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A Primer on the Wines of Chianti Classico

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GrapevineThe wines of the Chianti region in Tuscany have had a fluctuating history of low esteem to high regard. During the Renaissance, with the support of the powerful Medici family, the wines produced south of Florence were highly regarded. This reputation continued for centuries. In the mid-20th century, unscrupulous, greedy winemaker flooded the world markets with cheap plonk that eventually fell out of favor with Americans.

Over the course of their history, certain Chianti subregions were identified as superior to others. In 1932, a group of growers and winemakers in the center of the region formed the stand-alone Chianti Classico region, which is one of seven Chianti subregions and represents approximately one-third of the total planted vines. By the early 21st century, a group of winemakers, the Chianti Classico Consorzio hybridized grapevines that suited modern preferences in wines. The popularity and esteem of Chianti Classico wines surged once again.

The Chianti Classico subregion is comprised of nine zones (recently realigned to twelve) and is roughly divided along geographic and political boundaries. The greater boundaries are the cities of Florence and Siena, demarcated by a high hillside ridge roughly running east to west and delineating the two major areas within which the nine subzones exist. The Florentine area in the north is generally exposed to cool winds flowing in from northern Italy, along with commensurate cold and rain. The Sienese area, south of the hillside ridge, is generally warm and sunny.  Chianti Classico wines produced in the Florentine area tend to be refined and complex, while those of the Sienese area are powerful and fruit forward.

But geography is not the only distinction of Chianti Classico wines. Additional influences include topography and elevation (up to 1,900 feet), soil structure (4 major types) and the numerous angles of hillside sun exposure. These account for the uniqueness of the wines, each with distinct growing elements.

But the influence doesn’t end in the vineyard. I follow the maxim of a number of wise winemakers that 90% of a wine is produced in the vineyard. Yet, before a bottle reaches your dinner table, a winemaker can influence its evolution and maturity.

By regulation, if, before release, a wine rests in barrel for a minimum of 12 months, it is designated as Annata, or Estate. If it is aged a minimum of 24 months, including a minimum bottle aging of 3 months, the label will display the term Riserva. A wine aged a minimum of 30 months, including 3 months in bottle, and the grapes are from a single vineyard (or a blend of the best-harvested estate grapes), the label carries the Gran Selezione classification.  

Following our family Tuscan adventure, I decided to sample a number of the Riserva and Gran Selezione wines. My plan? To host a wine tasting evening with one of the wine groups of which I am a member.

And so it was that, last week, I scoured the retail wine shop landscape in Westchester for representative examples of wines from drive-by wineries along our touring sojourn through the backroads and hills and vales of Chianti Classico.  

Here is the theme and several of wines I presented:

  1. A cross-section of four 2018 Gran Selezione offerings from the Barone Ricasoli winery. Each was impressive and offered insights into the unique profiles of one winery, one grape and four individual vineyards.
  2. A flight of four offerings from the stellar 2016 vintage: four wineries, three subzones, four individual vineyards. My guests engaged in a compare and contrast of the terrain and terroir of the best of Chianti Classico. The offerings:

– Rocca di Castagnoli Riserva, Gaiole zone, Poggio a’ Frati vineyard;

– Tenuta de Capraia Riserva, Castellina zone;

– Tenuta Bibbiano Gran Selezione, Castellina zone, Vigna del Capannino vineyard;

– Le Cinciole Gran Selezione, Panzano zone, Aluigi selection.

The preponderance of the wines were sourced from Grapes The Wine Company in White Plains.

The wines were well received, reinforcing my view that they have gained favor with the American consumer. Perhaps you will experiment. Send me your impressions.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and Program Director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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