~ The landscape of Chianti Classico varies greatly from commune to commune ~

 

In the Spring of 2015, I attended a tasting orchestrated by the Chianti Classico Consorzio to debut and showcase their grand expression of Chianti Classico;  Gran Selezione.  The event was opened with a panel discussion headed by Consorzio President Sergio Zingarelli, who addressed the new designation and explained how it differed from the previous pinnacle, Chianti Classico Riserva.  It seemed simple enough. Essentially, Gran Selezione had to be produced from estate grapes, include at least 80% Sangiovese and be aged 6 months longer than Riserva before release. However, once the tasting began, the questions started gently simmering to the surface of the conversation throughout the room.  
  • What is Gran Selezione supposed to represent? 
  • How can you possibly compare these wines to each other?
  • Will this designation clarify or confuse the consumer?
  • Why are some of these wines so expensive?
  • Doesn’t this designation relegate Chianti Classico Riserva to inferior status?
  • If this designation is meant to be prestigious, why are so many producers against it? 
Here we are, almost two full years removed from that tasting and we’re nowhere close to being able to answer these questions. 

 

~ Large botte in the cellars of Monteraponi, Radda in Chianti ~

 

In my article Gran Selezione: A Call for Consistency,  I urged producers and the Consorzio to move toward producing Gran Selezione with 100% Sangiovese.  Since that writing, I’ve spoken to several producers who’ve agreed with me and many that have not.  
The former believe that Chianti Classico should exalt Tuscany’s native Sangiovese grape and finally be able to show the greatness of mono-varietal wines similar to that of their Southern cousin, Brunello.  They argue, afterall, that it was the inferior red and white grapes which were mandated in Chianti Classico during the 1970s that energized the movement by Antinori and others toward creating premium IGT wines in the first place.  Therefore, it’s only logical that pure Sangiovese should be the pinnacle of Chianti Classico. 
The latter believe that the heritage of Chianti Classico was always based in a blended wine and they staunchly support their native grapes such as Canaiolo, Colorino and Mammolo.  Traditionally Chianti Classico has been a blend and although many favor continuing that tradition, even some of those producers shy away at the inclusion of non-native varietals.

 

 

So what’s the right answer?  Does it matter? Should it matter?  Yes!
I believe that in order for Gran Selezione to provide an exceptional experience and one that consumers can understand and rely upon for consistency across producers, Gran Selezione wines must be, at a minimum, 90% Sangiovese thereby minimizing the impact of the remaining grapes comprising the balance of the blend.  I fully support 100% Sangiovese wines, but can appreciate the tradition that blending represents. Encouraging these percentages should lead to a recognizable wine, a branded wine that represents enough of a consistent experience for the consumer, so that they can buy a Gran Selezione with confidence. Current law requires Gran Selezione wines to be at least 80% Sangiovese. The understanding is there. Will an additional 10% be that difficult to implement?
However, instituting a change to 90% will not answer all of the questions raised above.  In that regard, the Consorzio must continue to lead. Let’s address pricing.  It’s a two fold issue, but we’ll start with the cost of an average Gran Selezione.  As I wrote in my review of the Gran Selezione Tasting,  pricing varied widely but on average, most Gran Selezione wines cost about $50.  That’s steep enough. However, many are much more.  Below are some examples I lifted from the Internet today. These represent the lowest US retail price for the wines noted:
 
2006 Isole e Olena Gran Selezione – $179
2010 Rocca delle Macie Zingarelli G.S. – $103
2011 Castello di Ama Casuccia G.S. – $150
2012 Castello di Ama Bellavista G.S. – $172
2006 Castello Volpaia Il Puro G.S. – $169
2010 Felsina Colonia G.S. – $119
I’ve tasted all of the above several times and have no doubt that these examples are extraordinary wines. Furthermore, I fully realize that these prices are impacted by importation costs and tiered markups among other things, but I’m left shaking my head here.  As an educated consumer, are you really going to spend that kind of money for a single bottle of Gran Selezione when arguably and realistically, you could buy 2-3 bottles of amazing Brunello for the same cost?  Or, to make the comparison a bit closer to home, 3-5 bottles of excellent Chianti Classico Riserva? And that brings us to the second issue regarding pricing.  
 
On the surface, most interested parties whether consumers, producers, wine writers, and even the Consorzio seem to agree that Gran Selezione should represent the pinnacle of wines from Chianti Classico.  That said, doesn’t that hurt producers whose top wine is a Chianti Classico Riserva?  How you say? 

 

~ Castelnuovo Berardenga, near Vagliagli ~
Imagine a small producer who crafts an exceptional Riserva as his top wine.  Although he could label his wine Gran Selezione but for the additional aging requirements; the scale of his business, the limited space to store wine in his cellar, and the delayed cash flow caused by holding the wine longer before release can take their toll.  It’s not practical or economical for him to do so. 

Now imagine that his wine retails for about $50.  Imagine it sitting on a shelf next to Gran Seleziones that are priced at $50.  Since Gran Selezione is supposed to be “the best” wine from Chianti Classico, which wine is the average consumer going to choose?  To take this pricing notion further, the examples above notwithstanding, isn’t the “price ceiling” for Chianti Classico Riserva artificially fixed by the “price floor” of Gran Selezione?

Suppose an artisan winemaker’s land holdings are simply not large enough to produce the estate grown grapes required for him to make enough wine to survive?  If he has to purchase additional grapes, then the designation could be unavailable to him.

For many small producers, these are valid and real concerns. In a sense, they feel as though they’ve had their “brand” left behind by the Gran Selezione designation and they feel slighted by the Consorzio.  Furthermore, since it’s easier for larger producers to meet the demands of aging for Gran Selezione and since they are not uncomfortably pinched by delaying their revenue stream, some producers feel as though the designation has created a chasm between large and small producers.  
Anecdotally,  Monteraponi is an excellent producer of Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva based in Radda in Chianti.  Monteraponi’s flagship wine, Baron Ugo, was formerly a Chianti Classico Riserva.  Owner and Winemaker Michele Braganti made the difficult decision to eschew labeling the wine as a Gran Selezione.  Instead, he has removed any official designation from the wine entirely, simply labeling it “Colli Toscana Centrale” – an IGT Rosso from the Tuscan Hills.  To further spite the Consorzio, Braganti is bottling the wine in non-conforming Burgundy shaped bottles.  Will this pay off?  The wine is excellent and well, the famed Flaccianello is labeled “Colli Toscana Centrale”.

 

~ The Baron Ugo Vineyard ~
So what’s the big issue surrounding the blending?   Wouldn’t the devil’s advocate response to a call for blending consistency be a risk of boring homogeneity?  Maybe.  But I believe the confusion and potential damage to the brand is a much greater risk than wines which seem homogeneous. Remember, I’d advocate blending 10% of grapes other than Sangiovese and while the inclusion of any one grape shouldn’t dominate the Sangiovese, it can create slight, intriguing differences in the wines that reduce the risk of bland sameness.  As I previously wrote, this is a cautionary example: 
The 2010 San Felice Gran Selezione is comprised of 6 different grape varietals including Abrusco, Pugnitello, Malvasia Nera, Ciliegiolo, and Mazzese. And no, I’m not making up those names.  Imagine that someone buys this wine and really enjoys it, and then on a subsequent trip to their wine shop,  they buy another “Gran Selezione” from a different producer. 
Except now the bottle they buy is 80% Sangiovese and 20% Syrah.  If they’re displeased with that wine, what might they think about the “Gran Selezione” designation?  Or worse yet – what if the scenario were reversed?    What if their first experience with Gran Selezione is a wine that’s 80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet or Merlot?  A wine of that blend is likely to be more lush and fruit forward than the blend sported by the San Felice.  Who does that benefit?  The consumer?  The Consorzio?  Certainly not San Felice.  At the debut tasting of the Gran Selezione that I mentioned at the outset, the wines tasted that day were produced from the following grapes in some combination: Sangiovese (100%),  Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Colorino, Malvasia Nera, Mammolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Syrah and Alicante.   That’s 11 different grapes if you’re counting and if we add the varieties present in the San Felice, the number jumps to 15! 
How can you respect, portray, convey, exalt, and highlight the tradition and terroir of a region as illustrious as Chianti Classico when you have this much variability in wines that bear the same name: “Gran Selezione”? 

 

~ Villa Cafaggio, Panzano in Chianti ~

 

Blending is only the beginning.  Since we’re not starting from a (relatively) uniform place, imagine the exponential variants that can occur when you layer the following factors onto the finished wines: barrique vs. botte aging, cement vs. stainless steel vinification, length of aging, soil types, vineyard elevation, vineyard exposition to say nothing of the general differences in geography between the extremes of San Casciano in Val di Pesa and Castelnuovo Berardenga. (See the map below) Beginning with a more uniform starting point will allow the differences in terroir and winemaking styles to become amplified. This is part of the reason Brunello is so lovely.  There is a stark difference between a Brunello from a high vineyard located north of Montalcino and one created from lower lying vineyards closer to Maremma. Good? Bad?  That depends on your palate. But the differences are notable.

 

~ The Communes of Chianti Classico ~
This article is titled “Where are we going?”  In the absence of compelling direction from the Consorzio, I think the direction of Gran Selezione lies firmly in the hands of the individual producers.  Their preferences for style, aging and blending will continue to drive what’s in the bottle and in turn that will shape what Gran Selezione is.  That is the reality though I’m not sure it was the Consorzio’s intent.  
The cynic in me would suggest that prices are likely to keep rising.  Above all else, producers are operating a business.  If they have the ability to hold inventory for an additional 6 months and then sell for $50 per bottle, isn’t that preferable to selling today at $35?  I realize those are retail price examples, but for a 5,000 case Gran Selezione production, that’s almost an additional million dollars of revenue.  Imagine if you’re a producer pricing your wine like the examples listed above.
Perhaps the next logical question is “How do we get there?”  I suppose if the Consorzio sits idle, then we are already “there”.  Otherwise, the Consorzio must be the driving inertia that propels Gran Selezione to the consumer recognized greatness it can achieve. I don’t think it would require a massive undertaking on their part and I think the benefits would be significant.

 

~ Castellina in Chianti ~

 

The tone and tenor of this article may seem sullen or frustrated, but that is not my intent. Instead, I make an impassioned plea. Gran Selezione can be, should be, and deserves to be a mark of excellence; and a brand recognized across the globe for wines of utmost quality and tradition. To get there, the Consorzio must work to limit the variables which can water down the brand and lead to consumer confusion. The creation of the designation was a significant first step. Now is the time to perfect its natural evolution. Working in concert with producers of all sizes, this can and should be done. 

I will continue to raise the issue with the producers I meet, many of whom are on the Consorzio, and perhaps a tiny ripple will become a wave.  I look forward to hearing their thoughts on pricing, image and blending when I visit Tuscany this May.  

In the meantime, my readers can wade through the differences in these wines using me as their advance scout.   Grazie e Salute! 

 

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