Tuscany - Chianti Classico

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It may seem logically and geographically absurd to single out Tuscany from the rest of central Italy but it makes perfect sense for wine lovers. The Veneto may be the Italian wine industry's commercial centre, Piemonte may be the source of the country's greatest gastronomic thrills, but in the forever medieval hills of Tuscany is Italy's greatest concentration of ambitious, dedicated winemaking. Toscana, as it is known in Italian, is the land of the smallholder rather than the co-operative, many of these smallholders having earned their not inconsiderable fortunes elsewhere (as in California's Napa Valley). Since the 1970s they have invaded this beautiful countryside dedicated to olives, cypresses and vines, once dominated by aristocratic Florentine wine merchant houses such as Antinori, Frescobaldi and Ricasoli.

In the 1960s, when the entire wine world was driven so much more by the need to supply quantity rather than quality, some extremely questionable clones of Sangiovese were planted, producing wines so light they had to be beefed up with undercover additions from the hotter climates of southern Italy and its islands. The Chianti region’s researchers’ subsequent major task has been to identify those clones of Sangiovese which produce the best quality wine, which means that today the great majority of Chianti exported is almost unrecognisable from the pale, tart ferments of old. It is deep-coloured, carefully matured in oak, with ageing potential and flavours intriguingly reminiscent of prunes and chestnuts.

The relentlessly undulating landscape, relatively high altitudes, and its temperate climate make it ideal for producing red wines with the same sort of digestible weight (about 12.5–13.5% alcohol) and ageing potential as red Bordeaux. But the wines' flavours are very different from their French counterparts. The Sangiovese vine is king here and the quality of wine it yields depends heavily on the exposure and particularly on the altitude at which it is planted. Much of Tuscany is quite high and, as anyone who has visited Tuscany in the winter knows, it can be inhospitably bleak.

Greater Chianti is Tuscany's, indeed Italy's, most important, if much-divided wine zone. Chianti is in principle made from Sangiovese with varying additions of both local and international grape varieties. Not surprisingly, it comes in all quality levels, from dire to sublime. A wine labelled simply Chianti is likely to be a very basic red sold to meet a price. To discover what the Tuscan hills really have to offer the taste buds it is necessary to seek out a wine labelled with the name of one of the eight superior subzones.

Chianti Colli Aretini, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Colline Pisane and Chianti Colli Senesi are not widely exported and are named respectively after the hills surrounding Arezzo, Florence, Pisa and Siena. Chianti Montespertoli is effectively a western extension of the Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Montalbano is generally a lightish wine made west of Florence while Chianti Rufina, from east of the city, can be one of the finest and longest-lasting even if it can seem a little light and tart when young. Selvapiana is a prime example. Undoubtedly the most important Chianti zone in terms of quality and durability, however, is Chianti Classico, the hilly heart of the Chianti zone.

It is fair to say, and this is a generalisation which can rarely be made of any other wine zone anywhere, that Chianti Classico is one of the more consistently well made wines in the world. You may not like the defiantly rural, almost farmyard-like flavours of Sangiovese but an admirably low proportion of all Chianti Classico is carelessly made.

Regulations introduced in 1984 (with almost farcical disregard for the fact that this was Tuscany's most disastrous vintage in living memory) elevated both Chianti and Chianti Classico to DOCG status and insisted on suitably low yields, sensible minimum ageing periods and disqualification of the produce of vines younger than five years old. (As vines age they are generally supposed to yield fewer but better grapes, partly because their root systems are better developed.) More recent rules formalise what had in reality been happening for some time in recognition of the shortcomings of the Chianti grape variety recipe. Although Sangiovese continues to provide the backbone of Chianti Classico (and the better clones, carefully transformed into wine, can display lovely ripe, pruney nuances), producers may add up to 20% of such immigrants as Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, all of which have produced some stunning wine in Tuscany (some argue that Syrah is the most successful of the three) and white grapes are at last outlawed. If French grape varieties were the most notable import to Tuscany's vineyards in the late 20th century, small French barrels had the same dramatic effect in its cellars. Wines were traditionally aged in large old Slavonian oak ovals, but the effect of widespread use of newish small French oak barriques was to concentrate and smooth the flavours of wines matured in them. More recently there has been a return to larger, more traditional casks and a newfound respect for 100% Sangiovese wines.

One interesting development of late has been the re-evaluation of Chianti Classico Riserva. While imported French grape varieties were a novelty, producers tended to view their Supertuscan blends as their top bottlings. Today, however, most have come to realise that what best expresses the particular character of Chianti is a really serious Sangiovese, made from some of the best quality plants of course. This Sangiovese may well have a small proportion of foreign grapes or such other Tuscan red grapes as Colorino or Canaiolo blended in to it, but it is basically designed to be the finest expression of Sangiovese grown on that particular estate.