Wine: Bad Blend

By adding a 20-percent mix to the sangiovese grape, the ‘classic’ was taken out of Chianti Classico

For many years, my daily “house” red wines were Italian Chianti Classicos. My picks were inexpensive, balanced, fairly complex, all-around good wines to pair with food.

I enjoyed the vast range and distinct character of the sangiovese grape from which all Chiantis are made.

But slowly, almost imperceptibly, I drifted to other wines. I don’t remember paying much attention to why my favored little Chiantis weren’t so desirable anymore. If anything, I attributed that shift to my own palate, which is forever seeking new adventures in wine.

Currently, I’m happily stuck on the reds of the Loire Valley, which I believe are the best red wines for the money in the market and have a similar level of distinction and pricing that I appreciated in Chianti Classico.

The Loire, to me, offers what Chiantis used to: wines of a pure, regional character that’s instantly identifiable as Loire in the glass.

It wasn’t until I read an article in Decanter, the British wine publication, that I suddenly realized what had happened to my favored Chiantis.

Writing in a recent issue, columnist Andrew Jeffords discussed an unsuccessful attempt to change the rule governing what grapes are allowed in Rosso di Montalcino wines. By way of background, Jeffords points out that, 15 years earlier, the growers in the officially designated area that produces Chianti Classico had gone all the way and changed their regulations from one 100-percent locally grown sangiovese grape to allow 20-percent cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and merlot to be blended into the wines — this, without having to reveal on the label that the wine is blended or by how much.

Jeffords calls that change “perhaps the most senseless legislative change I have ever seen in the wine world.”

Ostensibly, the arguments for allowing the changes in Montalcino (they failed) were that, in rough years, the new grapes would help the Montalcino’s sangiovese along — that they would make rounder and softer wines, and generally make the wines better.

Lost in the Montalcino arguments was what happened to Chianti Classico. Many of the wines became completely unidentifiable as Chianti.

It’s not simply the 20 percent that made the change to sangiovese so dramatic. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah all make wines infinitely bigger and stronger. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see how even 20 percent could have a far greater impact and overwhelm most sangioveses, not help them.

What Jeffords was getting at had happened to my favored Chiantis. And, tasting them occasionally today, their character has been so blurred that they resemble the big, inexpensive, California red blends than traditional Chianti Classico.

“Calling them ‘Chianti Classico’ … strips meaning from ‘Chianti’ and makes ‘Classico’ ring hollow,” Jeffords wrote. He continued, asking: “Could it be because consumers of Rosso di Montalcino [like the consumers of most red burgundy] actually relish its singularities, its difficulties, its inconsistencies, and are more than happy to put up with them in return for the highly inflected pleasures, which only sangiovese grown in this place on earth can provide?”

People who appreciate regional character in wine latch onto to those wines because they’re so different. That’s one big reason for the success of Michigan cabernet franc and pinot noir. Winemakers here aren’t trying to make a Romanée Conti burgundy or a Russian River pinot noir, they’re trying to make a wine that’s clearly pinot noir but with whatever character the soil and weather here give the grapes.

It’s a taste of “Pure Michigan,” just as Chianti Classico was once pure sangiovese.

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