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Jefford on Monday: But what about Chianti?

The fatal hour has been and gone. Montalcino producers have, in the end, decided to reject the possibility of creating three different Rossi, two of which would have been pure Sangiovese and one of which would have allowed a 15 per cent admixture of ‘other’ varieties.

Great – but for my part, I still haven’t quite come to terms with the fact that something called Chianti Classico can contain up to 20 per cent Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot and so on. This percentage was ratified almost a decade ago and the initial decision was taken in 1996, but it still strikes me as perhaps the most senseless legislative change I have ever seen in the wine world.

I understand, of course, growers wishing to make such blends. Calling them ‘Chianti Classico’, though, strips meaning from ‘Chianti’ and makes ‘Classico’ ring hollow. As has been endlessly pointed out, there are IGT and even other DOC options throughout Tuscany as a passport to market for such wines. I can’t look at a bottle of Chianti without feeling a little deflated, and quickly spinning it in hope that the back label will tell me whether or not it’s made from Tuscan varieties alone. (Disclosing the blend, alas, is not obligatory.)

The arguments sketched out for the Rosso di Montalcino changes were telling. Sangiovese, we hear, is a difficult grape; it doesn’t grow well in every site in Montalcino; the wines would be ‘better’, ‘softer’, more consistent and less susceptible to vintage variations with a posse of other varieties reinforcing it.

These are the arguments of the accountant, of the academic oenologist, of the blender, of the brand marketer; their logic is industrial rather than agricultural, and I was surprised that so many distinguished figures in the Italian wine community were ready to make them.

If Sangiovese is inadequate, moreover, why hasn’t DOC Sant’Antimo already eclipsed Rosso di Montalcino? Could it be because the consumers of Rosso di Montalcino (like the consumers of most red burgundy) actually relish its singularities, its difficulties, its inconsistencies, and are more than happy to put up with them in return for the highly inflected pleasures which only Sangiovese grown in this place on earth can provide?

Indeed that shadowland of nuance is a reflection both of the astonishing local clonal diversity of this enigmatic variety, and of the multi-faceted, ever-changing Tuscan landscape. Some consumers may find the asperities challenging at first. Later, though, it is what they come to love most about these wines.

Subtle, refined, reserved, understated, intricate, austere, craggy, bitter-edged, acidic, authoritative, sober, senseless without food: these are some of the descriptors I jotted during a recent Brunello tasting. Many if not all of them apply to Brunello’s younger sibling, and indeed to genuinely classical Chianti. Does any of this sound like Merlot? Does any of these adjectives remind you of Syrah? I don’t think so. If I want a well-balanced, pleasant, consistent and internationally acceptable wine from Tuscany, I’ll buy an IGT wine. But I don’t. I want a glass that tastes like Dante, Machiavelli and a Savonarola sermon. Only Sangiovese can do that.

The challenge to Rosso di Montalcino is over. Let’s hope the producers of Chianti Classico have been listening – and now decide to take a look at their own muddle-brained rule book.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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