1999 and 1998 Chianti

by Edward Beltrami

This article focuses on Chianti's 1999 vintage, which has begun to arrive in the U.S. marketplace in the last few months; it also includes numerous recently arrived 1998 Riservas and a few late-released 1997s. Since DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) statutes require that Riservas undergo a two-year aging period starting the January after the harvest, none of the 1999s reviewed on the following pages are Riservas. Most of the wines reviewed here are from the delimited Classico zone of the Chianti. There are a few exceptions, however, notably from Carmignano and the several Chianti sub-regions that flank the Classico area.

Recent Chianti vintages. Chianti is a vast region. Grapes are grown at altitudes ranging from 150 to 700 meters, with soil types, terrain and microclimatic conditions varying considerably. The experiences of individual estates in any given year can differ markedly, so it would be imprudent to talk about the influence of climatic conditions on a Chianti harvest except in general terms. What follows, therefore, is a composite culled from conversations with a number of producers throughout the region, as well as from the tastings I have done to date.

To put the 1999 vintage in perspective it is useful to recall what happened in 1997. Many producers consider '97 to be a great vintage because the capricious sangiovese grape ripened fully, in terms of both sugar levels and phenolic maturity. The long hot summer was punctuated by sporadic rain showers that prevented the drought conditions of the succeeding year from occurring, and the harvest began fully 10 to 15 days ahead of schedule in most places, with a crop of healthy grapes and concentrated musts. (An April frost that reduced yields also helped increase concentration in '97.) The problem in '97, if there is one, is that some growers risked sopra-maturita (overripeness), so early picking of most varieties was essential. Cool fermentations and reduced macerations practiced by a number of producers led to rich and balanced wines in most, but not all, cases. In retrospect, some '97s come across as overripe or alcoholic, or with somewhat muddled aromas and flavors.

In 1999 the weather was quite similar, with July and August hot spells relieved by frequent but brief sprinkles. However, favorable growing conditions in the spring had led to an abundant crop, and cluster-thinning during the summer was essential. Wide diurnal variations in temperature in the late summer encouraged a gradual rise in sugar levels, leading to the ripening of grapes with good acid/sugar balance and fresh aromas. At least some growers believe that 1999 offers more classically proportioned wines of greater finesse than their '97s.

1998, on the other hand, provided a more difficult growing season. The grapes were beset by molds and disease from warm, humid conditions in the late spring. This wasfollowed by a long stretch of drought and very high temperatures that stressed the vines unmercifully in some locations during the summer months, slowing the maturation of most varieties (drip irrigation is prohibited by DOCG regulations). Then came rains in late September, just prior to and during harvest ("a little of everything happened," says winemaker Marco Pallanti of Castello di Ama). Across the region, there were problems with unevenly ripe grapes showing a degree of greenness and less mature tannins than desired. In addition, some sangiovese was diluted by the rain, although earlier-maturing varieties such as merlot were spared. It is common, therefore, to see higher percentages of complementary grapes included in Chianti blends than was generally the case in the two years bracketing 1998.

Those estates that rigorously selected their grapes at harvest to eliminate damaged or poorly ripened clusters made better wines, and properties at lower altitudes in the western and southern fringes of the Classico region, such as Castelnuovo Berardenga, Barberino Val d'Elsa and Poggibonsi, where sangiovese tended to ripen before the rains, were also at an advantage. In spite of these problems some notable wines were produced; at least one estate, Castello di Volpaia, considers 1998 to be a marginally better vintage than either 1999 or 1997. Indeed, as can be seen in the reviews below, a number of 1998 wines, especially those for which grapes were carefully selected (as is more commonly done for a riserva than for a normale), score as high as or higher than those from 1999. Overall, 1998 is a good to very good vintage for sangiovese-based blends and even excellent for IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica, essentially the so-called super-Tuscans) wines that utilize sizable percentages of other varieties, especially cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Generally speaking, the 1998 wines are softer and more suitable for near-term consumption than those from the very good to excellent 1999 harvest, whose concentrated wines are better candidates for cellaring.

Changes in the ChiantiThree noteworthy developments affecting Chianti have taken place in the last decade. The first has to do with climate. Since 1992, winters in Tuscany have been consistently milder and summers warmer, on average, than in any comparable stretch of time that anyone can recall. The earlier flowering and prolonged warm weather have allowed sangiovese to mature fully even in high-altitude areas of the northern Chianti that are generally considered marginal for this slow-ripening variety. As a consequence, an increasing number of 100%-varietal sangiovese wines have been appearing in the marketplace.

A second factor shaping the Chianti of today is legislation. In 1996 the original DOCG (and earlier DOC) statutes were modified to concur with the shifting realities within this region. Until 1996 the production code stipulated that Chianti had to consist of a blend of sangiovese together with other varieties that included white grapes. This formula was intended to add body and a degree of softness to sangiovese in less than satisfactory vintages and to mask differences in terrain and microclimate so as to produce a marketable product of uniform standards. However, quality-minded producers felt this was a formula for mediocrity, and what once passed for Chianti was indeed often thin and acerbic. About three decades ago a few restless producers started to circumvent the regulatory strictures, and a new category of vini da tavola emerged that were technically no longer Chianti. Some of these wines included sizable amounts of non-indigenous grapes like cabernet sauvignon, and the best of them, generically dubbed super-Tuscans, redefined the parameters of Tuscan winemaking.

As in Bordeaux, where each chateau grows a mix of grapes in its vineyards, most Chianti estates cultivate several varieties. However, the 1996 DOCG law is quite specific as to the percentages of these grapes that can be used, and this is where the similarity to Bordeaux ends. Depending on conditions during harvest, a Bordeaux estate can use more or less of the varieties it owns, but in Chianti sangiovese can never comprise less than 75% of the blend (pending legislation would increase the minimum to 80%) or cannaiolo more than 10%; all other complementary red varieties cannot exceed 15%. While this ensures that sangiovese remains the backbone of Chianti, it reduces the flexibility of winemakers to tune the final blend to the vicissitudes of a particular harvest.

Today, the permitted complementary grapes include international varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot, in addition to the more traditional indigenous grapes colorino, mammolo, and malvasia nera. Consequently, many IGT wines that previously fell outside the confines of DOCG can now be reclassified as Chianti. Though some estates have begun to avail themselves of this opportunity, not everyone is rushing to do this because the IGT designation (and the continuing allure of the super-Tuscan) allows the wines to fetch higher prices. Nevertheless, there is a growing sentiment among the producers I talked to that the IGT super-Tuscan category has done its job of lending credibility to the wines of Chianti and elevating their status in the eyes of the consumer. These producers feel that changes in vineyard practices and clonal selection have improved to the point where Chianti can now stand on its own as the flagship wine of the region; that is, they no longer must rely on the moniker super-Tuscan as a prop. Francesco Ricasoli, who heads the Ricasoli wines estate, is quite emphatic about this. "We have reached the point where Chianti now unquestionably means what super-Tuscan meant a few years ago," he asserts.

The third important factor influencing Chianti in recent years is the project Chianti Classico 2000, a ten-year effort sponsored by the Consorzio del Marchio Storico. Fourteen experimental vineyard sites were planted throughout the Classico zone to determine how different clones of sangiovese would respond to a diversity of terrains and vineyard protocols over a span of time. Four low-yielding clones of this variety have now been identified as especially favorable for producing wines with greater concentration, more complex aromatics and darker color. This conclusion has been reached at a time when a number of estates have begun to replant their vineyards to higher densities. The new clones are now available to be grafted onto existing rootstocks, replacing the older, more vigorous R-10 clone. Diversity is the key, however, and a mix of these genetic variants in the same vineyard is the recommended practice. Indeed, some estates unknowingly had percentages of the newly identified clones in their vineyards already, which may partially account for differences in quality from estate to estate.

What should Chianti be? Sangiovese is very sensitive to where it is grown and therefore reflects its terroir in a pronounced manner, much like pinot noir or nebbiolo. The experience of Castello di Ama, for instance, is that sangiovese cultivated in contiguous plots will exhibit distinctly different nuances. This suggests that the cru concept of Burgundy is probably apt for Chianti Classicos that are wholly or at least predominantly based on sangiovese, though any attempt at such a classification of vineyard sites is still in the future. The idiosyncratic but brilliant winemaker Gianfranco Soldera in Montalcino told me that the finesse, harmony, and earthy/spicy aromatics of a top-notch Brunello (whose sole constituent is sangiovese) can be compared to the characteristics of a fine Burgundy after a few years in bottle. Not only do his own wines confirm this but there are more than a few Chiantis that exhibit the same qualities, as my tasting notes reveal.

Unfortunately, however, the subtle aromatics of sangiovese can be masked by excessive use of new oak or by blending in an assertive grape like cabernet sauvignon, something that is now permissible under the new DOCG guidelines. The issue here, at least in the eyes of some producers, is that of tipicita, which means that it showcases the territory from which the grapes are cultivated. There is a risk of denaturing Chianti in order to produce a style of wine that will appeal to the international consumer. No one is more outspoken about this danger than Roberto Stucchi, owner-winemaker at Badia a Coltibuono. "Wine should convey a sense of place. Chianti Classico must preserve the identity that separates it from the increasing globalization of wine elsewhere," Stucchi. "I don't want to play someone else's game."

Most of the producers I have spoken with in recent months agree that tipicita requires a respect for terroir and that for Chianti this is best done through sangiovese. A palpable signature of Chianti made entirely or predominantly from sangiovese is grip and verve that come from a combination of elevated tannins and lively acids. Distinctive Chianti soil tones include earthy aromas that blossom on the palate as dark fruits, hints of violets, spice, and tobacco, and what the Italians call sottobosco (underbrush), which conjures up wild berries and gamey scents reminiscent of truffle. In the better wines at least, where cellar manipulations are kept to a minimum, these qualities are exhibited to varying degrees, depending on the individual terroirs. The main challenge confronting winemakers in this region today is how to maintain the integrity, the typicity, of Chianti while meeting the expectations of palates honed on deeply extracted New World wines where upfront aromas, lush textures and vanilla-tinged flavors of new oak are the rule.