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The Tuscan Table : The Changing Wines of Chianti

October 04, 1990|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

CASTELLINA IN CHIANTI — The hills of Tuscany are a dusty-green crazy quilt of vineyards, all arced and canted toward one another in the oddest patterns you can imagine. The vineyards grow in wildly different directions, as if reflecting the many controversies that have sprung up here in the last two decades.

For Tuscany, this is a new age, an age in which the telephone and the fax have made information access in these remote hills, once an annual occurrence, into a daily routine. That is important in a rugged land where the hills are connected only by narrow two-lane roads, and the latest wine news is of interest to virtually everyone. Tuscany has some 130,000 vintners growing grapes on small plots of land; together they devote almost 200,000 acres to wine making and the related olive industry. (Compare this to California's wine country: Napa and Sonoma combined have 65,000 acres of vines.)

There is an old Italian saying, "Where nothing will grow, plant grapes and olives." The Tuscans did; in the rocky hills between Florence and Siena the unirrigated vines and trees sit in the searing summer sun, challenging nature to wilt them. For the last seven centuries, nothing has.

Though Tuscany includes Brunello, Montepulciano and many other smaller wine regions, it is Chianti Classico that has brought the most fame to the area. For hundreds of years, it was made pretty much the same way. The technique was codified in the mid-18th Century by Barone Bettino Ricasoli, who wrote that typical Chianti was made from two red grapes, Sangiovese and Canaiolo, and small percentages of the white grapes Trebbiano and Malvasia. This was only part of what Ricasoli wrote, but it wound up turning into Italian law.

The rest of Ricasoli's original formula was ignored by the government--but it turned out to be critical for wine as it developed in the 20th Century. Ricasoli noted that the four-grape formula was fine for wine one wanted to consume young, but for a wine made to live longer, the white grapes were not necessary.

As wine lovers began to call for wines that live longer, wines that age in the bottle, wine makers began to see that white grapes rob red wine of its potential to age. About 20 years ago--with the advent of colder fermentation, the use of stainless-steel (instead of concrete) fermenting tanks and a better understanding of the entire fermentation process--it became clear that the law was inadequate. Thus began a debate.

Traditional wine makers liked the mandate to use white grapes because it made a more approachable wine. So did growers, who had a lot of white grapes planted and would have no one to buy them if the law changed. But young, energetic wine makers who wanted to compete with the French (America and Australia were still a way off from making great wine in the world's eyes) wanted to dispense with all white grapes. Some even said Canaiolo was a waste of time.

Moreover, some wine makers wanted to change the law that mandated Chianti be aged a specific amount of time in the barrel. They felt that leaving wine in a barrel just because the law required it, was silly. "Wine is made by taste, not laws," said one angry wine maker.

Soon after, untraditional grapes were added to the blend. The result was the so-called Super Tuscans--wines blended from local grapes and Cabernet Sauvignon and aged in small oak barrels. The wines first gained fame when Piero Antinori began to export Tignanello and later Sassicaia and Solaia into the United States, and they showed that Cabernet could make a truly great wine in Italy when handled in a certain way.

It was those very wines, however, that created such ferment among wine makers here. Now even Antinori himself wants to make certain his aim is not misunderstood. He likes what Cabernet can do for the traditional Sangiovese grapes, but he's worried that too wide a use of Cabernet in Chianti will make a wine that is no longer really Chianti. He's worried, for instance, that some wine makers are pushing for rule changes that will permit wider and wider use of Cabernet in what is legally termed Chianti, robbing the Sangiovese of its native soul.

"The laws were made to protect Chianti," said Roberto Stucchi Prinetti, manager of his family's property at Badia a Coltibuono. "But the law also now permits Cabernet to be used (up to 10% of the blend), which is not a typical grape.

Badia a Coltibuono is one of the houses here that likes Cabernet as an addition to some of its wines, but its top-of-the-line Sangioveto, which is an amazingly rich, potent and deeply complex wine, has no Cabernet.

However, Badia's 1985 Sangioveto (about $22) is different from traditional Chianti in one respect: Its nuances come from aging in new French oak barrels. And it is the use of French oak casks, as opposed to aging in the traditional huge wooden vats, that adds another dimension to the controversy.

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