The consideration of Chianti is often a generational thing for many Americans. Wine drinkers of a certain age remember a thin, acidic red wine in a straw-covered flask that was the traditional partner with pasta and pizza. Chianti consumers today, however, don't know from fiasco, and that's a good thing, since there's little resemblance between the original blend for Chianti in flask, formulated by the Baron Ricasoli and the Chianti in today's market.
The Baron's formula was based on Sangiovese for vigor and Canaiolo for softness. By the late 19th century, Trebbiano and Malvasia, both white grapes, were added and Ricasoli's orginal formula was given official status in 1967 with the advent of Italy's DOC regulations, and it is still used today for regular Chianti. Before the 19th century, Canaiolo played a major part in Chianti, mostly for its resistance to rot, but interest in the red variety is waning. 'Canaiolo, which makes up not more than 20% of the Chianti blend, is being replaced by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, varieties that are much easier to deal with in the winery and the marketplace with the success of New World wines,' explains Ivano Reali, managing director, Castello di Gabbiano. 'Some Canaiolo is still used in regular Chianti, but the focus in the Classico zone is on Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, while we prefer Merlot,' he says.
Reali claims that interest is mounting for Gabbiano wines and all Chianti Classico wines. 'Consumers like the idea of Sangiovese, and they want Chianti to be made from Sangiovese.' Castello di Gabbiano Chianti Classico DOCG and Chianto Classico Riserva DOCG are 100% Sangiovese, while the Chianti DOCG is a blend of 90% Sangiovese, along with a remainder comprised of Canaiolo, Colorino and Ciliegiolo. Gabbiano's 'Bellezza' is also 100% Sangiovese, but unfortunately it is not being brought into the United States by Foster's Wine Estates Americas, importers of Castello di Gabbiano wines. There's also 'Alleanza,' a super-Tuscan blend of Merlot with a little Sangiovese. 'We grow mainly Merlot on our estate because it grows better than Cabernet, which we think is too aggressive with Sangiovese and probably grows better in Bolgheri,' says Reali.
Today, regulations continue to throw up roadblocks to Chianti winemakers, especially in the classico zone. 'There is a lot of talk about laws through the EU (European Union), mainly about why more acreage can't be planted in Chianti Classico,' says Reali. 'By law, Chianti Classico is limited to 7.5 tons per hectare (approximately 3 tons per acre) and there is no way to increase production.' He adds that 80% of Chianti Classico's vineyards have been replanted and there is increased interest in new clones. In the 18th century the Chianti Classico zone included only the townships of Castellina, Gaiole, Radda and parts of Greve. The area was expanded in 1932 and confirmed by DOC in 1966, but the borders of the Classico zone remain a controversy.
Some people are pushing for a division of the Chianti Classico zone into sub zones, based mainly on terroir. Reali is not so sure. 'In one sense, dividing the area into sub zones would be positive, because there are some differences in the terroirs and elevations, but I don't think the differences are that significant, especially in the southern part of the zone. I think it would be a mistake and would cause confusion with the consumer of Chianti Classico wines.'
The 173-acre Castello di Gabbiano estate is in the commune of San Casciano Val de Pesa, outside Florence, part of the 20th century expansion of the Classico zone. Approximately 86 acres are legally Chianti Classico, with the remainder classified as Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), or wines typical of the geographic region, planted to vines and olives. Gabbiano also leases 123 cares in the classico zone.
Reali also notes that the botte, that once ubiquitous large wooden cask used throughout Italy, is making a comeback, though some claim that botti have mostly been supplanted by barriques, especially by wineries producing high-end reds, like Super Tuscans. 'Botti are coming back throughout Tuscany and now likely account for 50% of the cooperage,' he says. However, when Beringer bought the Gabbiano estate in 2000, Reali says they changed to mostly French oak, after tasting trials with French, American, Slovenian and Hungarian oak barrels. Reali explains that Gabbiano winemaker Giancarlo Roman has changed his barrel regimen. 'We are now putting the wine into wood immediately after fermentation, then blending, followed by a short resting period in cement tanks before bottling.
Castello di Gabbiano has a Chianti based entirely on Sangiovese for every level of interest, taste and price. The regular unwooded Chianti is in the standard regional style, the Chianti Classico is aged in large oak casks, and the Classico Riserva is matured in both barrels and casks.
No question, the Chianti of the flask days is light years from today's modern bottlings of Chianti, especially those designated Chianti Classico and Classico Riserva. Sangiovese plays a bigger role today. Moreover, producers have introduced international varieties like Merlot and Syrah to their blends, and they have changed the seasoning with the addition of French oak barriques. Tradition has long maintained that wine, like language, is a living thing and should adapt with changing times and tastes. Some of us, however, bemoan the dilution of regional personality in favor the international style. What about you?
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Castello di Gabbiano, Venezie IGT Pinot Grigio 2007 ($10, Foster's Wine Estates Americas): There are two Pinot Grigio bottlings from Castello di Gabbiano; this one, under the estate name, is a blend of Pinot Grigio, Garganega and Chardonnay. The Pinot Grigio component underwent a slow, cool tank fermentation and then was blended with the Garganega and Chardonnay to give the wine a boost of color and texture. The nose is lightly scented with citrus and mineral notes, while the low intensity flavors are crisp and floral, coupled with subtle passion fruit nuances and finished at a palate-pleasing 12.5% alcohol. This is a good warm weather aperitif wine. 88
Campanile (Castello di Gabbiano), Friuli DOC Pinot Grigio 2007 ($13, Foster's Wine Estates Americas): The fruit for this juicy Pinot Grigio came from the Grave sub-region of the northern province of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, renowned in Italy for aromatic white wines. Tank fermented and aged, the wine has lovely floral notes, ripe flavors (without being overripe), crisp citrusy acidity and good length through the finish. With more body and texture than the regular Pinot Grigio, this is an excellent example of a vibrant wine with juicy flavors. A good choice as a crisp accompaniment to hors d'oeuvres, or with lemon chicken. 89
Castello di Gabbiano, Chianti DOCG 2006 ($10, Foster's Wine Estates Americas): This wine is more than an entry-level Chianti, although some consumers more used to the fruit-forward style of California red wines may find it on the light side. The unwooded blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Colorino and Ciliegiolo was tank fermented and aged for five months in stainless steel. Never heard of Ciliegiolo? Neither had I. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, Ciliegiolo, of Tuscan origin, is cherry flavored and considered a good blending grape with Sangiovese, especially in Chianti. The wine has a deep purple-ruby color, bright medium berry nose, with floral notes. Although I didn't detect cherry, I found the simple straightforward raspberry flavors to be nicely structured, with a firm finish at 12.5% alcohol and noticeable tannins. A good drinkable value, it will mature for another year or two. 89
Castello di Gabbiano, Chianti Classico DOCG 2005 ($13, Foster's Wine Estates Americas): The Sangiovese for this wine was sourced at higher elevations in the Classico zone, macerated on the skins, tank fermented, then aged in large French oak casks for five months before bottling. The aromatics are fresh and floral, with hints of ripe berries and plums and just a touch of oak. Bursting with fresh raspberries, the firm tannins and good balancing acidity round out this flavor-packed wine, and it carries it's 13% alcohol very well. Enjoy this excellent value Chianti Classico with roasted meats and ripe cheeses. 90
Castello di Gabbiano, Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2005 ($23, Foster's Wine Estates Americas): This top-of-the-line Sangiovese got full-court treatment: tank fermentation, maceration, daily pump-overs, malolactic fermentation, and aging for 20 months in French and Slovenian oak casks and French oak barrels. More forward with a deeper nose of black fruits and traces of anise and black pepper than Gabbiano's Chianti Classico, the Riserva fills the mouth with layered, bright fruit flavors and firm tannins, finishing with plenty of fruit and length and 13.5% alcohol. This flagship Chianti shows more depth and complexity and will age nicely for at least five more years. 90
Castello di Gabbiano, Toscano IGT "Alleanza" 2004 ($35, Foster's Wine Estates Americas): A blend of 95% Merlot and 5% Sangiovese transforms this Alleanza (Alliance) into a sort of reverse Super Tuscan. Tank fermented, with daily skin maceration and two months of stirred lees contact for additional richness and texture, it then underwent malolactic fermentation, followed by a maturation period of 18 months in new and seasoned French oak barrels. Because of the fruit-forward characteristics or both Merlot and Sangiovese, this is a very complementary blend. The 2004 Alleanza shows a lovely, deep, black cherry and spice nose that leads to richly textured berry flavors, with hints of anise, toasted oak and sweet spice and a moderate 14% alcohol. Here is a wine of great depth, potential and value. 92