Posted on | September 26, 2013
Written by | Jim Clarke
Despite the increased availability of Italian wines from regions and grapes once unknown, Chianti is still the first Italian wine Americans think of. More than three-quarters of Chianti Classico is exported, and more than a quarter of it comes to the U.S.
“Compared with 1960, there is a tremendous amount of competition,” says Sergio Esposito, CEO of Italian Wine Merchants in New York City, but “new regions don’t have that branding; Chianti is the strongest brand in Italy.” He says that’s become even more important since the 2008 recession, which he finds drove many wine drinkers to seek out familiar wines and become more cautious about exploration.
That name recognition can still be a challenge, though. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Esposito. “As Chianti moved toward more recognition, it started with very affordable, often low quality wines. People think of it as a less expensive wine.”
While it may not command high prices, Mike Cronan, owner of Caffe Mingo in Portland, OR, says consumers expect it to be a higher quality wine than they did in the age of “fiascos,” the straw-wrapped jugs of Chianti common in the 1970s and ’80s. “I think the overall quality is perceived as much better than it used to be,” says Cronan, adding that the reasonable prices make it a strong by-the-glass pour. Cronan’s list offers Selvapiana’s Chianti Rufina by-the-glass, with producers like Badia a Coltibuono, Fèlsina, and Isole e Olena on the bottle list—four of his 27 reds are Chiantis.
If producers in the ’80s and ’90s were trying to “internationalize” Chianti with riper fruit, more oak and extraction, and international varieties in the blend, the tide seems to have turned over the past decade. “Chianti, and in particular Chianti Classico, is moving away from a heavier style that is not typical of Sangiovese,” says Renzo Cotarella, winemaker for Antinori, a leader in the region for centuries. “In a few words, the characteristics of elegance, finesse, floral aromas, low impact of wood-aging and the verticality of the taste are more and more elements defining and emerging to represent the terroir of the area. This is recognized by the consumer in the last three to four years as they seek and identify Italian wines with the grape and the area.”
New Area to Watch: Rufina
Much of the progress seems to relate to changes in the vineyards; more than half Chianti Classico’s vineyards have been replanted in the past 15 years. “More and more the trend is away from international varieties,” says Federico Giuntini, owner of the Chianti Rufina estate Selvapiana. “The market prefers a Chianti that tastes of Sangiovese and not of Merlot.” In addition to better clonal choices in the vineyard, Giuntini says a number of Chianti producers, including some of the larger players, are adopting organic farming, which he cites as the “new and great trend” in the region.
While the word “Chianti” is readily familiar to most American wine drinkers, the vocabulary of the region remains relatively obscure. Of the seven sub-regions, Giuntini says, “The different sub-regions that American consumers really know very well are Classico and Rufina. Classico is always considered the most important of all the appellations and a story of its own. Rufina finally has its own image. Years ago Rufina was always confused with [Chianti producer] Ruffino and hardly seen as an appellation.” He says that concerted efforts to improve quality by Rufina producers have built awareness of the region, and put the emphasis on Rufina rather than Chianti in their own marketing: “In a perfect world,” he says, “we should be just ‘Rufina.’”
New Level to Sell
In addition to the regional sub-appellations, Chianti also has a Riserva category, and the Chianti Classico Consorzio is rolling out another quality level solely for estate-grown wines: Gran Selezione. Wines from the 2010 vintage are the first to be eligible for the new category, which could be hitting shelves any day now—30 months of aging, including three in the bottle, are required before release. The Riserva term seems to have had some, perhaps limited cachet with consumers.
Cotarella agrees, and isn’t sure how the Gran Selezione category will be received, at least initially: “It is difficult to know the reaction of the consumer. This new category will eventually define higher quality and will influence the identity of the area.” Other observers are less sure, and it remains to be seen how many producers will actually use the term on their labels.
While wine drinkers may still find the regional and quality demarcations confusing, Chianti remains a calling card for the country’s wines. “Chianti is the source of a tremendous amount of national pride for Italians,” says Esposito. “It’s at the heart of production of Italian wines. If you study the trends there it’s a great indicator of what’s coming for Italian wines in general.”