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Hallelujah, I'm born again! The rebirth of Chianti Classico

By Craig Camp
Wednesday, January 21, 2004

THE VIEW is breathtaking. Spread out as far as you can see are the famous hills of Tuscany and they do not fall short of their much fantasized reputation. We are standing at the edge of the highest vineyard in Gaiole, one of the communes of Chianti Classico. The hillsides in all directions are covered with undulating rows of vines radiating rich green tones in the watercolor gold sunlight that has attracted painters for thousands of years.

The vineyards directly in front of us are on the steepest slopes of all. Standing next to us is the winemaker of this estate on the crest of this hill and he carefully explains the nuance of each rise and fall of the terrain in perfect English -- as well he should. The winemaker’s name is Sean O’Callaghan and he makes the exceptional wines of Riecine from the beautiful vineyards in front of us. Sean is Irish and came to Riecine to work for its late British owner, John Dunkley, and is now part-owner with an American, Gary Baumann. He is an exceptional winemaker and his talents, combined with these special vineyards, creates Riecine Chianti Classico Riserva, one of the greatest fine wine bargains in the world. Chianti Classico is indeed an international place.

The Chianti Classico zone that spreads out south of Florence has undergone a tremendous transformation in the last quarter-century. Today the owners of the estates are no longer just old aristocratic Italian families, but are owned by successful business families that are almost as likely to come from England, Germany and Switzerland as from Milan and Rome. Slowly, but surely Tuscany is becoming more-and-more like the wine-theme park that Napa Valley has become. Not so long ago it was very different.

The man sitting across the table from me is a revolutionary. It is 1984 and many wealthy Italians live in fear of the Red Brigades. However, this man is not a political revolutionary. His radicalism has led him to do the unthinkable -- he is making a wine out of 100% sangiovese in Chianti Classico and has banned the famed “Gallo Nero” black rooster logo of the Chianti Classico consortium from the necks of his bottles.

This man was the late Sergio Manetti and I had spent a pleasant afternoon with him wandering the vineyards, visiting his wine museum and tasting the wines of his exceptional estate: Montevertine. It is now evening and we are tasting all of the wines he has produced to date including the phenomenal Le Pergole Torte. As the smells and crackling sounds of the rabbits roasting in the huge fireplace filled the warm Tuscan farmhouse kitchen, he described each wine and vintage and talked about the potential greatness of sangiovese. Sergio Manetti believed in sangiovese.

These winemakers were creating what came to be called Super-Tuscans: wines that intentionally took the DOC name off of their wines so they could make them the way they chose. In these days, other than the DOC name, there was only the simple Vino da Tavola designation that had been the domain of Italy’s most common and cheapest wines. Suddenly Vino da Tavola became chic. This was a time when Super-Tuscans were new and controversial and not at all like today when even humble estates offer a Super-Tuscan for sale. While Antinori and most others went the route of “improving” their sangiovese with merlot and cabernet sauvignon, Manetti and a few others devoted their attention to establishing the greatness of sangiovese in its own right.

It seems strange to think that the wines we now think of as Chianti Classico did not exist in the 1970’s. No one ever heard of the term Super-Tuscan and most producers were satisfied to put out average wines and then depend on the name of Chianti Classico and the Gallo Nero logo to sell their wines to the world. Chianti Classico was a region stuck in its own tradition and suffering from the Italian government policy of treating all of Chianti as a brand to be developed for export with all emphasis based on quantity instead of quality.

Then, to make matters worse, there was the famed Chianti “recipe” developed by the legendary Barone Bettino Ricasoli in the late 1800’s. This formula required blending white grapes to soften and freshen the sangiovese and made a lot of sense in those days. This formula was eventually formalized by the Chianti Classico Consorzio in 1924 and producers had to follow it to carry the respected Gallo Nero on the neck of their bottles. Then there was also the tradition of “governo” or a second fermentation started by adding sweet, dried grapes to the new wine. This process also made the wines more drinkable in their youth. However, times had changed and the tradition bound Consorzio had not. Revolution was inevitable and it happened fast.

Tignanello was born in 1971 and Le Pergole Torte in 1977 and their impact, along with the wines of other innovators, on the press and the market was immediate and dramatic and by 1984 the Chianti Classico Consortium was forced to change its regulations or perish as producer after top producer abandoned the Chianti Classico DOC and the Gallo Nero for at least some of their wines.

As late as 1983 the regulations for Chianti Classico allowed the addition of up to 30% white grapes into the blend and required a minimum of 10%. This all changed with the introduction of the DOCG Chianti Classico in 1984, which lowered the minimum percentage of white grapes to 2% and set the minimum for sangiovese to 75%. Equally revolutionary was the allowance of up to 10% of foreign varieties – essentially meaning cabernet sauvignon and merlot. These changes simply made legal what the best producers had already been doing for years anyway. More changes in the regulations occurred in 1996 when the minimum requirement for white grapes was totally dropped, the minimum percentage of sangiovese was raised to 80% and the percentage of allowed foreign grapes and/or classic indigenous grapes like canaiolo was set at 20%. For the first time a wine that was 100% sangiovese could be legally called Chianti Classico. Once again the bureaucrats were simply admitting to reality.

Today, Tignanello (2000 vintage: 80% sangiovese, 15% cabernet sauvignon, 5% cabernet franc) and Le Pergole Torte (still 100% sangiovese) and many other Super-Tuscans could carry the Chianti Classico DOCG and the Gallo Nero. However, this is not likely to happen as the Super-Tuscan category is now firmly established and their Super-Tuscan offering is usually the most expensive wine offered by producers in the Classico zone. With the spotlight of fashion on the Super-Tuscans and with the changes in regulations and improvements in viticulture, Chianti Classcio Riserva has become the best value in great Tuscan sangiovese. The market seems to have become fixated on Super-Tuscans for prestige and regular Chianti Classico for value meaning that Chianti Classico Riserva has been caught in the middle and it too often ignored by consumers. While the flavor profile of many Super-Tuscans seems to be defined by new oak, the character of many Chianti Classico Riserva wines often speak more of sangiovese and their vineyards than their more expensive “Super” cousins -- and they cost less.

The rebirth of Chianti Classico is a long way from complete. The recently concluded “Chianti Classico 2000 Project” was launched in the late eighties to analyze and study every aspect of the varietals and vineyard techniques used to produce Chianti. The results of this study identified 7 clones of sangiovese as ideal for the Classico zone and these clones are now approved and available for replanting or new vineyards. These results, along with the mass of other data produced by this unique and exhaustive research project means that we can expect continued dramatic improvement of the wines of Chianti and Chianti Classico in the coming decades. While Chianti Classico is ancient winemaking zone it is in fact undergoing the growing pains of a young one. The concepts of winemaking, viticulture, varietals and everything surrounding wine production in the Chianti Classico zone have been reborn.

Sean O’Callaghan arrived at the hilltop winery of Riecine in 1991 after the changes launched by visionaries like Sergio Manetti had been put in motion. His dramatic and elegant Chianti Classico Riserva is 100% sangiovese aged in a blend of small French oak barrels and classic large barrels of Slovenian oak and is packed with the character of both sangiovese and the vineyard where it is grown. Mr. Manetti would approve.

After the 2005 vintage no longer will any white grapes be allowed in the Chianti Classico blend and an era will come to an end in the hills south of Florence. With every death there is a birth and indeed Chianti Classico has been born-again.