Chianti has officially gone bling. The once-humble red that came in straw-flask bottles famously repurposed as bohemian candelabras by proto-hipsters in the 1960s is scaling the price heights of Europe's most esteemed wines. How does $200 a bottle grab you?
Mercifully, that's still far from the $16 to $30 that most Chiantis sell for. But it's what you'll pay in Canada for Felsina Colonia Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, one of a new class of reds from Tuscany's best-known growing area known as Chianti Classico. Colonia was among the high-priced highlights at a series of trade tastings in North America to promote a newly christened designation at the top of the Chianti pyramid.
"Gran Selezione" is sort of analogous to France's Grand Cru, intended to signify small-lot wines handcrafted from the region's most prized vineyards. Within the Tuscan pecking order, it's a notch above Riserva and two notches above standard Chianti Classico. (Wines simply labelled "Chianti," by the way, come from vineyards outside the central "Classico" zone and tend to be found at the bottom of the price pyramid. Still with me? )
Many of the new wines highlighted at the travelling Chiantipalooza are slated to cost well north of $50. The message: Chianti Classico is not just for you and me and Monday-night pizza in front of The Bachelorette; it's for bond traders and A-list rappers, too.
The wines I sampled were excellent if varied in profile, from tight and bright to smooth and voluptuous.
I'd place the superb Felsina Colonia 2009 in the tight-and-bright camp. Made from 100-per-cent sangiovese, Chianti's principal red grape, it's grown north of Siena on a tiny hillside surrounded by forest. After isolating the best bunches from that vineyard (and setting aside the rest of the fruit for less expensive wines), Felsina came up with only enough berries in 2009 to yield 3,000 bottles. That's less wine than I've seen in some private collectors' basements.
Ironically, Felsina's chief executive and owner, Giovanni Poggiali, who had planted the Colonia vineyard on that rocky hill in 1993 in tribute to his grandfather, voted to oppose the new Gran Selezione designation, which took four years to grind its way through the Tuscan wine bureaucracy. He told me that a new designation on top of the existing Riserva tier might confuse consumers already distracted by too much label jargon. I'm inclined to agree.
But he hopes the move will encourage his fellow producers to consider legalizing another proposed amendment that's much closer to his heart. He dreams of distinguishing his own corner of Tuscany – Castelnuovo Berardenga, just north of Siena – on Felsina's labels, echoing the micro-specific appellation laws of certain regions in France. In hallowed Burgundy, for example, producers are permitted to list village names such as Pommard or Volnay as opposed to just Bourgogne, to differentiate their soil and wine style from the village down the road.
So, in yet another irony, if Poggiali's dream comes true, there will be more, not fewer, words on Chianti labels to give consumers pause – and presumably to drive prices up further in line with the best Burgundies and Bordeaux.
Most of the wines at the recent North American tastings won't be released in Canada until later this year and even then only in tiny quantities.
For fun, I stopped at a Toronto store to see what $200 could get me in the way of more affordable Chianti. I scooped 12 bottles into my cart more or less at random and was reasonably pleased with the results, most of which are featured below. I even found a good one reissued in a retro straw flask.
Villa Cafaggio Chianti Classico Riserva 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $26.95
Handsomely structured, this is concentrated and very dry, with ample savoury overtones of leather and tobacco on a grainy texture. Drink it now or cellar it for up to eight more years. It's good for substantial meats, such as grilled steak. Various prices in Alberta, $35 in Quebec.
Fattoria Montecchio Chianti Classico 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
This is medium-bodied and chewy, with a polished texture carrying sweet cherry, herbs and a whisper of black pepper. It's well-priced. Available in Ontario.
Monte Antico Toscana 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95
Technically not a Chianti (some fruit hails from a non-Chianti zone of the Tuscan coast, for one thing), this nonetheless tastes like Chianti at a great price. A blend of 85-per cent sangiovese with 10-per-cent cabernet sauvignon and five-per cent merlot for added body, it's a spicy style, medium-bodied and supple, with notes of licorice, leather and lively pepper. It would be excellent for roast leg of lamb or duck confit. $17.99 in B.C., various prices in Alberta, $17.80 in Quebec, $18.99 in Nova Scotia, $17.97 in Newfoundland.
Leonardo Chianti Fiasco 2012 (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
The old-school straw flask is back. I suppose I should have sampled this while wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and spinning a Phil Ochs LP. Mediumbodied and supple, this basic-level Chianti shows pleasant ripe cherry and savoury notes, finishing with light, powdery tannins. $19.99 in Nova Scotia.
Fontella Chianti 2011 (Italy)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $12.95
Smooth for a wine made predominantly from sangiovese, this medium-bodied bargain delivers satisfying mid-palate roundness and a good balance of sweet berry fruit and tobacco-like savouriness. Various prices in Alberta, $15.20 in Quebec.
Gabbiano Chianti Classico 2011 (Italy)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $16.95
Medium-full-bodied and pleasantly weighty and luscious for an affordable Chianti Classico, it shows cherry, raspberry and chocolate flavours. It sort of tastes like Chianti with a hint of California merlot, though. $19.99 in B.C., various prices in Alberta, $19.99 in New Brunswick, $19.99 in Nova Scotia, $19.98 in Newfoundland.
Rocca delle Macie Vernaiolo Chianti 2012 (Italy)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $13.95
Perhaps not the most concentrated of reds, Rocca delle Macie's bargain Vernaiolo is bone-dry and hints at sour cherry and violet, with a gently dusty texture. Pleasant and soundly made. Various prices in Alberta, $15.99 in Nova Scotia, $15.50 in P.E.I.