You could say that Sangiovese is “The” Italian wine grape with a storied history going back to the 18th century and its earliest documented mention in 1590. It is also the most widely-planted red wine grape variety in all of Italy. Sangiovese is the star performer behind many of Italy’s premier wines, including Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino, Morellino di Scansano and many of the Super Tuscan IGT bottlings. Central Italy is the area most planted with Sangiovese, often coined the Sangiovese belt. Tuscany is obviously the most famous of these regions with a number of great expressions, but you will also find it widely produced in Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, Abruzzo and the Marche. That said, in my opinion, the best place to be looking for Sangiovese today is in the Chianti Classico appellation.
However, this wasn’t always true. Chianti was one of the first wines in Italy to be protected and governed by rules on blending. Although the intent was good in the beginning, over the course of 100 years, the rules began to wear on modern winemakers, and in turn they began to revolt against the system. With the recipe of Chianti including a dose of 15% Canaiolo and 15% Malvasia Bianca (that’s right, a white grape), you can see why producers strayed to stay current with worldwide trends. This in turn started the Super Tuscan movement.
With time, it was realized that the rules needed to be changed. First was the mapping and designation of the Classico zone, as the Chianti region had expanded to include villages surrounding the original growing area. The creation of Chianti Classico was a very good start, but then in the 1990s, the floodgates of change were opened again–this time resulting in a situation of too much, too late. One good result was allowing producers to create a 100% Sangiovese Chianti Classico (which few took advantage of at the time). However, the damaging effect was the permission to add up to 20% of any other red wine grape to Chianti Classico’s blend. Suddenly the region began to lose its identity, as a mix of international varieties and a dependence on new oak shaped Chianti into a wine which was hardly recognizable as Sangiovese.
To this day, Chianti Classico is still recovering from this time in its history, but they have come a long way. This has much to do with the winemakers themselves and also the changing palates of consumers and the wine critics they follow. One such critic is Antonio Galloni, of Vinous Media, a man who is ever in search of true varietal character complemented by terroir and produced by the deft hand of passionate winemakers. With his modest personality, Galloni would likely reject the idea that he had so much to do with these changes in Italy, but the fact remains that it is very much the result of the following he has built. Even so, these changes didn’t happen overnight; but as eyes began to open to Sangiovese’ inherent natural beauty, producers began to look for a balance of oak and to reduce the percentage of international varieties. A perfect example is the once internationally-styled Fontodi Vigna del Sorbo, which as of the 2011 vintage is now a 100% pure expression of Sangiovese.
All of this is wonderful news for the lover of Chianti, but there is one more piece to this puzzle, one which the Italian Authorities are banking on to improve the image of Chianti Classico even further. For the longest time, we had two designations of Chianti Classico–Normale and Riserva–with the difference being that a Riserva would spend an extra year aging in wood before bottling. However, many producers had continued to produce “premium” bottles or their own “Super Tuscans,” which could fall into the laws governing Chianti Classico, yet these wines had obtained such status with consumers that they decided to leave the Chianti Classico and Riserva designations for their lesser wines.
In a move to provide a level of Chianti Classico to compete with these wines (and also with Brunello in my opinion), the Gran Selezione designation was created. It requires that the wine is made from fruit grown only in estate vineyards, with a selection of the best parcels made and matured for 30-months before bottling. At first, many questioned this new designation, yet now it appears that even some of its most outspoken critics are producing their own Gran Selezione.
So how are the wines, and can they live up to the hefty price tags that we’re seeing? For one thing, while some producers are using this to make super premium wines (Isole e Olena), others have given a nod to collectors and released a Gran Selezione at a lower cost of their top wines (Castello di Ama). However, only time will tell, but I can assure you that the future does look bright.
On to the tasting notes:
2010 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico Gran Selezione – At first, this was a dark and brooding beast of a wine, which seemed to be too heavily affected by its time in oak, yet all it needed was time to open up. The nose showed dark red fruit, sweet spice, tobacco, rich dark chocolate and a hint of cedar. It was focused and intense on the palate with black cherry and minerals carried by rich textures, while a spine of tannin lurked beneath its otherwise extroverted character. The finish was long with brisk acidity prompting the mouth to water, which released a wave of bitter dark fruit, espresso bean, minerals and dried cherry. This is a large wine in both character and structure, and it should be cellared for optimal enjoyment. (96 points)
2010 Fontodi Chianti Classico Riserva Vigna del Sorbo Gran Selezione – The nose was a lesson in contrasts, as it was rich yet fresh, intense and yet utterly classic and refined. Notes of dark red fruits, herbs, tobacco, cedar, minerals and undergrowth came together in a gorgeous and haunting expression of Sangiovese. On the palate, I found a mix of cherry and strawberry with cedar giving way to gripping tannin with balancing acidity. Balance is the key here, as this comes across as painfully youthful, but it is enjoyable on its potential alone. Incredibly concentrated yet focused fruit lingered long on the finish. (95 points)
2010 Fattoria di Fèlsina Berardenga Chianti Classico Colonia Gran Selezione – The nose was rich, almost sappy and savory, with intense dark red fruits, plum, spices, tobacco, sweet herbs and earthy minerality. On the palate, it was youthfully firm, persistent and angular, with focused cherry and strawberry fruit, hints of cinnamon and minerals. The finish was firm with palate-coating minerality and dried red fruits. A wine of serious potential, yet many years away from its drinking window. (94 points)
2010 Rocca di Montegrossi Chianti Classico San Marcellino Gran Selezione – The nose showed black cherry and plum with soil-laden minerals, sweet floral and herbal tones, and a hint of cedar. On the palate, it was intense and structured yet balanced, showing tart berry and minerals before giving way to youthful tannin. The finish was long and structured, showing dried red fruit and mouth-coating minerality. The 2010 Vigneto San Marcellino was a very happy surprise for me, being a wine that I was totally new to and will look for again. (93 points)
2010 Marchesi Mazzei Chianti Classico Castello di Fonterutoli Gran Selezione – The nose was stunning and wonderfully fresh, showing bright cherry with dried flowers, pine, minerals and hints of dusty soil. It was youthfully angular on the palate, with dense textures ushering in flavors of pure black cherry with savory herbs. With time in the glass, this gained richness and flesh, yet with a brisk acid balance finishing on bitter berry tones. This is remarkably pretty, yet it’s still quite serious Chianti. (93 points)
2010 Antinori Chianti Classico Badia a Passignano Gran Selezione – The bouquet showed a pretty, brilliant fruit character with an airy freshness. Cherry and strawberry fruits mixed with hints of cedar and balsamic tones on the nose. It was refined and focused on the palate with silky-supple textures giving way to ripe strawberry and hints of spice. The finish was long with staying, tart red berry fruit, which turned fleshy and ripe before fading away. (92 points)
2010 Castello di Ama Chianti Classico San Lorenzo Gran Selezione – The nose was earthy with undergrowth and dark floral tones up front, followed by rich crushed raspberry, which brought it all together to form a very wild woodland persona. On the palate, it was finessed with tremendous energy, showing notes of strawberry, minerals and inner floral tones. Tannin mounted on the finish, leaving hints of dried strawberry and leather. (93 points)
2010 Vignamaggio Chianti Classico Castello di Monna Lisa Gran Selezione – At first slightly restrained, the nose began to bloom in the glass to reveal intense wild berry, sweet spice, and a hint of orange peel. It had an almost sticky quality, which I’m sorry to say reminded me of a Fruit Roll-Up. On the palate, it was dense and weighty with dark red fruits, herbal tones and burst of buzzing acidity. The long finish showed tobacco, savory cherry and cranberry. (90 points)
Click HERE, for Morrell’s selection of Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Article and Tasting Notes by: Eric Guido