The first wines labelled as Gran Selezione, Chianti Classico’s new top level, were unveiled in February in Florence, amid some controversy. Stephen Brook hears opposing views, picks his best buys and asks whether the category really addresses the importance of terroir
Several years ago, some leading winemakers in the Chianti Classico zone decided to push for the creation of a new tier of wines at the very top level. Until now, Chianti Classico Riserva had been the highest category, but one that was open to abuse. A riserva had to be aged longer than regular Chianti Classico and had to meet a few other criteria. But it was within the rules for a producer to give a vat of his regular Chianti some extra ageing and then bottle it as riserva – and charge a higher price. Moreover some riservas were single-vineyard wines, while others were blends. The term had become close to meaningless.
So well-known producers, including giovanni Manetti of Fontodi, Marco Pallanti of Castello di Ama and the Mazzeis of Fonterutoli, began to argue for a new top tier to be known as gran selezione (gs). In February 2014, with great fanfare, the new range was launched in the the colossal salle dei Cinquecento in Florence’s Palazzo vecchio.
on the surface the changes do not sound radical. No purchased grapes can be used for gs, and the minimum alcohol is slightly higher – 13% compared to 12.5% for riserva – as is the dry extract in the finished wine. The wine must be aged for 30 months (compared to 24 for riserva) but there are no rules around methods of ageing. As with riserva, the minimum proportion of sangiovese must be 80%, allowing for the inclusion of varieties such as syrah or Merlot, as well as local varieties such as Canaiolo or Colorino. However, some producers have opted to release pure sangiovese wines as gs.
There is no requirement for the wines to come from a single vineyard, so long as the grapes come from properties under the same ownership. This means that a very large producer with vineyards across the Chianti Classico zone can blend various sources if he chooses. At the launch in Florence, the renowned consultant winemaker Franco Bernabei declared: ‘We must understand and respect our land’ – but that land turns out to be an immense zone rather than a prized single vineyard.
Whatever the ground rules, the wines need to be accepted by a technical commission that is independently monitored. In order to establish what Manetti calls the ‘parameters’ of gs typicity, a panel composed of top winemakers such as Franco Bernabei, Renzo Cotarella, Carlo Ferrini and one or two others made an initial selection, rejecting half the wines submitted. How one establishes parameters for wines of varying varietal composition and from an immense range of sources is unclear. I guess the panel opted for the wines that showed the highest quality levels, though ‘finesse’ and ‘balance’ were apparently major criteria. These selected wines were sent on to the technical commission, composed solely of winemakers. After blind-tasting the wines, they rejected a further 30% to arrive at the final line-up of 35 wines. Average alcohol was 14.25%, suggesting that the commission favoured very ripe wines.
Manetti, as vice-president of the Chianti Classico Consorzio, strongly favours the concept. ‘One problem with a riserva is that it doesn’t necessarily have to come from grapes grown in your own vineyards. For GS, the grapes must be grown on the property.’ However, some very large properties, such as Ruffino, were able to blend grapes from vineyards in different zones, which does rather undermine the concept of terroir for GS. (The following producers released blends rather than crus from their estates: Ama, Fonterutoli, Gabbiano, Lornano, Ricasoli, Ruffino, San Felice, Vignole and Viticcio.) Estates were allowed to submit more than one wine to the tasting commission. Thus Fattorio di Lamole and Ricasoli each ended up with two different wines approved as GS.
But there was opposition too. David Berry Green, the Italian wine buyer for London merchant Berry Bros & Rudd, reported: ‘The producers are dismayed: yet another example of bureaucratic tinkering that adds no real value.’ Sebastiano Castiglioni of Querciabella was blunt: ‘I opposed it, and I’m not participating. Much of GS is just a repackaging of the same old wines, though I don’t doubt many of them are very good. The real need here is to clarify Chianti’s zones and vineyards, which isn’t being done. My response to GS is to release single-vineyard wines from different communes, such as Radda and Gaiole.’
Paolo de Marchi of Isole e Olena was vociferous: ‘I voted against the proposal, but it passed with a huge majority. Strangely, a lot of those who voted for it are now raising objections. But they voted for it! My major issue is that “Selezione” means selection, which is a human activity, whereas the whole concept is supposed to be the highlighting of terroir. So it sends the wrong message to consumers.
‘I won’t submit Cepparello, which really is a selection rather than a cru. I also worry about the tasting panel, because questions of style are bound to come into it. Regions such as Lamole, which make lighter but very perfumed and beautiful wines, may suffer in favour of richer, oakier styles. It’s impossible to eliminate that subjective element.
‘I feel there are more important issues such as eliminating wines with the Chianti name that have nothing to do with Chianti,’ continues De Marchi. ‘Montalcino and Vino Nobile growers are allowed to produce Chianti, but why should they? It would be far better to have regional DOPs such as Firenze, Siena and Pisa, so consumers can identify the origin of the wines. And those names will help the wines to sell, whereas Chianti Colli Senese means nothing to most consumers. But I realise this will never happen. Gran Selezione is at present an empty box, and much will depend on what is put into it.’
When I spoke to De Marchi, neither of us knew the contents of that box, but today we do. Having tasted almost all the wines approved by the commission, I accept that they are, for the most part, of very good and in some cases exceptional quality. But not every producer is happy with the final selection. Such objections are hard to assess, as sour grapes could be a factor. It was grimly noted by some that the largest companies – such as Ricasoli, Antinori and Ruffino – had been selected. But so had many smaller and even obscure estates. A more trenchant objection is that the volumes of the successful wines vary enormously. Quite a few wines are available in bottlings from 800 to 5,000 bottles, but Ruffino’s Ducale d’Oro is a GS with an availability of 500,000 bottles! Even given the immense size of the Ruffino’s vineyard holdings, that is a most generous selection, as is the 100,000 bottle GS from Castello di Ama.
Where riserva fits in
Some estates remain undecided about whether or not to participate. Felsina’s Giovanni Poggiali noted: ‘We’re unsure, as we have various crus. We’re concerned that if we present our single- vineyard Rancia as Gran Selezione, then consumers will assume our other top wines such as our pure-Sangiovese Fontalloro are not as good.’
Because the tastings were undertaken at the last possible moment – three weeks before the launch, Manetti had no idea which wines had been successful – producers were submitting samples in early 2014. In many cases they were existing wines. Thus in January 2014 I tasted in London Fontodi’s 2010 Vigna del Sorbo and Vicchiomaggio’s 2010 Vigna La Prima, both labelled as riserva. I assumed, when both were announced as new GS wines, that these were super-selections. Not a bit of it. The GS wines are identical to the riservas I had tasted, as both proprietors freely admitted when I quizzed them in Florence. The potential for confusion among consumers is immense. Manetti assured me he would not be selling his GS Vigna del Sorbo in markets where the riserva is already available.
The same is true of wines from Casaloste, Castello di Meleto, Antinori and Fonterutoli. At Bindi Segardi, the GS was previously an IGT from its best parcels. All these producers insisted that prices would remain unchanged, despite the ‘promotion’ to GS. The Consorzio admits this potential for confusion will need to be resolved.
Gran Selezione was trumpeted as the top of the Chianti Classico pyramid, with Chianti Classico Riserva and plain Chianti Classico below. But the reality is different. If a GS wine is identical to existing riservas, as many are, then the pyramid still lacks a top tier. It is hard not to agree with Sebastiano Castiglioni and others that it might have been better to top the pyramid with wines made from the region’s finest sites. But then hundreds of producers would have had to agree on which vineyards are the true ‘grands crus’ of Chianti Classico. And that scenario isn’t easily conceivable anywhere in Italy.
Stephen Brook is a Decanter contributing editor
Written by Stephen Brook