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Chianti Classico: Living on the edge

All classic red wines have their ups and downs, and Chianti Classico is no exception. Tom Maresca reports on the new vintage releases and tells you what to expect.

Chianti Classico producers lived an idyll during the final years of the 20th century and the first of the 21st. They enjoyed a long string of fine harvests, capping for the most part trouble-free growing seasons. It almost lulled them into complacency, though anyone with anything to do with agriculture (and winemaking is first and foremost agriculture) knows you always have to be prepared for the worst. Well, since then they have had the worst: a sodden 2002 followed by an arid 2003, growing seasons that kept winemakers in Chianti Classico on their toes and challenged them with almost directly opposite sets of conditions.

Chianti builds its character around a generous heart of Sangiovese. The Sangiovese is a tricky grape at best, and the wide – and wildly divergent – weather variations of the last few years have seriously tested Classico producers’ skills. The results so far are very mixed. Some makers are consistently producing at an outstanding level despite the difficulties of each vintage. Others are achieving only simple drinkability, and in some few cases less than that.


In addition to being difficult harvests for the vintners, 2002 and 2003 will also present the consumer with problems of scarcity. 2002 in particular will offer almost no premium wines – riservas or cru bottlings – at all. Those who relish the black cherry and anise intensity of Sangiovese are going to have to shop very carefully for the next year or so.

Tastes and Trends

Florence in February. The Chianti Classico Consorzio showed new-release wines from 79 producers – 230 wines in all, both normale and Riserva, from six vintages. A grab bag or a cornucopia, depending on your palate.

While there, I managed to squeeze in a few visits to some estates that don’t belong to the Consorzio. My overall impression is that the Consorzio members deserve high marks for their devotion to Tuscan tradition in general and to Sangiovese in particular, which is bearing fruit – literally – in the distinctive character and marked elegance of the basic Chianti Classico wines which many growers achieved even in challenging vintages. Some larger non-Consorzio producers, however, seem to be opting for an internationalist style and strategy. Antinori is a notable example. The firm has just, in effect, de-classified its former flagship wine: Villa Antinori will no longer be a Chianti Classico but has become a Tuscan IGT wine – a move that frees Antinori to use in it grapes from its other Tuscan vineyards outside the Chianti Classico zone, and of course also liberates the wine’s blend from the Sangiovese constraints. (Antinori has three remaining Chianti Classicos: Badia Passignano, Pepoli, and the white-labelled Marchesi Antinori.)

Last year, I thought the best thing Chianti Classico growers could do with the 2002 vintage was to sell it in bulk. Well, I was wrong, at least partly: some of them should have got rid of it anonymously for sure, but some of them have also made genuinely impressive wines out of that unpromising material. ‘2002 and 2003 were completely opposite vintages,’ says Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi, an estate that consistently produces superb Chianti Classico from vineyards near Panzano, one of the zone’s most distinctive areas. ‘2002 was very wet and cool, with lots of rain during the summer months. 2003 was extremely dry, so they presented very different problems. In 2002, we harvested 20% less than normal, and I sold more than a third of that in bulk. I’ll make only Fontodi Chianti Classico – no Riserva, no cru bottlings.’ That sentiment – and the vineyard practices it dictated in 2002 – were echoed by every producer I spoke to.

Less uniform, however, were the comments about 2003, a vintage in which highly localised weather variations and the pronounced variability of Chianti Classico terroirs made major differences in the quality of the wine that producers were able to achieve. ‘We had some very good rains at the end of August in the Castellina area,’ says Alessandro Cellai of the first-rate Castellare in Castellina estate. ‘For us, it made a fine harvest.’ On the other hand, in the Monti del Chianti region, to the east of the Classico zone, there was very little late rain and none at all between June and September, according to Roberto Stucchi, the winemaker at Badia a Coltibuono. ‘The soils in our vineyards are very deep, and we have been training our vines to extend their roots down rather than near the surface. We did allright – a small yield, and very concentrated.’

My tastings of about a dozen barrel samples of 2003 Chianti Classicos confirmed the mixed verdict: several were remarkably drinkable, with soft tannins and excellent fruit, and several were raw and alcoholic, with an almost bitter concentration. Obviously, all will change before they are bottled and released, so it’s best to reserve final judgment until their makers determine these wines are ready.

In contrast to both 2002 and 2003, 2001 was an almost perfect growing season that yielded quite classic wines. ‘Absolutely complete,’ Manetti called them. That good news at least will make consumers’ choices easier. The basic Chianti Classico bottles of the 2001 vintage should drink well for 10 years and in some cases longer; the cru wines, and especially the riserva, should be 15–20-year wines with little trouble. Most 1999 wines should follow a similar ageing pattern, while the 2000 vintage, although often powerful, I expect to be less long-lived. 2002s should be drunk over a shorter term, even though the best of them will need a little time to come into equilibrium.

All good red wines go through a dumb phase at some point in their maturation. So if you try a bottle in a year or two from now and think it’s fading, put your other bottles away for a while. It’s usually well worth the wait.

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