Have global fame and huge volumes cost Chianti its soul? Experts line up on both sides of the debate to have their say on the Tuscany wine region.

For every superlative Chianti Classico riserva, there’s an ocean of workaday generic Chianti, the production zone having devoured vast tracts of Tuscany over the years.

It is the inconsistent quality of this supermarket friendly Chianti that undermines the brand, according to some critics. Even the ‘fiaschi’ – the wicker straw baskets of 1970s Italian restaurants – have returned to UK retailers’ shelves.

Has Chianti’s identity been subsumed beneath questions of geography and viticulture?

Chianti covers an array of other local classifications, including Colli Senesi, Rufina, Colline Pisane, Colli Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, Montalbano and Montespertoli.

International grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are also allowed – albeit in small proportions – alongside to Sangiovese; while Montalcino, the young upstart, takes the absolutist approach of Sangiovese and nothing else.

So, does Chianti have a problem? Read the arguments below and tell us what you think.

Yes:

‘Chianti has lost some of the vibrancy that made it a great wine in the 1980s,’ said Sergio de Luca, buyer for Italy at wine distributor Enotria. ‘The off-trade range is always very small and often connected with bottlers at entry-level.

These are average wines, perhaps good value for money, but this is a very narrow view of what the region can offer.’

Hamish Anderson, wine and drinks buyer for Tate Galleries, agrees: ‘Many consumers view Chianti as safe, reliable and easy-drinking,’ he says.

In the on-trade, Chianti is ‘less noticeable than ever before,’ says de Luca: ‘Very little has been done to promote and grow the category at the top end, and I believe that customers see them as very expensive.’

Tuscany-based global winemaking consultant Alberto Antonini suggests a misplaced emphasis on marketing. ‘The real, authentic Chianti’, with ‘poor quality, juicy, fuity wines’ may be damaging the region’s reputation, he said. ‘Perhaps because of this, Chianti has been overtaken by other wines and styles in the last 40 years.’

No:

‘It takes more than cheap and badly made wines to tarnish the good name of a classic region,’ says
Alex Hunt MW, purchasing director at Berkmann Wine Cellars.

‘After all, think of the amount of dross made in Bordeaux and Champagne… What Chianti needs – and already has to an extent – is an aspirational element that highlights the better quality wine, to act as a counter-balance to the potentially commoditising effect of the basic stuff.’

For Andrea Briccarello, head sommelier at Galvin La Chapelle, Chianti has ‘won the hard battle after many years’, despite the difficulty of overturning popular stereotypes.

Liberty Wines’ MD, David Gleave MW, reports that premium Chianti ‘has never sold better’.

On-trade consultant Martin Lam concedes that the introduction of the gran selezione tier at the tip of the Chianti pyramid might prompt accusations of ‘stretching the brand’.

But, it may also drag some of the poorer wines upwards. ‘In the UK, we need better understanding of the Chianti sub-regions, and more knowledge of its producers too,’ he said.

Edited by Chris Mercer

A longer version of this article first appeared in the August issue of Decanter magazine. Subscribe here to read more expert opinion on Chianti and wine recommendations.

  • hermann

    gran selezione was not, in my opinion, a positive step from a marketing standpoint – rather, it has the dual effect of damaging the value of riserva and competing with brunello, neither of which are good.

  • abryksa

    Agree with De Luca that the main problem with Chianti is that at its top tiers (CCR’s and CC GS) pricing is competitive to Brunello di Montalcino and most will associate higher quality with the latter. Rightly or wrongly, wines with the Chianti designation are viewed entry level or mid at best.