Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
For many years, Chianti Classico has wanted little to do with Chianti. From 1932 until 1996, Chianti Classico was legally a subzone of Chianti. Chianti Classico, however, felt and continues to feel that Chianti blemishes its image. The overall standard of quality of Chianti is lower than that of Chianti Classico. Moreover, the lower average pricing of Chianti makes it difficult for Chianti Classico producers to get the profit margin that they either need or deserve. I have heard members of the Chianti Classico wine industry say that they would simply like Chianti to disappear. On this score, the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium did the best it could when in 1996 it engineered a distinct and separate DOCG for Chianti Classico. From that point on, the Chianti DOCG had a hole in its appellation map, that hole being the Chianti Classico DOCG.
Internally, too, there have been divisions. As of 1987, the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium divided itself into two organizations. One bore its name. It controlled and regulated DOCG wine production for subscribing wine producers. It also protected the use of the title "Chianti Classico" worldwide for all Chianti Classico produers. The other was the Historic Chianti Classic Brand Consortium (Consorzio del Marchio Storico) which reserved for itself the use of the prestigious and well recognized black rooster symbol and conducted promotions for members which had to be also members of the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium. Chianti Classico producers therefore had the option of subscribing to the Chianti Classico Wine Consortion or to the combination of it and the Historic Chianti Classic Brand Consortium. Those who wanted to bypass these organizations could, by law, apply to local chambers of commerce for alternative regulatory and control functions for DOCG certification. Within the membership of the Historic Chianti Classic Brand Consortium, there was a schism of perspective between large bottlers (merchants and cooperatives) and small estate producers. The cost of subscription to membership was largely based on volume of production. The greater financial contribution gave the large bottlers more power in determining policies. Several high-profile boutique estates shunned the Historic Chianti Classic Brand Consortium, because of this lack of representation and because they did not want to share the promotional stage with large bottlers, who are associated with down-market sales.
Liberatore explained to me how a legislative decree of 2OO3 suddenly changed the political and regulatory landscape of Chianti Classico, putting it on a course that would very likely unite producers under one symbol, the black rooster. Because the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium had been by far the most important controller and regulator of DOCG regulations, governmental legislators selected it to be the sole body with this role. First though, the consortium had to finish a successful trial period, which it did in August of 2OO6. Producers in Chianti Classico could refuse membership in this new, more powerful, Consortium. Nonetheless, even these non-members would be bound by their controls and regulations. It is obvious to see that now there was a powerful incentive to join.
The new consortium would also be able to conduct generic promotions of Chianti Classico wines. Participation in these promotions would be open to all members. Faced with the new promotional mission of the new consortium, the Historic Chianti Classic Brand Consortium faced two options: either to become an independent, privately funded marketing company or become absorbed into the new promotional wing of the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium. As of June 2OO5, the Historic Chianti Classic Brand Consortium dissolved itself. Its employees and offices were absorbed into Chianti Classico Wine Consortium. It conferred use of the black rooster trademark to the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium. The black rooster would now assume a perch on all Chianti Classico DOCG pink neck labels.
The effect of these changes has been enormous and sweeping. The most important result is unity and simplicity. Only one organization remains to do the important work of regulating, controlling and officially representing the interests of all Chianti Classico producers. The ranks of the new consortium have swelled to more than 6OO members, 35O of them bottlers. The members today represent 95% of the production of Chianti Classico. Many of the estates large and small that had refused to be part of the pre-2OO5 Chianti Classico Wine Consortium have become part of the new one. Symbolic of this change was the July 2OO6 election of a new president, Marco Palanti, co-manager of Castello di Ama. From 1993 to 2OO5, Castello di Ama, one of the most prestigious wine estates in Chianti Classico, had preferred to remain outside the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium. Palanti, an enologist and university professor, is known for his uncompromising efforts to express terroir in the Ama wines. His presidency symbolizes the new direction of the consortium. Marchesi Antinori, who many believe to be the most important producer in Tuscany, remains the significant holdout from membership. Liberatore told me that he believes that the Antinori firm is on the verge of joining the new consortium.
Liberatore indicated that the merger has streamlined communication and eliminated duplication. The new consortium is charged with monitoring compliance with the regulations of the Chianti Classico DOCG from vineyard to bottling. Liberatore told me that since the new consortium has begun inspections, 5O% of the producers have been inspected. He hoped that the job would be complete by the end of the 2OO7. Once this is achieved, the goal would be to inspect one fifth of the producers every year. The most significant inspections are those which make sure that 8O% of the vineyards are planted to Sangiovese. The 8O% minimum reflects recent legislation raising the minimum percentage by 5 percent. Many vineyards are suspected to be out of compliance. During the 198Os, many producers had planted Cabernet Sauvignon in their vineyards as a means of giving Chianti Classico wine a more international organoleptic profile. During the 199Os, many more rushed to plant Merlot, which enriched Chianti Classico wine with less impact on its aroma. Merlot is also easier to ripen than Cabernet Sauvignon.
In September, I met one of the new consortium inspectors. He confided that a well-known Chianti Classico producer was forced to declassify many vineyards to IGT production. The reason was too much Merlot and too little Sangiovese. The inspector's comment reminded me of a movement of a small group of producers which, some years back, proposed the creation of a DOCG "Super" Chianti Classico category. This proposed category would allow producers much greater varietal freedom in determining the proportions of varieties in the Chianti Classico blend. They proposed that the minimum required percentage of Sangiovese in the blend be substantially lowered. Their motive, they claimed, was to emulate territory over variety in the sense that producers would be free to maximize the potential of the terroir by using whatever variety they pleased within those allowed for use within the region of Tuscany. As a consequence, they argued, the best wines of the Chianti Classico zone would bear the name of Chianti Classico, instead of the fantasy names of the supertuscan category. The Super Chianti Classico initiative, had it been realized, would have legalized the vineyards now being rejected by the inspectors.
Beyond internal regulation and controls, the merger, Liberatore added, would enable consumers to quickly recognize and understand Chianti Classico wines. Consumers would now be able to instantly identify all Chianti Classico wines by the well-known black rooster symbol on the neck label. Furthermore, by the end of 2OO7, an identification number would be printed on the DOCG neck label. Consumers could enter this number on the Consortium website (www.chianticlassico.com) and view results of chemical and sensory analyses of their wine as well as the number of bottles produced and other data.
The new consortium has been working on another of its mandates, protection of the use of the name, "Chianti Classico". The former Chianti Classico Wine Consortium had requested registration of the Chianti Classico name internationally and in Italy. In December 2OO5, the Italian Patent and Trademark Office reported that the registration process had been completed. The new consortium is continuing this work. On March 3O, 2OO6, thirty foreign countries, including the US, had validated the mark. Rowing in the opposite direction, Liberatore recounted a conference he had attended in Washington, DC, in March 2OO7 in which the European Union awarded Napa Valley a Denomination of Origin.
When I visited Chianti Classico in February 2OO5, the spirits of producers had been at a low point because the bulk price of Chianti Classico grapes had sunk to unsustainable levels. The price was between 12O to 14O euro per quintal, a price which made it difficult for grape farmers to make a living. The consortium stepped in and called for a 2O% reduction of yield of the generous 2OO4 vintage. This action helped stabilize the oversupply situation. The market for Chianti Classico has gradually strengthened in subsequent years. This was particularly the case in the US, which in 2OO6 became the first market for Chianti Classico ahead of even the home Italian market. The popularity of Chianti Classico in the US is remarkable given the deteriorating exchange rates which have caused retail prices here of European wines to increase and all margins to be reduced. Overall there has also been a 1O% improvement in both the domestic and export prices. 2OO6 statistics showed an increase of 13% in world sales over those in 2OO5. Liberatore remarked that the bulk price has risen steadily to about 3OO euro per quintal. He spoke of improvements in the German and UK markets. There has been an explosive boom in several new markets, particularly Russia. Paolo De Marchi of Isole e Olena told me that large sales and excellent margins can be made there provided that a producer develops a relationship with an honest and diligent Russian agent or importer. Liberatore mentioned that Chianti Classico producers are now more "confident" to enter the Indian market. There have been "some successful entries" into the Chinese market. Other rapidly improving markets are Poland and Denmark.
The former Chianti Classico Wine Consortium began the Chianti Classico 2OOO project in 1988. Now its work is finished and the results can benefit all Chianti Classico producers. It studied clonal selections of Sangiovese and other indigenous grapes, rootstocks, planting density, vine-training systems, and soil management methods. With a majority of the old vineyards planted in the 197Os now replanted with the benefit of the Chianti Classico 2OOO research, the new generation of Chianti Classico wines can express Sangiovese in a style more easily appreciated by the world market. The new wines will be deeper in color with more texture in the mid-palate. Liberatore believes that producers will rely more and more on Sangiovese and less and less on supporting "international" varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. He predicts that the Riserva category will become more important and will grab attention and market share away from the supertuscan category.
The 2OO7 harvest, he proclaims, is "ottimo" (great). On this score, I can vouch for him since my fifth Winemaking Workshop in Tuscany in mid-September harvested Sangiovese grapes and left Tuscany ten days later with a very fine infant Sangiovese in barrel. An unseasonably mild and dry winter initially had caused concern. The vines however made it safely through April when they are usually vulnerable to frost damage. Rain in June and August combined with excellent weather during the harvest period helped assure a Sangiovese crop which came in fully-ripe and free of disease. Combined with the fine harvest of 2OO6, we now have back-to-back stellar vintages of Chianti Classico to look forward to. What better starting point for the new unified Chianti Classico Wine Consortium!