In focus: lesser Chianti

  • Wednesday 23 August 2006

Chianti producers not in the Classico area can have a tough time selling their wines. Many have even given up on making Chianti all together. But, says ROSEMARY GEORGE MW, that doesn’t mean they’re not making interesting, individual, top-notch wines…

Chianti in its various guises covers most of the vineyards of central Tuscany. While the most famous, Chianti Classico, comes from the hills between Florence and Siena, several other surrounding Chiantis are each attempting to create their own individual reputation.

Chianti Colli Fiorentini forms a large pincer around the northern edges of Chianti Classico; further south around the city of Arezzo are the hills of the Colli Aretini, again bordering Classico. Chianti Colli Senesi covers a large area, which includes the more prestigious wines of Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di San Gimignano. Chianti Colline Pisane comes from hills southeast of Pisa; Chianti Montalbano covers the vineyards on the southern side of the Monte Albano, adjoining Carmignano. Chianti Montespertoli is a recent addition, from vineyards around the village, while Chianti Rufina covers the vineyards of the valley of Sieve from Pontasieve to Dicomano, centred on the town of Rufina. There are other villages that do not fit into any of these sub-zones and are simply entitled to the denomination of Chianti.

Chianti Rufina is the most individual of these. Its distinct advantage over the other zones of Chianti is that Rufina is based in a small part of the Sieve valley. The atmosphere is quite different, almost alpine. The vineyards lie at 320–480m, and when the grapes are ripening in September there is always cold air blowing off the Apennines at night, so the harvest is at least a week later than in Chianti Classico. This gives the wines of Rufina a structure and acidity that you do not find elsewhere in Chianti.

Rufina stands apart from the other Chiantis, with slightly stricter DOCG rules, a yield of 3kg per vine (as opposed to 5kg) and it aspires to a separate DOCG of its own, to emulate Chianti Classico.

The other sub-zones of Chianti suffer from a lack of true identity. The Colli Senesi stand in the shadow of the region’s other DOCGs; the Colli Aretini lack cohesion, with little common identity between the producers, and the Colli Fiorentini are scattered throughout the hills south of Florence, and again lack focus. The wines of Montalbano provide attractive fresh easy drinking, in contrast to the stature of Carmignano.

The Colline Pisane form another relatively compact area, centred on hills to the southeast of Pisa, but they have lacked any real leader to give them a distinct identity. And so the key players are now seeking a new DOC, Terre di Pisa, which will embrace all the super-Tuscans and IGTs with which the producers of the area have established their reputations.

And there lies the crux of the problem.The peripheral zones of Chianti suffer the same problems as Chianti Classico 20 years ago. The wines are all based on Sangiovese, but the disciplinari permit an even higher percentage of white grapes than for Chianti Classico. Currently this is 5% – high in a red wine whose principal grape variety, Sangiovese, is not over-endowed with colour. As in Chianti Classico, growers have looked at ways of improving their wines and have planted international varieties, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, with success in many instances.

Simple Chianti, at its best, is cheerful and fruity, and although it is an international name, it lacks prestige, but then so did Chianti Classico 20 years ago. It is not a wine on which reputations are built, and it does not command high prices. The use of the name of a sub-zone on a label does not seem to add any extra value, so that the wines are more often than not called plain Chianti rather than Colli Aretini or Colline Pisane. It was Ginevra Venerosi Pesciolini from Tenuta di Ghizzano who summed up the problem in a nutshell: ‘I can no longer afford to produce Chianti. The production costs for my top wine, Veneroso, are similar to those of my Chianti, but at 7 a bottle my Chianti was one of the most expensive on the market, whereas I can ask 23 for Veneroso.’ She is not alone. All over the region there are producers building reputations upon their super-Tuscans.

Key players

CASTELLO DI NIPOZZANO

Rufina boasts the oldest wine estates. The Frescobaldis can trace their winemaking activities back to the 14th century, while their ownership of the Castello di Nipozzano dates from the end of the 19th century, when Leonia deglia Albizzi married Angelo Frescobaldi. Today they make a normale and a riserva Chianti, and two crus, the flagships of Nipozzano, which demonstrate both a loyalty to Sangiovese and a desire to explore other grape varieties. Montesodi, from a 21-hectare vineyard, is a pure Sangiovese, given eight months’ barrel ageing, while Mormoreto is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, which can sustain two years in small oak barrels. For Tiziana Frescobaldi: ‘we look for tradition and innovation together; these wines have a classical style, and are both elegant and powerful at the same time.’ I can’t disagree.

SELVAPIANA

Selvapiana is the property of Dottore Francesco Giuntini, one of the eccentrics of the Italian wine world, who is related to most of the leading wine families of Tuscany. It is his adopted son, the genial Federico Massetti who now runs the estate. Unlike Nipozzano, Massetti no longer makes a riserva Chianti. As he explains: ‘if you make a riserva, your normale will inevitably suffer’. So instead of a riserva there are two crus, Bucerchiale from Sangiovese, and Fornace, an international blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with just 20% Sangiovese. Selvapiana also produces some of Tuscany’s finest Vin Santo. Asked to describe his house style, Massetti replies: ‘Traditional; we have great respect for our past but are also producing fuller and richer wines than in the past,’ which is also an indication of the overall improvement in winemaking techniques across the region.

SETTE PONTI

It is well nigh impossible to find a Chianti from the Colli Aretini. The key players are often people from outside the area, who are investing serious money, and concentrating on super-Tuscans, such as British singer Sting. One of the most passionately committed is Antonio Moretti at Sette Ponti. His father originally bought the estate in 1950s, for its hunting opportunities. The vineyards were very much a secondary consideration, with the estate run by a fattore, and it is only relatively recently that Antonio Moretti has turned his attention to the family vineyards. He admitted that his practical knowledge of wine was extremely limited, but he knew how to find the expertise that he needed and had the means to pay for it. His first vintage was in 1998, with three wines, none of them Chianti. Vigna di Pallino is a pure Sangiovese; it could be Chianti but Moretti rejects the name. Crognolo is a blend of Sangiovese with 10% Merlot; again it could be Chianti. And then there is the more international Oreno, a blend of 50% Sangiovese with some Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Merlot. The wines completely refute the Colli Aretini’s former reputation for insipid light Chianti.

TENUTA DI GHIZZANO

The Colline Pisane too have languished in the doldrums. The Count Pierfrancesco Venerosi Pesciolini at Tenuta di Ghizzano was one of the first in the area to realise the need to do something with his vineyards rather than just selling his wine in bulk to local merchants. The choice was simple – either to invest or to pull up the vineyards. He decided to invest, and the first vintage of Veneroso was made in 1988. The blend has changed over the years and now consists of 50% Sangiovese, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon and just 5% Merlot. Under the management of his daughter, Ginevra, Chianti is no longer produced at Tenuta di Ghizzano. Instead there is a second wine, Nambrot, from 70% Merlot and some Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Petit Verdot, which was planted before it was officially allowed in Tuscany in 2003. Ginevra Pesciolini admits she feels guilty about withdrawing from the DOCG of Chianti, ‘but the Colline Pisane has such an insurmountable image problem; so few people make it now and you cannot influence the market with only a few bottles’. She is pinning her hopes on the new DOC of Terre di Pisa which will embrace all the new wines of the area.

CASTELLO DI POPPIANO

The Colli Fiorentini lie very much in the shadow of their more prestigious neighbour, Chianti Classico. This is a problem that they are trying to address, with the Count Ferdinando Guicciardini, the owner of the imposing Castello di Poppiano, heading the consorzio. The first written record of his family’s ownership dates back to 1192. Today, firmly in the 21st century, he has a realistic view of the current problems besetting the Colli Fiorentini. ‘The various zones of Chianti need to establish their own individual identities, so that they are not grouped under one single banner. While it is a very diverse area, the Colli Fiorentini do have a very strong identity, with the link with Florence. This is what they should build on.’ Meanwhile he continues to produce classic Chianti Colli Fiorentini, and a range of IGT, including Toscoforte, a Sangiovese, with 10% Syrah, and a Syrah with 10% Sangiovese.

New faces

Corzano e Paterno

Corzano e Paterno in the Colli Fiorentini lies just 200m outside Chianti Classico. Of German origin, Aljoscha Goldschmidt was born in Holland, and came to Italy in 1972. This is a small estate, with a convincing range of wines, typifying the best of the area. Chianti Terre di Corzano is a blend of the classic Tuscan grapes – Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino – with a drop of Merlot. I Tre Borri is the riserva, and there are two white wines, Il Corzanello, from Trebbiano, Malvasia and Chardonnay as well as a more serious barrel-aged Chardonnay Aglaia, and a delicious Passito di Corzano.

Varramista

Varramista is establishing a reputation for Syrah, under the guidance of Federico Staderini. It began a programme of planting and grafting in 1990 concentrating on Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, with Merlot a later addition, and some Sangiovese. Frasca comes from Sangiovese with 20% each of Merlot and Syrah, aged in oak for 12–14 months. Varramista, the main cuvée, is a pure Syrah which spends 15 months in oak. Eventually these wines will become DOC Terre di Pisa.

I Giusti e Zanza

Paolo Giusti and Fabio Zanza bought a run-down estate in the Colline Pisane in 1995 and are now intent on making the best their vineyards will offer. They like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and believe Sangiovese to be a handicap, not a marketing tool. They want an international profile for their wines. Dulcamore is a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and Belcore comes from Sangiovese, Merlot and some Syrah. The most recent addition to their repertoire is a pure Syrah, Perbruno, from 2003.

San Gervasio

San Gervasio is another estate moving with the times. Until recently all the wine was sold in bulk, but Luca Tommasini realised things had to change. He does not believe in the Colline Pisane either and has stopped making Chianti: ‘You can’t even sell it in Florence’. There are three reds, Le Stoppie (pure Sangiovese) A Sirio (from Sangiovese with a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon) and a pure Merlot I Renai, all of which illustrate the diversity and potential of the putative DOC Terre de Pisa.

Fattoria Petrolo

Fattoria Petrolo in the Colli Aretini also used to produce simple Chianti. Luca Sanjust now produces two wines, neither Chianti, and is especially enthusiastic about Merlot. The climate of the Colli Aretini is a little more humid than Chianti Classico, which suits Merlot, and his vineyards are predominantly clay. Galatrona is pure Merlot and Torrione mainly Sangiovese, with a little Merlot to soften it.

Best new Chiantis

Frescobaldi, Castello di Nipozzano, Chianti Rufina Montesodi 2001

Solid, rounded ripe cherry fruiton nose and palate, with a firmbackbone of tannin. Very youthfuland will repay bottle ageing.£30; Ave, Evy, Hns, Maj

Selvapiana, Bucerchiale, Chianti Rufina Riserva 2001

Solid smoky nose; firm cherry fruit, stylish, elegant concentration and length. £16.95; Lib, P&S, V&C

Tenuta di Ghizzano, Veneroso 2001

Good colour. Firm cedary nose. Good depth of fruit, with firm tannins and a long finish. Still very young with plenty of potential.

N/A UK; +39 0587 630 096

Varramista, Pure Syrah 2002

Smoky, leathery fruit on the nose, with a rich palate and balanced tannins. Elegant and long. Stylish varietal character. £26; WHt

Fattoria le Sorgenti, Scirus 2001

A Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend. Rounded, perfumed nose with ripe cassis fruit. A long, ripe finish with soft tannins. £23.99; Cad

I Giusti e Zanza, Perbruno 2003

Its first release of a pure Syrah. Touch raisiny on the nose, with rich peppery flavours and firm tannins on the palate. Should develop well. Ali (UK agent)

Petrolo, Torrione 2002

Firm smoky nose; elegant palate, with cedary fruit. Long and elegant. £18.99; Lib

San Gervasio, A Sirio 2001

Sangiovese with a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon. Rich, meaty, cedary nose, with a dense palate, and good fruit. Should age well. £15.95; L&W

Sette Ponti, Crognolo 2001

Quite a deep colour. Rich, dense cherry fruit on nose and palate with a firm backbone of tannin. Full and ripe on the finish. £19.95; C&C, Grg, PdT

Azienda Agricola Castelvecchio, Il Brecciolino 2001

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Colorino, given 18 months in new oak. Ripe smoky oak on nose and palate; quite international in style but successfully so.

N/A UK; +39 055 82 48 032

Best value Chiantis

Alberto Antonini, Chianti Tenuta Cerro del Masso 2004

Firm nose, with tight-knit young cherry fruit, and a classic backbone of Sangiovese energy. £6.99; Lib

Basciano, Chianti Rufina 2004

A blend of 93% Sangiovese with 5% Canaiolo and a splash of Colorino. Rounded ripe fruit; more supple than some Chianti Rufina. £7.99; Bib

I Giusti e Zanza, Belcore 2001

Deep colour. Firm smoky nose. A tight-knit palate, with good fruit and a peppery Syrah finish. Still very young; should develop well. £12; Lui, Wmb

Podere il Paradiso, Chianti Collo Senesi 2004

Lovely ripe cherry Sangiovese fruit on both nose and palate, with a long finish. Delicious drinking. £7.95; GWW

Sette Ponte, Vigna di Pallino 2004

Quite deep colour; quite solid, rounded cherry fruit on nose and palate. Nicely structured. £9.95; Grg, PdT

Tenuta di Ghizzano, Il Ghizzano, IGT Toscana 2004

Medium colour; ripe cherry fruit with soft tannins. Easy drinking.

N/A UK; +39 0587 630 096

Terre di Corzano, Chianti 2003

Good colour, with a firm rounded nose of sour cherries. Then ripe cherries, with the weight of the vintage, nicely balanced. £11–12; ThH (UK agent)

Fattoria del Cerro, Chianti Colli Senesi 2003

Medium colour; soft cherry nose. Fresh Sangiovese fruit; medium weight and a supple palate. Lovely easy drinking. £6.69; ICS, See

Malenchini, Chianti Colli Fiorentini 2004

Nicely rounded sour cherry fruit on nose and palate, with the typical touch of Sangiovese astringency. £6.95; Vix (UK agent)

Mannucci Droandi, Chianti (Colli Aretini) 2004

Sour cherry nose, with ripe fruit. Easy drinking. £6.99; Maj

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