Thursday, February 27, 2014

Does the world need a new top tier for Chianti Classico?

Europeans love classification schemes. It's not enough for a winery to make superior wine; eventually there's a push for official government recognition of it.

Last week the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium unveiled the first wines from its new top tier: Gran Selezione. It's not a tiny group of rare wines: the consortium expects 10 percent of the wines in the region to be Gran Selezione, and more than 30 different wineries have already produced one.

The motivation is obvious. Chianti Classico isn't content to battle for the $20 wine drinker; vintners there want to go after the big bucks.

This is more rare than you'd think, simply taking the top wines from a region and saying, "We'll charge more for them," and getting the government to agree. It's as if the US government sanctioned the use of "Reserve" in Kendall Jackson Vintners' Reserve Chardonnay.

The way the wines make the new top tier is unique: it's not by classified vineyards, as in Burgundy, or by amount of time in oak, as in Rioja.

There seem to be only two easy-to-meet requirements. First, the winery must use only its own grapes. Otherwise, the press release says, "In addition to having the chemical and organoleptic characteristics of premium quality wines, Gran Selezione can be marketed only after a minimum 30-month maturation and an obligatory period of bottle refinement."

Essentially, some bureaucrat will make an up-or-down decision on whether the wine tastes like a Gran Selezione. Fortunately bureaucrats are immune to outside influence, especially in Italy, right?

The whole idea was slagged in the wine press a year ago when it was first announced, and has since been ignored. And maybe it should be. But that said, now the wines are out, and I can't wait to taste them.

I feel for Chianti Classico. These are some of my favorite wines in the world. They're very food-friendly, and that is part of the reason they haven't participated in the race to the top price levels of Italy with some other regions that have pursued ultra ripeness, big oak flavors and high critical scores.

It seems like Chianti Classico wants to keep its soul and get higher prices too. That might be possible, if supplies were more limited. This is the problem with getting the government involved: you can't legislate scarcity, because everybody wants to play.

The wines are supposed to be here in May for a tour of US sommeliers and writers, and I look forward to trying them -- and seeing what kind of prices they're posted at. If the wines sell, you might see this scheme tried again.

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Waynegrape said...

As usual, we have another example of producers having no idea what consumers want. Even here in Friuli where people propose sub-zones left and right, the producer-think is to recreate the Burgundy model, making ever smaller and more exclusive denominations. This only helps to further confuse the consumer and drive them away from old world wines and into the arms of easy-to-grasp, varietally-labeled wines in the new world.
We need to concentrate on elevating ourselves with quality, not creating confusing classifications that no one really cares about at all.

Bill Haydon said...
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Bill Haydon said...

I think you're mistaken in condemning the changes in Classico. While imperfect, the Gran Selezione law is an important step in the movement to regulate and define quality in the appellation. The fact that there was no DOCG distinction between a quality, terroir driven producer doing 500 cases of Riserva from estate grown fruit and a massive corporate winery doing a million cases of Riserva from purchased fruit and juice from every corner of Classico was a gaping hole in the wine law. Now, there will be such a distinction.

And the follow up movement to break down Classico into communes is also a move towards quality. Dividing an appellation of 100 square miles with almost 20K acres of planted vines into only 9 terroir based subzones, is neither confusing nor an overreaction, and it's far from trying to subdivide it to the level of Vosne-Romanee or Puligny. It, however, is a positive step forward in recognizing the sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle terroir differences within such a large region.

Is it any wonder that the stiffest opposition to both changes has come from the lowest common denominator, corporate wineries who have done so much to damage Classico's image as a producer of great wine.

Unknown said...

I must say that I can't fully agree with you, Bill Haydon. Frankly speaking I don't think that Gran Selezione has much to offer for a small terroir driven producer. If you have always made wine only with your own fruit and technically speaking all of the wine that you have in cellar fits the technical characteristics of Gran Selezione, where is the added value? Should you bottle everything as Gran Selezione? Would officials allow it? I don't think so. I believe that the winners and the most important defenders of Gran Selezione are the bigger estates and bottlers with some vineyard ownership, who want come to a market with a flagship Chianti Classico. The whole category has not really anything to do with terroir. In my opinion, we have now another commercially motivated category whereas a more terroir driven move would have been to get rid of Riserva as well.

The question of breaking down Chianti Classico in communal appellations is a bit different question, but given the size of the communes and huge variation of soils, elevations and micro-climates within them it's relatively difficult to argue that it would be a truly terroir-driven move. And if the sub-zoning would be done in other that communal basis it would be still in the last hand up to bureaucrats to decide how. And as Mr Gray asks: bureaucrats are immune to outside influence, right?

Roberto Stucchi - Badia a Coltibuono said...

As a producer that opposed this category I have this to add: the Gran Selezione is definitely not a terroir-driven category. All it takes is to use only grapes from your vineyards, owned or leased. The first batch of wines introduced are largely from the big guys,such as Ruffino Riserva Ducale gold,listed at a production of 500,000 btls!A useful development would be the comune subappellation as I've argued for here:

@Lui_Luiano said...

The new regulation for Chianti Classico that became effective the past month can cause skepticism in someone and enthusiasm in someone else. Too early to judge, the quality of the wines will determine the good and the bad of this new category. As I had the chance to mention in a twitter interaction I just would like to point out that those "bureaucrats" certifying the Gran Selezione are not Government Officers. Many esteemed and valued Oenologists volunteer to be part of a list of expert from which 5 names are randomly picked to form a commission. This Commission works in a blind tasting where not even eye contact among members is possible. The commission's scope is to assess that the wines submitted to the judgement meet the criteria that the producers self determined in assembly to classify the wine in a given category, Gran Selezione, Riserva and Regular Vintage. The involvement of the Government in this is giving this session a legal value.
This being said, everyone can judge this in a positive or negative way but it is not just a Bureaucratic stamp on a wine with the purpose of charging a few Dollars more for a bottle.
As already posted by Roberto Stucchi in a previous comment the new regulation still has to be completed with sub-zone classification that will add more and more meaning to the concept of Gran Selezione… as you know "a journey of a thousand miles…"
So, does the world need a new top tier for the Chianti Classico? I do not have a crystal ball to answer that, but there is also another good question… do wine lovers deserve to have many different offers under the same name? In the case of Chianti Classico this must not be underestimated, specially if you add to the picture the huge environment of the generic Chianti.
I have already been too long with this post. Thanks to The Gray Report for this opportunity to share opinions about this theme. Alessandro Palombo - LUIANO