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Chianti chiaroscuro

Published:  18 January, 2007

We toured the Chianti Classico zone a couple of weeks ago and were treated to some pretty vehement opinions on the subject of the recently announced merger of the two Chianti Classico consortia (see Chianti Classico Consortia back together again', Harpers, 20 May), as well as on the incompetence, or worse, of the existing tasting commissions.

First, the merger. That the technical consortium whose remit it is to protect and police the Chianti Classico disciplinare (regulations) and the promotional consortium (Gallo Nero or Marchio Storico) whose job is to promote the image should re-unite after 18 years apart makes a lot of sense from the point of view of acting together as a single body, giving it more clout in the corridors of power, reducing the confusion caused in certain markets as to just what is and is not a Chianti Classico and enhancing the credibility of generic tastings. (It always seemed silly that at Chianti Classico tastings it was not possible to compare the wines on show with those of some of the most important producers.) It came about because in the early to mid 1980s a significant number of producers, large and small, decided, as was their right at the time, that they didn't want to entrust their promotion to people whose opinions and approach they did not share. That right has now been withdrawn by a majority vote' and, like it or not, if you want to put the words Chianti Classico on the label, in future you will, like everyone else, have to display the black rooster on the pink DOCG sticker on the neck of the bottle. There are of course those who don't like it, who feel it has been shoved down their throats as a consequence of the government's recent granting of total power over the passing or failing of candidate wines for the DOCG to the technical consortium.

The contras have a number of gripes other than the feeling of having been bounced into something they don't want. In a letter signed by the heads of some of the most prestigious estates (Felsina, Isole e Olena, Monsanto, Poggerino, Riecini, San Giusto a Rentennano et al), the contras declare their acceptance of the majority decision but list the following complaints:

the lack of clarity as to the nature of Chianti Classico due to the overuse of authorised ameliorative grapes' (Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah);

the increasing jammification of wines by the illicit blending of wines or musts from outside the zone, or even the region, using international grapes or even non-authorised varieties like Montepulciano, Negroamaro, Primitivo or Nero d'Avola; and

the growing tendency of tasting commissions to relate Chianti typicity to the above rather than to the true taste of cool-climate Sangiovese.

They also call upon the new body, rather forlornly, to do something about these problems.

These objections, however, pale in comparison with the furore caused by the proposal by a prestigious ex-president of the Consortium to consider the authorised planting of the Puglian and Sicilian varieties. Why are they doing this?' an irate producer asked rhetorically the other day. Because they're worried that DNA tests are going to show that those varieties are already in their wines, and have been for some time. They know perfectly well that those hot-climate varieties will not ripen in our much cooler zone.' Admittedly, the ex-president reminds us that blending with southern wines was standard practice until a couple of decades ago. Still, it hardly seems the ideal route towards establishing a Tuscan typicity' of the sort that Brunello di Montalcino, with its 100% Sangiovese restriction, can boast, at least on paper.

And the tasting commissions? One of the producers we met was hopping mad that his 2002 Chianti Classico had been refused on two occasions by the commission because it was not typical of Chianti Classico in the vintage. It wasn't, as we discovered when we tasted it: it was indeed infinitely more typical of Sangiovese than any of the Cabernet/Merlot jobs that have come from the 2002 vintage, in which so many growers' Sangiovese failed, but our man had done the work and limited the production to pull off what was a remarkably fine and elegant example of good wine in a difficult year.

There was an element of dj-vu about this: where had we seen this before? We then remembered a visit to the late Sergio Manetti's Montevertine. It was in the early 1980s, and Sergio was fulminating about the stupidity of the tasting commission in rejecting his Le Pergole Torte (which has since become an icon of Tuscan style) for Chianti Classico status on the basis that it was not perfect for bottling'. Sergio's answer, of course, was to leave the Chianti Classico denomination altogether, a great and lasting blow to the Consortium's credibility.

Such, however, is now the only resort available to the dissatisfied mentioned above: swallow it or leave the DOCG. Some, indeed, are muttering about doing just that. Do we have to go through this farce again? Have we learned nothing in 25 years?