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While in Tuscany last December I had dinner in Greve with Daniele Rosellini, chief enologist for the Chianti Classico Consorzio. More importantly, Daniele was a major part of the Chianti Classico 2000 project, a project that spanned 16 years and continues to alter the landscape for viticulture and winemaking in one of the world’s most well-known wine regions.

Rosellini began by saying that historically the clones of Sangiovese used in the classico region were selected for quantity over quality.  Add to that the fact that a majority of the vineyards in the region were planted in the 1960’s and 1970’s and needed to be replanted at the time the project was proposed. Many producers, Rosellini told us, were unaware of the origin of the clones planted in their own vineyards, and those clones tended to ripen unevenly resulting in harsh tannins in the wines that either necessitated blending with international varieties or extended barrique aging to soften.

The Chianti Classico 2000 Project was initially designed by the Consorzio in 1987 to modernize viticulture in the region and improve the quality of future wines. It was approved by Ministry of Agriculture and the Tuscan regional administration in 1988 and endorsed and financed by E.U.  Further, the project involved cooperation between the agricultural schools at the University of Florence and the University of Pisa.   The entire project took 16 years to complete and was divided into three phases: on-site testing and inspections, data analysis, and the publication of the results.

To facilitate the project 16 experimental vineyards were planted over total area of 25 hectares (61.75 acres). Five research cellars were then set up to vinify test batches of grapes from each vineyard.  Ten small meteorological stations were also installed throughout the region to track micro- and macro-climate patterns. After the logistics were set the project members then agreed upon the following overall objectives:

· To identify the best clones to cultivate
· To identify the best methods of cultivation
· To modernize and improve overall viticulture and wine production
· To provide Chianti Classico producers with best methods and materials for production

From the objectives six studies were created with the overall goals of modernizing grape growing and winemaking in the Chianti Classico region:

I. Grape Varieties

To measure the agronomic behavior in the vineyard and enological value of selected indigenous red grapes already used in Chianti Classico production.  These grapes included Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Colorino and Malvasia Nera.

II. Rootstocks

To measure characteristics of selected rootstocks in use and considered best adapted to the soils and climate of Chianti Classico. Some rootstocks had never been used in the region before. This phase of the study also included experimentation on grafting techniques.

III. Planting Density

To measure the effect of planting density best suited to the region and to production levels ranging from 3,000 to 9,000 plants per hectare.  Specifically, the following criteria were tracked:

a. Environment and yield
b. The vine’s vegetative behaviour
c. The influence on grape and wine quality

Results showed that a density of 5000 plants per hectare displayed an optimum balance in terms of development and smaller yields.

IV. Vine Training

To measure the influence of foreign and traditional trellising systems on grape and wine quality with consideration given to reducing the high cost of manual pruning.  Results showed that the Espalier system at 60 centimeters displayed the most promising results.

V. Soil Management

This study measured the effects of controlled grass-growing to limit soil erosion and to improve overall vineyard management.  The results suggested that producers use grass as a cover crop on an on-going basis and avoid working soil on inclines if possible.

IV. Clonal Selection

Clonal selection was arguably the heart and soul of the entire project.  The study focused on the primary Chianti Classico varieties: Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino. Initially 239 distinct clones were identified by the University of Pisa.  Of the 234 clones 34 were selected for the study experiment because they displayed high immunity to common viral diseases.  These included 24 clones of Sangiovese, eight of Canaiolo and two Colorino clones.  In 1995 the 34 selected clones were planted in specific vineyard sites throughout the region.  These sites were chosen because they reflected typical regional variations. In 1998 fruit was harvested from each site and then vinified separately at one of the research cellars. From there a study tracked how the young wines evolved the year after the harvest.

The results of the study identified eight new clones that are ideally suited to the Chianti Classico region: seven Sangiovese and one Colorino.  These new clones consistently displayed smaller berries, thicker skins, and more open bunches.  They also showed the most consistency through varied climatic conditions. The new clones were then entered in the Italian national registry of vine varieties as “Chianti Classico 2000,” specifically CCL 2000 nos. 1 – 8.  Four of the clones became commercially available in 2006.  Since then over 300,000 vines have been sold to over 50 estates including renowned properties such as Fontodi, Fonterutoli and Badia a Coltibuono.

The future impact of the clonal study will be played out over the next several decades.  It’s estimated that 60% of the Chianti Classico vineyards will be replanted to the new clones over next ten years if commercially viable.  Keep in mind the fact that it costs approximately €35,000 to plant one hectare of new vines.  Regardless, the new clones should make for easier cultivation as well as more consistent wines with softer, balanced tannins. Rosellini also believes there will be a trend towards less use of international varieties and a return to the traditional medium-sized barrels as opposed to the use of barriques.

In the end one can only conclude that the Chianti Classico 2000 Project was a remarkable undertaking and definitely one of the top studies of its kind ever completed.  But the proof, as they say, is in the bottle.  The day after our dinner with Rosellini we had an opportunity to taste 30 Chianti Classico Riservas at the Consorzio headquarters.  Most of the wines were from the current 2008 vintage with some older bottlings as well.  I have to say that the tasting was one of the delightful surprises of the entire trip. Across the board the wines showed consistent high quality with considerable depth, complexity and a wonderful balance of the fruit, acid, and tannin components. The experience also served to reaffirm my belief that Sangiovese is one of the most versatile red grapes of all and that the purest expression of the Sangiovese is Chianti Classico.  Here are a few of my favorite wines from the tasting:

1. 2008 Banfi Riserva
Vibrant red fruits, sandalwood, and dried rose with dusty earth and a touch of wood. Elegant, refined and long finish.

2. 2008 Bibiano Riserva “Vigna del Capanninio”
More wood influence up front but with lots of savory notes, dried red berries and dusty-woodsy earth.  Long, sappy and very good.

3. 2008 Capanelle Riserva
Deep red berry fruit with anise/herb, dried flowers and damp earth.  Textbook Chianti palate.

4. 2008 Casale dell Sparviero Riserva
Pronounced floral notes with cranberry and craisin fruit, sandalwood; and mushroom consommé. Tart, vibrant and persistent.

5. 2008 Castello Vicchiomaggio Riserva Agostina Petri
Intense, vibrant red fruits with sandalwood, anise and bitter herb notes. Earth, truffle and wood notes on the palate.

6. 2008 Castello Vicchiomaggio Riserva “La Prima”
Ripe red fruits with floral, sandalwood-spice and dusty earth. Riper, sweet fruit on the palate with a long finish framed by wood.  Very good.

7. 2008 Fattoria Nittardi Riserva
Deep, concentrated cranberry/plum fruit with pronounced green herb and woodsy notes. Good depth and concentration on the palate with a persistent finish.

8. 2008 Felsina Riserva Rancia
Concentrated red fruits with dried floral, anise and Lapsang Soochong tea notes.  Elegant, seamless and long on the palate.  Excellent.

9. 2008 Fontodi Riserva Vigna al Sorbo
Deep, rich and intense fruit with tomato/herb and anise notes. Wonderful concentration and depth of fruit with a long, tart finish.  Very complex.  Outstanding.

10. 2008 Querceto di Castellina Riserva
Very ripe and concentrated with spicy sandalwood and dark earth notes.
Impressive intensity and concentration; long and complex.

11. 2008 Rocca della Macie Riserva di Fizzano
Deep ripe and plummy with red floral, herb and chalk/earth notes. Juicy, plummy, delicious.

12. 2008 Terre di Melazzno Riserva Elikia
Very pure red berry fruit with savory notes and a touch vanilla spice.

Older Vintages

1. 1990 Castello di Verrazzano Riserva
Lots of rancio character: fruit cake character with prune, spice, black licorice and old wood. Elegant, well-aged and delicious.

2. 1993 Felsina Riserva Berardenga Rancia
Very complex and layered with a seamless palate.

3. 1998 Capanelle Riserva
Vinous, deep and rich with lots of dried fruits, spice and woodsy character. Still plenty of time.

4. 1999 Badia a Coltibuono Riserva
Rich rancio character with roasted nuts, leather, saffron, fruit cake spice and old wood notes. Seamless, complex and delicious.

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