Chianti Classico’s Gran Selezione: Toward Understanding and Appreciation

The steps leading up to the Fifth Avenue entrance of the New York City Public Library have a certain grandeur all their own. A climb, one might imagine, toward higher education, learning, knowledge.

chianti-classico-gran-selezione-20151Entering the library, my hopes are high that what I learn at today’s Chianti Classico / Gran Selezione 2015 presentation will replace skepticism with a better understanding and appreciation of the newly-minted Gran Selezione disciplinare belonging to Chianti Classico, one of Italy’s most iconic wine appellations.

Today’s presentation quickly sets about to introduce the Gran Selezione classification (wines launched in early 2014) as Chianti Classico’s “best of the best”. I do understand the intended sentiment, really, but the choice of words highlights one of the main market challenges facing Gran Selezione: does the category of Gran Selezione really communicate the importance suggested by its title?

In getting to know Gran Selezione, a savvy consumer or wine industry professional might look to sort things a bit by referring to the requirements for classification as a Gran Selezione wine, which include:

• Produced from 100% of grapes grown by the winery bottling the wine. This could be taken to mean sourced from a single vineyard or selection of vineyards (To be clear, a producer owning non-contiguous vineyards within the Chianti Classico territory is, I believe, permitted to use grapes from any or all of his in-zone owned properties.)
• Aged 30 months including 3 months bottle aging, non-specific guidance
• Minimum 80% Sangiovese (same as Chianti Classico Riserva)
• Can include other permitted varietals, i.e., Canaiolo, Merlot, Syrah, etc.
• Can be released as 100% Sangiovese

Unfortunately, between Gran Selezione requirements and certain requirements for other Chianti Classico wines – the Riserva wines come to mind – there exists a degree of overlap which rather obscures a clear differentiation for Gran Selezione, often creating confusion and questions.

Speaking of questions, here are some of the questions I heard walking around the tasting floor and during the course of the event:

Is it the intention to produce Gran Selezione wines every vintage or only in the best vintages?

What are the implications of re-structured ownership / acquisitions upon Gran Selezione quality?

Is Gran Selezione a marketing tool to promote and sell the Chianti Classico category?

What varietals really create Gran Selezione, that is to say, what varietal/s are driving the “quality upgrade” to Gran Selezione?

Which are the “new” wines created under Gran Selezione versus the existing wines that have been repurposed into the new Gran Selezione category?

Does Gran Selezione simply perpetuate the culture of Super Tuscans, giving them a different label?

Confusion (in the market) around Gran Selezione does exist and largely derives out of consumers trying to identify terroir-specific value. It is vital that market messaging and communication from Consorzio Chianti Classico address that gap.

chianti-classico-gran-selezione-2015-bibbianoOn the producer side, many producers are doing a good (read: serious, sincere) job to interpret to the Gran Selezione denomination, a classification that, at some level, is still figuring out what it wants to be when it grows up.

Now, 16 months after the inception of Gran Selezione, with 89 labels of Gran Selezione being produced, hailing from all communes of Chianti Classico, the central question seems to be whether the classification will be understood in the US market, one that represents 31% of the Chianti Classico market.

chianti-classico-gran-selezione-2015-castello-la-lecciaWhile still skeptical of its current configuration, I am as well optimistic about the future of Gran Selezione.

American writer/poet Nancy Willard said, “Sometimes questions are more important than answers.” In the case of Gran Selezione, in this moment in time, I couldn’t agree more. Here are two improvement oriented questions that may help point the way for consumers to more easily understand and appreciate Gran Selezione:

Would the decision to produce Gran Selezione wines only from single vineyard locations help consumers better identify terroir-specific value? (True, moving in this direction will require much consensus-building. But, hey, we are talking about a “grand selection”, “best of the best”, classification, right?)

Would the decision to produce Gran Selezione from 100% Sangiovese better differentiate the wines, reduce variation within the category, reduce confusion?

You can find my un-rehearsed comments from the Chianti Classico / Gran Selezione 2015 event in the IEEM video interview embedded just below:

Chianti Classico NYC 2015: Cement and Me

Chianti Classico NYC 2015: Cement and Me

At yesterday’s Chianti Classico 2015 wine event in NYC, I was able to confirm something that I have long suspected about myself:

I’m a bit of a cement head.

You can take that to mean that I appreciate – and indeed at times adore – wines vinified or aged in cement.

Which, I guess, leads one to wonder what the heck is so special about wines raised in cement anyway?

bibbiano-chianti-classico-event-nyc-2015With a little digging, I was able to gather a couple of insights which make sense to me:

Cement (using the term interchangeably with concrete) fermentation vessels, I’m told, manage to keep a very consistent temperature. And as we know, that is a very good thing. Fluctuating temperature does not reside on the top ten list of things good for wine ;-).

Consequently, fermentation in cement is slow and gradual and that can mean a tendency toward vibrancy of fruit, clean, pure flavors and a marked degree of freshness.

The porosity of cement, too, according to sources, enables the wine to breathe, allowing the wine to evolve in a favorable way, preserving the expressive aspects of fruit, softening tannins, etc., and thus making cement a viable format for ageing as well.

Based on my appreciation of cement raised wines, I won’t argue.

castello-la-leccia-chianti-classico-event-nyc-2015Cement-raised wines often strike me as having a certain richness of mouthfeel which, for me, is important: holding wine in one’s mouth is such an intimate experience that the sensation of doing so should be pleasing in its own right.

At yesterday’s Chianti Classico event, during the walk around tasting segment, the wines of producers Bibbiano and Castello La Leccia captured my tasting attention. I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that both producers utilize cement in raising their Chianti Classico wines which, by the way, were showing beautifully. And though not present at the event, I’ll mention here too the Chianti Classico of producer Monteraponi, another fine example of cement raising and a wine of which I’ve long been a fan.

Francesco Daddi of Castello La Leccia helped me to understand, too, that cement fermentation vessels, tanks, etc., can also provide a few challenges on the production side of the house: they are not the easiest things in the world to clean and maintain. And they can be heavy, as one might imagine, and thus difficult to transport.

To be clear, I am not here to say that cement as part of the vinification / ageing regimen alone churns out gorgeous wines. Only that I’m learning that cement can bring something to the finished wine that is attractive to my palate. And perhaps, too – still learning here – that Sangiovese seems to respond beautifully to its time in cement.

Ventolaio Rosso di Montalcino 2010

Ventolaio Rosso di Montalcino 2010

ventolaio-rosso-di-montalcino-2010It was a wet evening in Montalcino complete with howling wind which convinced me that hidden gems are found not only on gloriously sunny mornings or bright afternoons in the countryside.

Traveling with a group of American journalists on a media trip to Montalcino, we visited Ventolaio on an evening were you were happy to be inside, warm, dry, and in good company. Wines I tasted that evening were lasting reminders of this under-followed producer.

Having recently come by Ventolaio’s Rosso di Montalcino 2010, I am happy to find it drinking as well now as then, if not a bit more evolved, with still intense aromatics, a good mingle of red / black cherries, violets, earth and tobacco, with deliciously chewy tannins. A superb bottle of Sangiovese goodness.

I have wondered several times why I don’t see more of Ventolaio here in the US market. I am baffled, really, why not, but propose you to add Ventolaio to your “hidden gems” list.

Related Link, from the media trip: Brunello di Montalcino: A Reflection

Chianti, Version COOL

Chianti, Version COOL

jazz-guitar-3Smooth, cool sounds of live jazz carry me aloft and scenes from the excellent Chianti NYC 2014 showcase tasting are still fresh in my mind. As two of the jazz scene’s most exciting guitar players do their part to help make jazz once again hip for modern listeners, Chianti’s producers too are reinvigorating the wines of their denomination, making Chianti cool for a new generation of wine aficionados.

During my lifetime Chianti has evolved from a wine that grandfather kept in the kitchen cabinet to a serious wine that seeks clarity of expression in voices more subtle than grandiose. That evolution has been largely driven by a willingness on the part of producers and the Consorzio to depart from stale convention, tempered by respect for tradition, in order to advance quality within the Chianti heritage.

chianti-nyc-2014-2Today’s Chianti has upped the cool factor, delivering wines of emotion and meaning, and doing so with an attitude of casual elegance and sense of freedom attractive to a hip, chic clientele.

A highlight of CHIANTI NYC 2014 was the guided tasting introducing marvelously varied styles of six Chianti wines:

Sorelli Chianti Riserva 2010 is herbaceous and floral, perhaps by virtue of the rare addition of 10% Trebbiano in the blend. Weighing in at 12.5% alcohol, this red wine is light enough to give good blessing to summer fish dishes, first courses and entrée salads. Aperitivo approved 🙂

Flexing a bit more muscle with 14 degrees of alcohol, the fuller-bodied Morzano il Quarto Chianti Riserva 2010 rested 24 months in third passage barrique before pleasing admirers with its floral, fruity, spice-inflected bouquet and overall harmony.

Sensuously scented Bellini Chianti Rufina Riserva 2010 impresses with rich, velvety sensations of red fruit sailing over a river of delicious acidity. Finishes with big, harmonic tannins. Nice Chianti to lay down for a bit.

Having done time in large Slavonian oak and a stint in bottle, Castello Oliveto Chianti Riserva 2010 delivers good Sangiovese flavor on a palate ever so slightly softened with a small percentage of Merlot. Enduring, elegant nose of red and black cherries and violets.

Made from 100% Sangiovese, Tenuta Cantagallo Chianti Montalbano 2010 Riserva shows a modern side with hints of vanilla and spice, berry cake bouquet and very polished palate.

Open and round, Castelvecchio Chianti Colli Fiorentini Riserva Vigna La Quercia 2010 is striking with rich dark fruit, savory herbs and a touch of smoke, a good call whenever lamb chops are within grilling range.

Just a note on Chianti serving temperature: even in better restaurants, Chianti is oftentimes served too warm at 18 C / 65 F or warmer. Recommend you enjoy Chianti at a slightly cooler temperature, say, 16 C / 60 F to receive its message. (You really must try a slightly cooled Chianti paired to sushi or sashimi.)

Whether you’re craving an insane burger creation from some hipster chef, feeling zen-ed out and sushi-addicted, hanging with investment bankers for a clubby evening of steaks, or visiting home for a Sunday serving of Mom’s roasted pork loin studded with rosemary and garlic – whatever foodie flag you may be flying – today’s Chianti wines can deliver unique, affordable pairings for every budget and level of sophistication.

And that’s cool.
#Chianticool, to be precise 😉

Related Post, Chianti, Turning the Page: Notes from Chianti NYC 2013
For additional information about Chianti wines and territory, click over to Chianti Consorzio

Sangiovese, Uninterrupted

Sangiovese, Uninterrupted

As oenophilic exclamations go, it may sound a bit underwhelming, but nonetheless … there are times when I really do want my Sangiovese to drink like, well, Sangiovese.

Making a connection with the earthy, wild cherry impressions, supple textures and body of quintessential Sangiovese, however, is not as easy as one might think. In fact, that one might walk into a local wine shop asking for a bottle of Sangiovese and emerge with a wine expressing consummate Sangiovese character is likely to prove one of life’s little unpredictables 😉

Here are a few considerations that may help the hunt for wines with classic Sangiovese personality:

sangiovese-uninterrupted-aIn the company of Bordeaux varietals such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon – legal blending partners in several of Tuscany’s great Sangiovese wine denominations – Sangiovese produces wines that are seductive in their own way, no doubt. With respect to the archetypal Sangiovese experience, however, Bordeaux varietals can, at times, overwhelm the somewhat subtle Sangiovese varietal tastes and aromas that, more and more, I have come to seek out.

Within Tuscany’s aforementioned Sangiovese denominations, DOC law also allows uniting Sangiovese with more traditional varietal partners. Blended with small amounts of varietals such as Colorino, Canaiolo, or Mammolo, for example, Sangiovese seems more at home, less interrupted, and better able to communicate the subtleties of its unique message.

When crafted from 100% Sangiovese, Sangiovese in purezza, some wines can achieve a certain state of ethereal grace. While inspiring examples of 100% Sangiovese wines can be found electively produced within other of Tuscany’s important Sangiovese appellations, it is the most famous of these wines, Brunello di Montalcino and its sidekick Rosso di Montalcino, which are perhaps the surer bet: they are required by Italian law to be produced from 100% Sangiovese.

What happens in the cellar is vital to allowing Sangiovese to play the expressive leading role. Compatible techniques in the cellar include the carrying out of fermentation in steel or cement vat. Ideally, ageing is done in Slavonian oak, or at least in part, as it is a very neutral, Sangiovese-friendly maturation treatment. And please take note: easy on the French barrique (especially 1st passage) – heavy hands here can impart too much wood / spice influence so as to encrypt the Sangiovese message – it’s a fine line between state of grace and state of Bordeaux wanna-be 😉

On a final note, generally speaking, when looking to satisfy the craving for prototypic Sangiovese, one may fare better by sticking close to normale bottlings: riserva wines tend to be heavier on the oak influence which, as we’ve noted, can be interfering in this context. But, please remember that there are always notable exceptions (see below).

Producers / wines to investigate:

Dei Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Felsina Chianti Classico & Chianti Classico Riserva
La Ciarliano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Le Gode Brunello di Montalcino
Lisini Brunello di Montalcino & Rosso di Montalcino
Monteraponi Chianti Classico
Pietramora Morellino di Scansano “Brumaio”
San Felice “Il Grigio” Chianti Classico Riserva
Santa Lucia Morellino di Scansano “Tore del Moro”
Val delle Corti Chianti Classico
Ventolaio Rosso di Montalcino

Siro Pacenti Rosso di Montalcino 2008

Siro Pacenti Rosso di Montalcino 2008

When discussing Rosso di Montalcino wines, I am not especially fond of the term “baby Brunello”. The two are different wines, really, wines of differing intent, in fact. One is not simply a pint-sized version of the other.

That said, in the case of Siro Pacenti Rosso di Montalcino 2008, well, I am willing to make an exception.

After a one hour decant, Pacenti’s Rosso exhibited enough scaled-down, Brunello-like character, that “baby Brunello” seems a rather accurate description.

siro-pacenti-rosso-di-montalcino-2008-aGiancarlo Pacenti (Siro was the estate’s founding elder) has often been described as an innovator within the Montalcino zone, a modernist producer, seeking more color and structure from Sangiovese, choosing French barrique over traditional Slavonian oak for aging his wines, playing to the preferences of an international consumer.

Perhaps.

When the music is well-played, I am not so sure the source of artistic inspiration matters.

In any case, Pacenti strikes me as a producer possessing a deep understanding of Montalcino terroir married with precision production methods who creates Sangiovese wines not to be missed by anyone interested in the Montalcino appellation.

Tasting Notes / Impressions:

The initial decant released a plume of bright cherry, strawberry, and red currant. As the wine opened up, hints of violets, earth and smoke came and went, adding complexity. Black cherry tones filled out the wine’s lower register. Muscular and supple on the palate with firm, velvety tannins, acidity balanced with just the right degree of ripeness.

Sangiovese grapes for Pacenti’s wines are hand-harvested and undergo rigorous hand-selection. The Rosso di Montalcino undergoes a wood regimen of new (30%) and year old (70%) barrique, though avoids overt wood attributes. About 3,000 cases made per year.

$$

Agostina Pieri Rosso di Montalcino 2011

Agostina Pieri Rosso di Montalcino 2011

It strikes me that much has been made of late to suggest that Montalcino’s northern areas produce elegant, perfumed Sangiovese wines, while its southern reaches produce robust wines with less cellar potential. While true, perhaps, in the broadest sense, it should be noted that there are exceptions to the rule.

pieri-rosso-di-montalcino-2011I recently snapped up a bottle of Agostina Pieri Rosso di Montalcino 2011. The estate is located in Montalcino’s southern territory around Sant’Angelo Scalo, aka one of hottest and driest parts of the growing zone.

I found the wine not at all willing to be stereotyped. First day, the wine was fresh and open, with delicate, long aromas of cherry and currant, a broad palate and a clear core of cherry fruit. Second day, suggestions of kirsch and rose. Third day, viscous and still fresh. Impeccably refined tannins.

Added all together … a very elegant wine, in fact.

The wine is produced from 100% Sangiovese from two very different estate vineyards. Loamy, well-drained soil with aspects of organic matter and stone characterize one vineyard, while the other’s clay-based soil prompted a producer decision to use different rootstock in that site. The producer seems to favor low-vigor rootstock as well as the cordone speronato vine training method. Planting densities in vineyards producing the 2011 vintage of Rosso di Montalcino are 3333 and 4200 per hectare, respectively.

Grapes bunches underwent careful selection in the vineyard and again at the sorting table. Fermentation was carried out over 18 days in stainless steel vat. The wine was sent 30% to 2nd passage barrique, 70% to demis-muid (large barrel), aged 12 months, and then moved to stainless steel for bottling.

$

Benvenuto Brunello 2014, New York

Benvenuto Brunello 2014, New York

If, like me, impatience has driven you to pop a Brunello cork prematurely, you may be interested to know that the 2009 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino will require no personal improvement in self-discipline 😉

benvenuto-brunello-2014-2aBrunello wines from the four-star 2009 vintage previewed January 27th at Benvenuto Brunello in New York. I found the wines to be generally open, opulent, with many …dare I say it … ready to drink early.

Accordingly, the vintage should be a great one not only for the restaurant market but also for the private consumer who wants pleasure in the short term from his Brunello spend. For collectors seeking cellaring potential, however, the five-star 2006 and 2007 vintages remain better options.

A seminar and guided tasting segment featuring eight Brunello di Montalcino wines was presented by Gloria Maroti Frazee, of Wine Spectator School. Maroti Frazee, to her credit, took attendees on a rather Socratic tour of Brunello wines and Montalcino terroir, teaching through astute questioning along the way. The seminar-tasting proved a great roadmap to delineate and distinguish differences between Brunello’s north and south growing zones.

At one point during the seminar, speaking of Sangiovese, the grape varietal responsible for Brunello di Montalcino, Maroti Frazee noted that, “Sangiovese whispers, not shouts, of its tipicita.” I so appreciate that statement as it does hint, I think, at one of the true beauties of Brunello, that being Brunello is so subtly reflective of variations in Montalcino’s altitude, soil, and temperature.

benvenuto-brunello-2014-1aOn the main tasting floor, I encountered many wonderfully open, plush Brunello wines from 2009 as well as stellar normale and riserva examples from the ’08, ’07 and ’06 vintages.

Yet, even in that context, it was obvious that Rosso di Montalcino wines from 2011 and 2012 being shown by producers alongside their Brunello entries were drinking spectacularly well, showing outstanding quality. Not to be too surprised, however: as noted during the seminar, approximately 50% of Rosso di Montalcino is produced from reclassified Brunello grapes. Discerning lovers of Sangiovese will do well to keep Rosso di Montalcino wines on their buying radar especially where a solid fix of good Sangiovese is required at times when the wallet is perhaps too thin to endure the pricier Brunello spend.

In summary, the Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino wines I tasted at Benvenuto Brunello 2014 NYC give continued testimony to the exceptional quality and terroir of Montalcino.

Memorable among the show’s exhibiter producers:
Canalicchio di Sopra
Cappane Ricci
La Fiorita
Le Ragnaie
Palazzo
Tenute Silvio Nardi
Paradisone – Colle degli Angeli
Santa Giulia
Ucelliera

Special shout out to the IEEM team for hosting the event in a space offering a measure of elegance befitting Brunello wines. Gotham Hall was a gorgeous venue for this event!

Related Post, from my 2012 media trip to Montalcino, Brunello di Montalcino – A Reflection