Chianti Classico & Neighbors: Looking at the 2020s and 2019s
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | JULY 19, 2022
This year’s releases from Chianti Classico are a bit of a mixed bag. Most of that is attributable to the natural diversity of this large appellation and the unevenness of the 2019s. Even so, there are a lot of gorgeous wines in this report, many of them entry-level Chianti Classicos that offer superb quality for the money. As always, this report focuses on Chianti Classico, but also includes wines from neighboring appellations.
Lorenza Sebasti and Marco Pallanti made some of the greatest wines I have ever tasted at Castello di Ama.
A First Look at 2020
An early bout of intensely cold weather that reached frost levels in some places was the first significant event of the 2020 growing season. “Budbreak was especially challenging; we lost 15% of the production right away,” Filippo Mazzei explained at Fonterutoli. There was quite a bit of rain in May. Vines responded by setting a lower crop, which turned out to be a positive later on.
"We had one very hot week in the middle of September that accelerated our harvest. It felt like the grapes might dehydrate on the vine. That was followed by heavy rain and cold weather,” Luca Martini di Cigala told me at San Giusto a Rentennano. “Our harvest started on September 30, about a week earlier than 2019 and 2021,” explained Martino Manetti at Montevertine. Some estates saw a very condensed harvest, as was the case at Gagliole, where all the fruit came in during one week as opposed to the more typical 15-20 days. “Most of the year was marked by consistently warm weather, but with no shock events," Giuseppe Mazzocolin recounted at Fèlsina. "We were fortunate to have good ventilation throughout the most critical periods.”
Tasting a few 2020s at San Giusto a Rentennano, Gaiole.
In tasting, the 2020s are rich, sumptuous wines. Most of the 2020s in this report are the straight Chianti Classicos that are often referred to as Annata. The best of these wines show terrific depth, gorgeous purity of fruit and fully ripe tannins. The top 2020s have not been bottled yet, so it is too soon to have a clear view of the vintage, but the first signs are quite encouraging. Today, my impression is that 2020 will turn out to be better and more consistent than the 2019s.
The 2019 Growing Season & Wines
Many estates are releasing their 2019 Riservas and other top bottlings this year. It is an uneven vintage marked by several shock events. Some regions were affected by hail. Heavy rain in May extended vegetative growth and resulted in a late-ish harvest. For readers who also follow California wines, these conditions are, interestingly, quite similar to those seen in Napa and Sonoma that year. Yields are on the high side. Alcohols are on the lower side, while tannins in some wines are not fully ripe.
Giovanni Poggiali and Giuseppe Mazzocolin at Fèlsina
The 2019 Chianti Classicos are generally mid-weight wines, with good aromatic intensity. Some will try to frame the lower alcohols as ‘classic’ but to me many wines feel a bit light, with grainy tannins and elements of rusticity that lurk beneath. I must confess, I liked the vintage more last year, probably because the sample size was more heavily focused on a small number of top estates. Broader tasting reveals the 2019s to be light in structure and uneven in quality, notwithstanding the presence of many gorgeous wines.
Gran Selezione – An Update
By all accounts, the Gran Selezione category continues to gain traction. From my point of view, the biggest challenge for Gran Selezione is that the tasting panels that approve the wines are created from a large pool of tasters. In other words, for political reasons, these wines are not evaluated by a small group of tasters that stays the same, or even mostly the same, across sessions. That means there is always going to be some variability in the results. Once again, this year I tasted Gran Selezione wines that can’t possibly qualify for any region’s top designation. Each of those wines does immense damage to Chianti Classico as a region and to Gran Selezione as a supposed quality tier. How do these wines – some of them clearly flawed – get approved in the first place? Are the tasters incompetent, or are the political pressures to approve wines too great? Rather than focus on increasing the number of Gran Seleziones that are made, the producer’s consortium would be far better off insisting on a higher level of quality from some of its members.
Cement fermentation tanks at Ormanni, Barberino Val d'Elsa.
What is the Role of Criticism?
Readers will note that scores for a number of top wineries and wines are lower than normal. In most cases, that is attributable to a weaker vintage (2019), but there are also some wines that are simply disappointing. The reviews and scores reflect that. The role of the wine critic is to be a wine critic. That means recognizing exceptional quality when merited, but also noting underperforming wines. No estate or wine starts with any sort of advantage or receives preferential treatment. Our role is not to be an outsourced public relations firm that produces marketing material for the wine trade, but rather to give you, the reader, unbiased opinions, regardless of the pedigree of any estate, whether an upstart making their first great wines, or an iconic estate that hits a bump in the road, or anything in between. I believe the reviews in this report bear that out.
Isole e Olena – The Big Picture
The sale of Isole e Olena to EPI Group was on many producers’ minds when I visited the region this past June. Paolo De Marchi’s contributions in building the reputation of Chianti Classico and his estate can’t possibly be overstated. He is, and will always be, one of the icons of the appellation. I don’t know anything about the situation other than what has been reported, but the issues surrounding this sale are far larger, and far more worrisome, than the dynamics of any single family or estate.
To be sure, family owned businesses are always challenging, regardless of sector. That is especially true when one person essentially does all the work, but only receives a proportional share of the rewards. It’s one of the reasons why so many winemakers look for outside projects; they understandably want to see all of the benefits of their work rather than share them with passive shareholders who don’t contribute anything on a daily basis.
The strength of family-owned wineries is Italy’s greatest treasure vis-à-vis other regions, but also its greatest liability. So many of the best wines in Italy are made by winemakers who are more than winemakers, they are craftspeople with a vision, people who make wine out of deep personal convictions rather than slaves to market trends. That said, generational succession remains the single biggest challenge for family-owned wineries. Many proprietors have shown they either don’t want to or don’t have an interest in (or both) grooming a successor.
That in and of itself would not be an insurmountable challenge were it not for another major problem. And that is that the Italian university system does not produce a steady stream of well-trained young professionals who do internships around the world before settling into positions that offer significant growth opportunities, as is the case in France, the United States and probably other regions that I am personally less familiar with. Quite simply, opportunities for young professionals are few and far between. The opportunities for women are even fewer, but that is an important topic that deserves to be addressed on its own. The idea of entrusting a world-class estate to a young winemaker or estate director, as happens elsewhere in the world, is unthinkable in Italy. Why?
Because there is no structure of technical support that can allow that to happen. Looking at two regions I spend a lot of time in, Napa Valley and Bordeaux, it is not unusual for a young winemaker, from outside the family, to be given the reins of an important estate. That person has, without exception, gained considerable work experience prior, naturally. And then they count on a team of mentors and consultants, some formal relationships, some more informal, as guides.
Maurizia di Napoli, with Castello dei Rampolla's terraced D'Alceo vineyards in the background.
The big-name consultants in France and the United States, including Rolland, Derenoncourt, Melka and others, have mentored scores of young winemakers who are then placed at top estates. In time, those winemakers grow, develop their own philosophies, flourish and then influence the next generation. None of the top Italian consultants – not (Riccardo) Cotarella, Ferrini, Bernabei, Lanati, Antonini, Pagli, Scaglione – have trained a group of disciples who in time can grow into important roles. We can find one exception, the exception that proves the rule as they say, and that is with Giulio Gambelli and Federico Staderini. Overall, though, there is very little knowledge transfer, virtually no structure and no real organization, especially compared to global peers. Some consultants have created groups and companies, but the top people still follow the elite estates. These consultants are all immensely talented, but they are all one-man shows.
So, when a family finds itself in a situation where no one in the next generation wants to run the business and suitors appear with what seems like large amounts of cash, the choices are either to sell or to carry on, but without the leadership of the former principal, which almost always leads to a decrease in quality.
There is a reason why the big multinationals have snapped up properties across the world and yet made very few investments in Italy, and that is a lack of people. Who is going to run these wineries? Sure, some will say Italy does not have many elite brands or that the family culture is too entrenched and too complicated to deal with. I suppose both are true to some extent. One can also argue that the lack of foreign investment in Italy is a plus, because it avoids the potential for wineries to become corporatized and/or attempts to massively premiumize brands. Again, these are fair points. At the end of the day, though, it comes down to people, and Italy simply does not have enough top-tier professionals.
In cases where there is no natural successor within the family (and there are many), ideally Italy’s iconic wineries would remain family owned but professionally managed by outsiders, such that the families could live off their business and participate in the appreciation of vineyard holdings and other real estate assets over multiple generations, rather than find themselves in the position where the least bad option is to sell. But that requires foresight and the right people, both of which are, sadly, in short supply.
The future looks bright at Fontodi. Giovanni Manetti (center), flanked by son Bernardo and nephew Corso.
Alessandro Masnaghetti’s Latest Opus
Readers will want to be on the lookout for Alessandro Masnaghetti’s latest opus, Chianti Classico: The Complete Atlas of the UGA Vineyards. When I saw the final draft recently I immediately thought: I might as well stop writing about wine now, as I don’t have anything like this to contribute. I am not kidding or exaggerating. Looking through the pages, I was not only blown away but also deeply inspired. Maybe if I work really hard and apply myself, maybe one day I can write something that approaches this level, I thought.
When it comes to Alessandro Masnaghetti and his work, I am not at all unbiased, so let’s get that out of the way. Since 2015, Alessandro and I have worked closely on a series of California vineyard maps. Since then, I have had a front row seat to this work. I have seen, firsthand, workdays that start at the crack of dawn and go late into the evening, often seven days a week. Days off are few and far between. Alessandro’s attention to detail can only be described as maniacal. But none of that would matter if the final product wasn’t good, and it is more than good, it is profoundly great.
Chianti Classico: The Complete Atlas of the UGA Vineyards examines the new UGAs (Unità Geografiche Aggiuntive), Chianti Classico’s version of place names, with historical background, in-depth information on soils and detailed maps for each UGA. The English translation is by none other than Burton Anderson. Alessandro’s earlier books were translated by the late Daniel Thomases. As much as I admire and respect Thomases, his translations were literal to the point of often feeling unnatural or rigid. In my view, Anderson does a better job of capturing the spirit of Alessandro’s texts.
Chianti Classico: The Complete Atlas of the UGA Vineyards represents a seminal moment for Italian wine. Think about it. How many regions in the world have been covered with this amount of detail with regards to soil, geology and history of sites? Bordeaux, Burgundy and perhaps Champagne, but across numerous books and maps, and of course Piedmont through Alessandro’s work. Certainly there are no books like this on any American winegrowing region, at least not that I am aware of. But this book is more than that. In Piedmont, for example, there is a collection of work that existed prior to Alessandro’s books. One can say those treatises were incomplete or not specific enough, but some body of knowledge existed with regards to soils, geologies and there was a pretty good idea of the location of top vineyard sites too. None of this has ever existed in Chianti Classico. Until now. Alessandro has written the first definitive text on Chianti Classico. There are only a handful of people, producers included, who possess this knowledge, but only one person who could put it all together. It's a book that instantly elevates the reputation of Chianti Classico and places it among the elite wine regions of the world. Chianti Classico: The Complete Atlas of the UGA Vineyards is a hundred years ahead of its time. It is one of the most far-reaching and historically significant texts ever written about wine and certainly about Italian wine.
For these reasons I am convinced Chianti Classico: The Complete Atlas of the UGA Vineyards is Alessandro’s masterpiece; it is his Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, his Kind of Blue, his The Wall.
We will be publishing a short excerpt soon that will give readers a good idea of what to expect. In the meantime, readers in the Unites States can learn more here, while those outside the United States can consult Alessandro’s site www.enogea.it.
This striking view from Le Cinciole, Panzano, shows the Camalaione vineyards in the foreground and Greve's Lamole district in the background.
As Vinous readers know, I have long been a fan of these wines for their extraordinary ability to convey the essence of variety, place and vintage. Our coverage continues later this year with a vertical of Felsina’s Fontalloro from my archive, plus a recent vertical of Monsanto’s Il Poggio back to 1962. As good as the most iconic wines are, the best straight Chianti Classicos can also be terrific, as witnessed by a recent smaller vertical of San
Giusto a Rentennano’s Chianti Classico.
I tasted all of the wines in this report during a visit to Chianti Classico in June 2022, plus a few additional tastings in the weeks that followed in New York City. A few wines had not been bottled at the time of my tastings. I will add reviews for those wines at the nearest opportunity.
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