaresco (€535). And yet, Montalcino can still pose tremendous value when compared to other prestige regions, such as Burgundy or Napa; it’s not difficult to find a bottle of exceptional Brunello for $50. If Chianti Classico’s exciting heterogeneity is the product of years on the offensive, then Montalcino’s enviable consistency results from an appellation that (despite a few significant attempts to the contrary) has not wavered from its initial intentions. “If you look at the way we do the Brunello, it’s more or less what was agreed [upon] 30 years ago,” says Bertolini.

In spite of their proximity, the philosophical divide between Chianti Classico and Montalcino is dramatic. Their divergence might beg the question of what we value more in a wine region: classicism or innovation? Of course, there’s no definitive answer. But when the wines are this good, does it really matter?

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Bibliography

Asimov, Eric. “Chianti Classico, Beyond the Straw-Covered Bottle.” June 21, 2019. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/21/dining/drinks/chianti-classico-wine.html.

Bastianich, Joseph, and David Lynch. Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2005.

Belfrage, Nicolas. Brunello to Zibibbo: The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy. London: Octopus Publishing Group, 2001.

Belfrage, Nicolas. The Finest Wines of Tuscany and Central Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

“Brunello is the most expensive wine (1,085 euros per hectoliter), followed by Amarone and Barolo.” Wine News. January 13, 2020. https://winenews.it/en/brunello-is-the-most-expensive-wine-1085-euros-per-hectolitre-followed-by-amarone-and-barolo_407613.

D’Agata, Ian. Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019.

D'Agata, Ian. Native Wine Grapes of Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

Galloni, Antonio. “Chianti Classico 2013 & 2012: The Luck of the Draw.” Vinous. September, 2015. https://vinous.com/articles/chianti-classico-2013-2012-sep-2015.

Galloni, Antonio. “Chianti Classico and Beyond.” Vinous. September, 2014. https://vinous.com/articles/chianti-classico-and-beyond-new-releases-sep-2014.

Galloni, Antonio. “2011 Brunello di Montalcino: Terroir Matters.” Vinous. February, 2016. https://vinous.com/articles/2011-brunello-di-montalcino-terroir-matters-feb-2016.

Lopes, Jane. “Reconsidering Chianti Classico.” GuildSomm. November 19, 2016. https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/articles/b/jane-lopes/posts/reconsidering-chianti-classico.

Moody, Josh. “Top 10 Study Abroad Destinations for U.S. Students.” U.S. News. January 22, 2020. https://www.usnews.com/education/best-global-universities/slideshows/top-10-study-abroad-destinations-for-us-students.

Nesto, Bill, and Frances Di Savino. Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany’s Noblest Wine. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

O’Keefe, Kerin. Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Sanderson, Bruce. “Will Chianti Classico’s Gran Selezione Designation Guarantee Quality?” Wine Spectator. April 16, 2014. https://www.winespectator.com/articles/will-chianti-classico-s-gran-selezione-designation-guarantee-quality-49851.

Teague, Lettie. “Can Chianti Shed Its Dusty, Banal Image?” The Wall Street Journal. February 22, 2016. https://www.wsj.com/articles/can-chianti-shed-its-dusty-banal-image-1456172984.

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  • Thanks for this fantastic article Bryce, I really enjoyed reading it. I had a question regarding the skins of Sangiovese. I'd read in other sources and here in your article as well, that one of the areas targeted by the Chianti Classico 2000 clonal research was skin thickness. The low level of anthocyanins has always been clear in 100% Sangiovese wines, but the tannin levels are, at least in those wines I've tried, quite high. I've had trouble tracking down an answer to what seems like contradictory characteristics. In the WSET we're taught that thin skins produce less color intensity and, generally speaking, lower levels of tannins. Yet in 100% Sangiovese wines (and Nebbiolo for that matter), these two features don't align and I wondered if you came across anything explaining this in your research for the article.

  • Hi Nygil - thanks for reading, and great question. Tagging , who was actually with me in Tuscany, and we chatted about this very topic many times in the car. I also highly recommend reading her article on phenolics HERE, which addresses many of these issues in tremendous depth. Basically, both anthocyanin and tannin are phenolic compounds and related to each other in that regard. Oftentimes you can anecdotally observe a proportional relationship between anthocyanin and tannin, where grapes that are low in pigment are also low in tannin (like Gamay), and others that have loads of both (Cabernet Sauvignon). But, that's not always the case, with both Sangiovese and Nebbiolo being prime examples. Further, the generally lower pH of monovarietal Sangiovese will tilt the wine more toward a reddish than a purple hue - for Brunello, the orangey/brick colors will also derive from the long oxidative maturation. When you see darker Chianti Classico wines, that color often comes from blending grapes like Colorino, or potentially Cab or Merlot. Jenn - feel free to correct anything I'm misstating, and do you have any further understanding on the relationship with skin thickness? That's always my understanding too, that thicker skins producer more color and/or tannin - but doesn't seem to add up with every Sangiovese clone.

  • Yes, this looks pretty good! Just a couple of things, I'm not convinced that Sangiovese is actually thin-skinned compared with other grape varieties. I think it's more precise to say that some Sangiovese clones have thicker skins than others.

    You are correct indeed that longer post-fermentation maceration is common in Chianti, and this will increase the amount of tannin. 

  • Thanks so much to you both, you've brought up some interesting points. I'll be sure to read the phenolics article, but in the meantime, if I could try to summarize (always dangerous), would it be correct to say that Sangiovese is a thin-skinned variety (hence the clonal research on thicker-skinned examples), which contains only a small proportion of acylated anthocyanins (thus explaining is light color intensity). Yet the higher levels of perceived tannins in many of its wines (assuming 100% Sangiovese) could be partly due to the fact that it has a greater amount of unbound tannin? Has there also been a tradition of longer post-fermentation maceractions in Chianti that might help explain higher levels of tannin? And just to complete the comparison with Nebbiolo, is it fair to say that Nebbiolo is a thick-skinned grape but like Sangiovese has low levels of acylated anthocyanins? Thanks again to you both!

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  • Thanks so much to you both, you've brought up some interesting points. I'll be sure to read the phenolics article, but in the meantime, if I could try to summarize (always dangerous), would it be correct to say that Sangiovese is a thin-skinned variety (hence the clonal research on thicker-skinned examples), which contains only a small proportion of acylated anthocyanins (thus explaining is light color intensity). Yet the higher levels of perceived tannins in many of its wines (assuming 100% Sangiovese) could be partly due to the fact that it has a greater amount of unbound tannin? Has there also been a tradition of longer post-fermentation maceractions in Chianti that might help explain higher levels of tannin? And just to complete the comparison with Nebbiolo, is it fair to say that Nebbiolo is a thick-skinned grape but like Sangiovese has low levels of acylated anthocyanins? Thanks again to you both!

Children
  • Yes, this looks pretty good! Just a couple of things, I'm not convinced that Sangiovese is actually thin-skinned compared with other grape varieties. I think it's more precise to say that some Sangiovese clones have thicker skins than others.

    You are correct indeed that longer post-fermentation maceration is common in Chianti, and this will increase the amount of tannin.