Il sogno Canadese del Chianti Classico: Embracing the most noble of Italy’s Sangiovese
Related – as seen in Chianti Classico Magazine, translated into Italian – Il sogno Canadese del Chianti Classico abbraccia il più nobile dei Sangiovese Italiani
The year 2018 has come to a close, a new one has begun and we naturally reflect on where we’ve been, what we have done and where we are going. This last vintage was a most significant and rewarding one for me and my relationship with Chianti Classico. For the great Tuscan territory it was marked by a meaningful and historical transition. In 2018 we witnessed the region’s fate and fortune transferred from long-time friend and President Sergio Zingarelli of Rocca delle Macie into the hands of Fontodi’s Giovanni Manetti. For Chianti Classico the future looks bright, sangiovese and now.
One of the best red wines from all over the world, deserving of space in place with the best – Giovanni Manetti, Fontodi, Panzano in Chianti
In just nine days the world will converge on Stazione Leopolda in Firenze for the two day Chianti Classico Collection 2019. The 2017 Annata will be poured by producers ready to show their newest sangiovese. During a September 2018 visit with the Consorzio’s recently elected President, the proprietor of Fontodi in Panzano referred to his territory as home to “one of the best red wines from all over the world, deserving of space in place with the best. I find great harmony in the wines,” said Manetti, “like I do in Renaissance paintings, vineyards and landscapes modelled by many generations. Harmony is what everyone and every winemaker should and will find. It’s something you feel.”
It is perhaps a recurring question that only happens in dreams but the clarity is quite real. Il Chianti Classico è il centro del mondo del vino italiano? Is Chianti Classico the centre of the Italian wine world? Without needing to offer up a response the query is still both curious and serious. When you pause to consider the 2018 buzz around Chianti Classico wines both at home and abroad, regardless of which is which to you, are you able to stop yourself from at least considering the question?
We are at the new era of the great potential – Paolo de Marchi, Isole e Olena, Barberino Val d’Elsa
It makes for compelling discourse to be sure. The rise of the Gallo Nero is a fascinating one, not merely because sales of Chianti Classico are rising with numbers never seen before. There is the exponential, across the board increase in quality, the ever-evolving multiplicity of the territory’s sangiovese and then there are these continuing controversies. Not exactly controversial issues as much as healthy debates, dialectics about sub-zones, boundaries, crus and designations of origin. We’ll get to that shortly.
In the past 31 months I have travelled to the land of the Gallo Nero on six occasions and have made a minimum 70 estate visits, 46 of them being unique. I’ve tasted and reviewed no less than 434 wines and written at least 12 articles about the region. In February 2019 I will arrive to report on a third consecutive Chianti Classico Collection. And I’ve just begun this lifelong journey into the highly complex world of sangiovese. In the middle of this odyssey of wanderlust there has already been a very special moment. Every wine region needs ambassadors to educate in the diaspora and in 2018 I was humbled to be chosen as one of Chianti Classico’s first five. This was indeed one of the great honours my life. I’m quite sure Jeffrey Porter, Michaela Morris, Massimo Castellani and Isao Miyajima felt the same.
The region and its nine communes share a commonality expressed in varietal and landscape but look to the maps, the ridges, hills and individual estates to note that there is more soil diversity than we can possibly wrap our brains around. When I arrive in Chianti Classico I am intrinsically aware that each trip will add a new dimension to the project, legend and story. More to the point I am hyper aware that the best is yet to come. Just two weeks ago I stood on the great Galestro ridge of Isole e Olena, Barberino Val d’Elsa to hear Paolo de Marchi say “we are at the new era of the great potential.”
Simplicity is the best thing in life. Simplicity is freedom – Principessa Coralia Pignatelli della Leonessa, Castell’inVilla, Castelnuovo Berardenga
Speaking of the number 31, in Dante’s 31st canto of the Inferno the Italian poet writes “on its circular parapets / Montereggione crowns itself with towers”. The poet’s fascination with the famous castle and turrets of Monterrigioni located just outside the Classico zone are used as a simile for his otherworldly journey that brought him to the horrible giants who, sunk into the infernal rock, guarding the ninth and last circle, where traitors are punished. For a moment, that frightening sight looked like high towers, like the ones of the ancient castle. This is not, however, a reference to proponents of 100 per cent sangiovese versus assemblage, nor is it one to the soils of Chianti Classico, but only a coincidental notation with respect to discussing what lays underground.
In Bourgogne there is one word used to describe the relationship between the weather, the land and the interaction with the people who raise vines on that land. Climat is expressed as a highly complex chain of topographical, elemental and ethnological conditions. There is no such word in Italian, at least none that sum up the notion in una sola parola. We could perhaps take the liberty and make use of two words, acclimazione and sottosuolo to delineate such a meaning. To “acclimatize the underground” is to infer that over time vines tended by humans get used to the subsoils beneath their climate. Just as the Burgundians discuss Climat not as something above in the sky but rather below their feet, so can the Chianti Classico cognoscenti do so with the notion of acclimazione sottosuolo. Last week at Castell’inVilla in Castelnuovo Berardenga Principessa Coralia Pignatelli della Leonessa told me “simplicity is the best thing in life. simplicity is freedom.” In September Principe Duccio Corsini used the term genius loci, from the Latin, meaning “terroir plus the action of man.” Combine this with the “acclimatization of the underground.” The notions takes a very difficult and complex set of circumstances and distill it down into something simple.
The ideas of acclimazione sottosuolo and genius loci are a matter of agriculturalists interacting with the stratified Chianti Classico layers beneath the vines. Three major types of mineral soils are present, prevalent and essential to how, why and where sangiovese acts and thrives in the territory. The rocks of alberese (calcareous limestone), galestro (schisty marl) and macigno (sandstone) are the three most important sub-soil types but they are not the only significant rocks that contribute to character. River stones and marine fossil shells are also found in various vineyards and bring more than their fair share of personality-gifting traits. Though we would so very much love to draw geological and geographical lines that explain what soils exist and where, it is simply impossible to do so. The complex weave of patterns and designs, not to mention the venn diagram circles of commonalities would make for the most intricate mapping anywhere in Italy. Yet is that not the foundation and the nature of Chianti Classico’s set of exemptions and eccentricities? No two soils are the same and the resulting sangiovese are all different. Yes, they are snowflakes.
The official line tells us that geologically the land is a shield of clayey schists (marl), with layers of scaly clay, alberese and fine limestone sandstone. The dark brown soil tends not to be deep, with structures ranging from clayey-sand to stony with average clay content. Almost all the Chianti Classico production area, though, has soil rich in stony material, especially marl. Two-thirds of the whole area is covered with woods. Oak trees are present everywhere while chestnuts are found mainly in the eastern area, conifers in the higher altitudes and pine woods in the lower hills south of Florence.
The type of land varies considerably from one area to another, making it impossible to make a clear subdivision of the various soil types typical of Chianti. But it can also be said that marl-based soil is widespread in the San Casciano in Val di Pesa, while Greve in Chianti and all the lower altitude areas have typically clayey limestone soil; large sandstone rocks characterize the Monte dei Chianti ridge; alberese is the principal element of the central-southern area, and tuff stone rock is found in most of the Castelnuovo Berardenga area. The area with a marked sandstone presence are severe and steep while the limestone hills are softer and rounder, and the clayey hills are even gentler.
In 1716 the Grand Duke Cosimo III set the borders of the Gallo Nero production zone, defining it as extraordinary and suitable for the making of high quality wines in what today covers nine municipalities under the provinces of Florence and Siena. In 1984 the adjective “Classico” was added by ministerial decree to distinguish the original Chianti from the wine made outside the territory delimited in 1716. In 2002 the sangiovese number permitted by production regulations was raised from a minimum of 80 per cent with a maximum of 20 red indigenous (i.e. colorino and canaiolo) or international grapes permitted by production regulations. Since 2005 the Black Rooster trademark has stood for the entire Chianti Classico appellation with a graphic re-styling to make it stand out even more on every bottle of Chianti Classico. Two locations have been permitted, on the neck or on the back label. The year 2010 was the beginning of Chianti Classico truly distancing itself from Chianti through a change to an Italian law banning the production of Chianti wine in Chianti Classico production zone. In 2013 the Gran Selezione was introduced to stand at the top of the quality pyramid.
We now live in a world where diversity leads to prosperity and though current global political and national climates are pushing back against that truth, success comes from celebrating and embracing differences. A territory that recognizes its individualities, multiplicities and idiosyncrasies is destined for greatness. This is Chianti Classico, a region where the wines have 300 years of recorded history to support its message but also a history that includes evolution and change. You’d better sit down for what’s coming.
In the early 1980s a group of rogue producers reacted to the idea of Chianti Classico not being allowed to be labeled as such if the contents were 100 per cent sangiovese. The IGT Toscana for the region was born out of varietal necessity. No fewer than 12 significant and iconic producers began labelling their best wine as IGT. With the recent advent of Gran Selezione as being the most important wine at the top of the pyramid could we possibly see a backlash 30 years after the last one? Might the 12 producers make a joint announcement that their collective IGT will now be bottled under the label of Gran Selezione or take it to the great extreme and simply label it Chianti Classico? Speculation is the thing but first there is the notion of having the Gran Selezione category as being restricted to 100 per cent sangiovese. Would this decree help to define the category or hinder its progress? Would it shed light and help to educate the consumer?
Pasta is the protagonist of the table – Principe Duccio Corsini, Le Corti – Principe Corsini, San Casciano
Then there is the all important discussion about cru and labelling. Menzioni geografiche are on the way in as a means to identify the communes, villages and cru within the greater territory. We are witnessing the rise of the associazioni, subsets of viticultural associations uniting producers of communes and also villages within the communes. These associations are formed so that the common good is furthered, both in terms of exchanging and promoting like-minded ideas but also to access a potential for commercial and economic gain. The question is who will benefit by way of these detailed additions to Chianti Classico labels. Producer or consumer? Perhaps both?
These are the debates of men and while their meaning and importance should never be discounted, there is another way to look at the territory’s peregrination of significance. Whether or not the wines are made from 100 per cent sangiovese, from an assemblage that includes other endemic as well as international varietals, or from expatriate grape varieties, there is one common kinship that binds them all. They are wines made from grapes grown on Chianti Classico soils. Many would argue to the bitter end that the place is always stronger than the grape. Most important and sometimes forgotten is how they work with the food. How can one be considered without the other? Sit down to dinner with Principe Duccio Corsini and you will learn about the Tuscan symbiosis. “Pasta is the protagonist of the table,” says Corsini. Truth.
Which brings us to some all important numbers. The top export markets in 2015 for Chianti Classico (in volumes) were the US (31 per cent), Italia (20), Germany (12) and Canada (10). In 2016 the numbers were US (32), Italia (22), Germany (13) and Canada (8). In 2017, US (33), Italia (23), Germany (12) and Canada (8). This year is just about complete and already it looks like the unofficial-official statistics are in. In 2018 for Chianti Classico we find the US at 34 per cent, Italia (23) and Canada (11). Export numbers to the US and Italy continue to rise slow but steady but it is Canada’s near 38 per cent increase from 2017 to 2018 that is most significant. Canada’s is a market loyal to repetitive purchasing from wine regions that produce consistent and recognizable wine so what changed to encourage consumers to drink outside the box and to seek out sangiovese? The most obvious answer lies in the work of Chianti Classico producers at the vineyard level but the true catalyst seems to be educational efforts that have awaken the sangiovese wolf of the Canadian consumer.
The Consorzio has travelled tirelessly across Canada, staging events, masterclasses and grandi degustazioni in major Canadian cities. Ambassador competitions have reeled in some of this country’s finest sommelier minds to help spread the great secret of the Gallo Nero’s sangiovese. Michaela Morris and Jason Yamasaki (Vancouver), Steven Robinson (Ottawa) and Kler-Yann Bouteiller (Quebec) are all apart of the revolution. The next and essential step is to win over the hearts and minds of sommeliers and restaurant buyers, especially in urban centres like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Such a program would surely push Chianti Classico up the precipice where numbers do not lie in a scenario where exports could very likely equal those nationally in the 20-25 per cent range.
Finding ways to increase imports to Canadians is the ultimate goal and in a country where monopolies and one-tier purchasing systems are the norm it is the rise of wine clubs that could very well be the most important next step. Gargoyle out of Alberta and the WineAlign Exchange out of Ontario are poised to become critical avenues for the importation of Chianti Classico wines into Canada. In fact, the WineAlign community wine exchange program will be facilitating upwards of 150 cases of Chianti Classico into Ontario in 2019. Consider that the Consorzio normally calculates export percentages on a total of 35/6 million of sold bottles, which means that in 2018 approximately 3,000 cases (of 12 bottles) were exported to Canada. Even with a highly generous expectation for that number to increase by 38 per cent again from 2018 to 2019, 150 of 4,140 cases would represent 3.6 per cent of the total imports for next year. That is surely a significant contribution to sales.
So what will 2019 bring? Will it usher in a new era of Chianti Classico bottles noted by villages and crus on the labels? Will sangiovese long designated IGT come back to the appellation? Will Gran Selezione gain further ground and find itself endeared by the hearts of more women and men? Will the category seek 100 per cent sangiovese status? One thing is certain and that is Canada’s connection and bond to the territory will only grow stronger. When we convene at this time in 2019 the sales figures will prove that the process is moving in the right direction.
See you at the 2019 Chianti Classico Collection.
Good to go!