It is called a fiasco.
Fiasco? Yes, I know what you are thinking, but you’re wrong. I’m not talking about what happening in Congress with the debt ceiling. And I am not talking about the bonehead moves your favorite sports team’s coach always seems to make.
A fiasco is a type of bottle. It is bulb-shaped and wrapped in straw that both protects the glass from breakage and keeps the rounded-bottom vessel from tipping over. Back in the day, if you spotted a fiasco you knew instantly what was inside: a tasty medium-bodied Italian wine that probably wouldn’t break the bank when you hit the check-out counter.
Fiasco meant Chianti, which along with Lambrusco and Valpolicella, was the easily recognizable popular face of Italian red wine here in the U.S. The Chianti fiasco was popular with me and my young friends years ago because you got the wine itself and a decorative candle holder (the straw-wrapped bottle) all for the same price. What could be better? The traditional Chianti fiasco still exists, although I don’t see them very often (you can buy empty bottles on eBay if you are into retro decorating).
Sue and I discovered a 1.5-liter fiasco of “red Chianti wine” at Trader Joe’s as this column was being prepared for publication. The fiasco endures!
Chianti Identity Crisis?
I suppose that the move away from the distinctive fiasco was a bit of an identity crisis for Chianti, but it might not have been the only or most important one as Bill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savino explained in their 2016 book Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany’s Noblest Wine.
Nesto and Di Savino argue that Chianti’s historical roots are in a relatively well-defined area that we now associate with Chianti Classico. As Chianti wine became more popular around the world, the Chianti zone expanded and the wine inevitably lost of some its distinctive character. Not all of it represented the original idea of Chianti very well. That’s a more serious identity crisis, especially at a time when there is more and more competition from within Tuscany, within Italy, and around the world.
The task for Chianti Classico producers, as it is for quality producers everywhere, is what economists call product differentiation. They need to make consumers aware of the difference between Chianti and Chianti Classico and then, because this is the age of premiumization, to further differentiate the best wines they produce.
The first task – Chianti versus Chianti Classico — is easy from a visual standpoint. Chianti Classico stands out on the shelf with its distinctive black rooster logo. But the wine needs to be distinctive in the glass, too, which has not been as clear in the past when both Chianti and Chianti Classico could be found with quality that varied from excellent down to just fair.
Climbing the Cecchi Chianti Classico Pyramid
The Cecchi family of wine producers invited us to sample their wines and taste the difference and it was an eye-opening experience. The Cecchi winery dates to 1893. Andrea Cecchi, who guided our tasting, is the fourth generation of the family in the business. The family’s home vineyard is Villa Cerna, which they acquired in 1962. The Villa Rosa vineyard was acquired in 2015. Both are complex mosaics of elevation, soil type, and aspect.
We started with their Chianti Classico Storia di Famiglia, which makes up about 60 percent of Chianti Classico production. It is made from 90 percent Sangiovese and 10 percent other grape varieties. Sue took one sip and said “Wow!” This wasn’t like any other Chianti that she tasted recently, she said. Bright, intense, and persistent in the glass. She was immediately taken by the wine’s style and substance. Product differentiation goal #1? Check!
We moved on to Cecchi’s Chianti Classico Riserva wine, Riserva di Famiglia, which is 90 percent Sangiovese and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Riserva wines are about 35 percent of production. Sue appreciated this wine but didn’t find it as exciting as the first, perhaps because the Riserva might be an attempt to balance the traditional wine identity with the power that the international market sometimes prefers. An excellent wine. And I think Sue’s reaction might have been different if she had tasted it first.
We reached the top of the pyramid with Valore di Famiglia, the Cecchi Chianti Classico Gran Selection wine. Gran Selection accounts for just 5 percent of production. The grapes are 100 percent old-vine Sangiovese from the Villa Rosa vineyard. The wine ages in both oak and concrete. The goal is elegance, limiting intervention so that the identity of the vineyards is not obscured. Goal achieved! A wine of many layers and nuances. Memorable.
Is Chianti Classico a Terroir Wine?
The premise of Chianti Classico is that terroir makes a difference. If it doesn’t, then wines from the larger Chianti appellation (and indeed wines from all over Tuscany) that are made in the same way with the same basic grape varieties should be just as good.
To test the terroir hypothesis we were invited to compare two of the Cecchi Chianti Classico wines that are sourced from two very different vineyard sites. Primocelle (first hill) Villa Cerna is a particular part of the Villa Cerna vineyard while the Ribaldoni Villa Rosa is from a vineyard of that name with the youngest vines on the estate. The differences showed themselves clearly both on the nose and in the mouth. I enjoyed the violet and iris notes of the Primocolle. Sue was attracted to the elegance and sleek style of the Ribaldoni.
Rediscovering Chianti Classico
Sue says that she enjoyed all the Chianti Classico wines we have tasted recently (and looks forward to a couple of others we have in reserve). Excellent wines are all very different from one another. But she couldn’t forget that first glass of the Cecchi Storia di Famiglia. The purity and clarity stood out. And the surprise punctuated the experience.
I think that we are not the only ones to be rediscovering Chianti Classico. I see that there are seven Chianti Classico wines (including Sue’s favorite from Cecchi) on this year’s Wine Spectator Top 100 list. That’s a strong showing for what is a relatively small region. Congratulations to Cecchi and the other producers for this timely recognition.