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Chianti: A Fiasco No More

July 15, 1993|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

Chianti, both the region and its famed red wine, are in transition.

The Tuscan hills in central Italy, former home of modest wine sold in straw-covered fiasco bottles, today represent an international trading force. The area's red wines command top dollar and are gaining the status attained by Barolo and Bordeaux.

The fame that has recently come to Chianti arrived more quickly than most local farmers anticipated. And no one was more surprised than the tradition-minded grape growers, many of whom have not altered their growing methods for centuries.

All that is changing, thanks in part to an energetic program called Chianti 2000, instituted in 1987 to investigate the ways in which the Sangiovese grape grows, and to determine what works best in which soils and microclimates.

The project, as with all such experiments, won't bear statistical fruit until the wines made from test vineyards are bottled, aged and evaluated. It is expected that no usable results will be published before 2000.

The project is multidimensional. Some 65 acres of land, small parcels in different regions, have been test-planted with 12 different clonal selections of Sangiovese, on 16 different root stocks and using eight different trellising systems and five different theories of growing.

"Within two years we will be able to ferment 208 separate lots of wine," says Stefano Porcinai, chief enologist for the Consorzio del Marchio Storico Chianti Classico, located in San Casciano Val di Pesa, near Florence.

(The consortium recently changed its name from the Consorzio del Chianti Classico Gallo Nero after it lost a lawsuit to the E&J Gallo Winery, which claimed there would be name confusion between its wines and those bearing the black rooster--the centuries-old symbol of Chianti.)

Porcinai says Chianti 2000 will ultimately help growers decide which clones and root stocks to use for which soils, which growing techniques work best in which climate regions, and which winemaking ideas work best with specific sites.

Another key question is, whether there is a recognizable communal character to the wines from the different areas of Chianti. This is what many see as the most difficult aspect of the project.

Chianti is a variegated region of hills and pinnacles. Travel between the various little towns is on tortuously steep roads, and between Florence in the north and Siena in central Tuscany are a number of distinctly different areas.

Wine lovers consider the best Chianti to come from the area called Chianti Classico, though there are six other regions in Chianti and each has its strong points. The Chianti Classico region is situated dead center between Florence and Siena, and it was the site of many battles in the 13th and 14th centuries between the two cities.

"The tension between Florence and Siena today is the same sort of playful rivalry you see between San Francisco and Los Angeles," says Doreen Schmid, U.S. representative for the consortium. "But the L.A.-San Francisco rivalry is far more discernible to a tourist than what exists between Florence and Siena today."

Schmid says Chianti 2000 may provide better answers to the question of communal identity, but for now there are three general Chianti Classico regions that she associates with specific styles of wine.

* The area around the town of Greve, midway between Florence and Siena: "These wines are the most typical of Chianti," she says. "They are fairly high in acid and very aromatic, such as the aroma of irises and flowers. They are light to medium in body." This region wends northward toward Florence.

* The ancient heartland region of Chianti, a more central area that includes the towns of Castellina, Gaiole and Radda: "This was the first defined area for Classico wines, and today they make wines with good structure. They are medium-bodied, slightly more tannic than the Greve wines, with a firmer backbone and aromas of faded roses and faint traces of chocolate."

* The southernmost region, just north of Siena around the town of Castelnuovo Berardenga: "These are wines that are most pleasing to people who like bigger-styled red wines. They are huge, tannic and more longer-lived than some of the other regions. They don't have as flowery a perfume, and they are not as drinkable when they are young."

Of course, winemaking styles influence this matrix too, making it possible to have a more powerful, long-lived wine from Greve and a lighter, more approachable one from Siena.

But the real problem lies in the fact that many producers use grapes from regions other than their own.

"Every Friday in Siena you can see the wine market," says Sacramento wine merchant Darrell Corti, one of the world's experts in Italian wines. "There, a courtier, called a mediatore , operates for a wine house. The mediatores gather in a square and they buy and sell wine."

The only wines made entirely from grapes grown at a producer's estate are those labeled with the phrase prodotto ed imbottigliato all'origine , or a variant of this, which implies estate bottling.

Wine of the Week

1992 Corbett Canyon Vineyard "Coastal Classic" Sauvignon Blanc ($4.50 or less) --Sauvignon Blanc shouldn't be just fruity white wine. It should have some of the green pea or fresh green bean aroma associated with the variety, and it can also have a trace of hay and melon. Corbett Canyon's modestly priced wine hits all those aroma points and then offers freshness and decent acidity to balance a trace of residual sugar. This wine, winner of a low-priced wine competition at the International Wine Center in New York recently, also is available in 1.5-liter bottles for about $6 or less. A great value every year.

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