The Chianti Classico Masters, featuring the first UK blind tasting of the Gran Selezione tier, did justice to the often overlooked Italian region.
It’s hard to ascertain exactly why, but when the world’s great wine regions are discussed, Chianti Classico does not always get mentioned. Other parts of Italy regularly feature, above all the country’s three fine wine “Bs” – Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello – but somehow Chianti Classico tends to get overlooked.
Now, that could be because this historic area is associated with the much larger and more variable Chianti DOCG.
On the other hand, it could be two to something else hampering Chianti Classico’s fine wine reputation, possibly something connected to the region’s image internationally.
However, following a tasting of the area’s top wines in the inaugural Chianti Classico Masters, which included the UK’s first ever blind assessment of the new Gran Selezione uppermost layer, it was clear such oversight should not have anything to do with quality. Indeed, the judges, who were expecting a tiring day of tasting tannic wine, left excited by the consistently high standard of the entries. In short, it was clear that this is a region making distinctive and very fine wines.
As with all tastings in the drinks business Masters series, the judges were selected not only for their experienced palates, but their expertise in the relevant region or wine style. So, for the Chianti Classico Masters, we lined up Tom Bruce-Gardyne, a former wine buyer and current wine writer specialising in Italy; Alex Canneti, former brand manager for Antinori in the UK, longtime Italian wine buyer and today’s off-trade director at Berkmann Wine Cellars; and Roberto Della Pietra, Italian native and former head sommelier at Clos Maggiore, home to one of London’s best and longest wine lists, as well as the chosen venue for this tasting.
Having sampled over 50 wines from sub- £10 to well over £30, one thing was apparent: these Chianti Classicos were precisely and deliciously Sangiovese-based wines, even if other varieties were present in the blends. In other words, the wines were all reflective of the region’s hallmark grape, with its naturally high acidity, strong tannins, and flavours of ripe red fruits and sour cherries. This ensured that each of the samples in the tasting had a pleasingly Italianate food-friendly character which results from that combination of bright fruit and firm tannin, despite the range of styles – which included everything from young to old, big-to-medium bodied, and those with and without new oak, along with varying proportions of international grapes.
Climbing the ladder
Something else that pleased the judges was the apparent quality difference between tiers as the tasting moved up from Chianti Classico Riserva and then to the new Gran Selezione. In particular, the latter classification, introduced in February 2014 as a new layer to the Chianti Classico quality pyramid, was clearly home to the most impressive wines of the day. Although the Riserva category saw many high-scoring wines, proportionately it was the Gran Selezione level that did best: from 11 entries there were four silvers, four golds and one master – the highest accolade, given only to wines scoring an average of 95 points or above.
Although the new classification has arrived amid controversy, not least accusations that it represents little more than a slightly riper and longer-aged Riserva, rather than a selection based on site, the tasting did show the superiority of Gran Selezione – as well as the consistently high standard within this tier (which may reflect the fact that these wines are taste-tested by a team of winemakers in the region before they can carry the classification).
So, importantly, the tasting highlighted the rising quality of Chianti Classico as one moves up through the hierarchy quality. This may not sound revelatory, but it’s common to find that more expensive and more rarified wines don’t actually give better results. But, in this case, for the most part, those entries made with a selective approach were, in fact, the better wines.
The judges: (LR) Alex Canetti, Berkmann Wine Cellars, Tom Bruce-Gardyne, wine writer and Italian specialist, Patrick Schmitt MW, editor-in-chief, the drinks business, Roberto Della Pietra, former head sommelier
About the competition
The wines featured in this list were selected by a panel of experienced tasters at the inaugural Masters Chianti Classico by the drinks business, which was held on Thursday March 12 at Clos Maggiore restaurant in London’s Covent Garden.
All the entries were tasted blind during the course of one day using Schott Zwiesel glasses supplied by Wine Sorted.
Each sample was scored and discussed before the medal was awarded, with the top Chianti Classicos given Gold, Silver or Bronze medals. Meanwhile, those whose quality was judged to be outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Chianti Classico Master
About the Gran Selezione classification
Officially approved by the European Commission in February 2014 after a three year process, the Gran Selezione label can be applied to estate-grown, Sangiovese-dominated wines from the 2010 vintage onwards which meet upgraded meet minimum criteria concerning alcohol, extraction and the maturation process.
No purchased grapes can be used for Gran Selezione (meaning “Great Selection”), and the minimum alcohol is 13% compared to 12.5% for the Riserva, while the wine must be aged for 30 months, compared to 24 for Riserva, although there are no rules around methods of ageing.
Like Riserva, the minimum proportion of Sangiovese must be 80%, allowing for the inclusion of international varieties such as Syrah or Merlot, as well as local grapes such as Canaiolo or Colorino. However, some producers have opted to release pure Sangiovese wines as Gran Selezione, such as Antinori’s Badia a Passignano, which gained the title of top wine of the tasting.
Finally, and somewhat controversially, as long as all the grapes for Gran Selezione are sourced from the same owner’s property, there is no requirement for the wines to come from a single vineyard. So, should a large producer with extensive landholdings choose to blend grapes from across the entire Chianti Classico zone, the resulting wine could still be classified as a Gran Selezione.
Over the following pages you can see the results by category, or click here for a review of the top 11 Chianti Classicos of the tasting. While all that’s left to say here is that if the judges in this competition had ever been guilty of forgetting Chianti Classico, this tasting had ensured that the DOCG would feature prominently in any future discussion about the world’s key wine regions.