by Andrew Chalk
I remember that tasting Chianti in the 1980s was a risky proposition. Not in the sense of it having the toxicity of a spirit from a Dominican Republic hotel mini-bar mind you, but in the sense of knowing what you were going to get. Quality was all over the board across producers and vintages. Bad bottles (e.g. oxidized wines) were a non too occasional feature long after other countries had learned to nix them. To add insult to injury, Chianti was relatively expensive. Too often you felt that you had paid for premium economy and got basic economy.
Wind forward to the present and the quality of Chianti is higher than ever. The improvement shows across the board and even the negative aspects of vintage variation are less dramatic. Furthermore, a competitive business environment and strong dollar have connived to make prices more reasonable.
One producer, Andrea Cecchi, one of the brothers (the other is Cesare) who own and run Cecchi, has been part of all these changes for over thirty years. In 2004 he and his brother took over from the third generation of their family. He visited Dallas recently and gave me a tasting of his wines.
When I press him on the sources of the quality improvement he alludes to several quality factors for Cecchi. In no particular order of precedence, he explains that grapes now come from specific vineyards and are kept separate through fermentation based on their terroir. There is much more that they know about canopy management to control sun exposure and the amount and evenness of ripening. In addition to new control at the top of the vine there is new control at the roots: new plantings have increased the density of vines per hectare but are accompanied by a halving of the volume of wine produced as producers control yields through vigorous grape removal prior to ripening. The 1995 rules change helped in two respects: first, white grapes were no longer required in Chianti. Second, Cabernet Sauvignon was permitted up to 20% of the blend. Andrea welcomed both changes. He speaks warmly of the extra body and backbone brought to Chianti by the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon to the traditional Sangiovese grape.
Perhaps the greatest “give ‘em the finger” episodes in the wine world was the heretical movement that produced the category called ‘Super Tuscans’ (the name is attributed variously to Robert Parker, Luigi Veronelli, Burton Anderson, and David Gleave). It was started by restrictive DOC regulations in Chianti that required an unyielding 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo and 15% Malvasia Blanca (known as the Ricasoli formula). Many producers felt shackled and some of the more prominent took the courageous step of creating their own blends that eliminated white grapes, used non-approved red grapes (most prominently, Cabernet Sauvignon) and aged in 250L bariques. The first recognized Super Tuscan was Antinori’s Tignanello, which he first produced in 1971, and was a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. Since it could not be called a Chianti, Antinori had to label it Vino da Tavola (table wine), the lowest designated quality grade for Italian wine. Only its intrinsic quality kept its price viable. Other producers followed and with recognition from critics (particularly Robert Parker) the Super Tuscan category became subversive. Its success probably did more than anything else to bring about the 1995 rules change.
Cecchi fully participated in the Super Tuscan revolution with its Coevo, a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon from Castellina in Chianti and Petit Verdot and Merlot from Maremma on the Tuscan coast. The wine was a dream of Andrea’s father.
Cecchi has gradually expanded beyond Chianti and Maremma to include Montalcino and Montepulciano in Tuscany and Montefalco in Umbria.
Andrea took me through some of the wines in his lineup. Briefly, here are some impressions:
2017 La Mora Vermentino, Maremma, DOC ($19)
A classic Vermentino with nutty, earthy notes interlaced with citrus fruit. Nice weighty feel in the mouth. This wine was fermented in stainless steel at a low temperature after a cold soak. Post fermentation it was racked into stainless steel prior to bottling.
2016 La Mora Morellino di Scansano, DOCG ($26)
A Sangiovese from the new(ish) DOCG of Morellino di Scansano (approved 2007). The remarkable thing about this wine is how soft it is. Andrea attributes this to the Maremma soil. This wine is very enjoyable to drink now. Ideal with red sauce pasta dishes.
2016 Cecchi ‘Storia di Famiglia’, Chianti Classico, DOCG ($22)
The first Chianti Classico made by the family. The blend is now 90% Sangiovese, 10% “other grapes”, which I take to be Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is a deep ruby color, exhibits a complex aroma of both fruits and forest floor, and displays a lively feel in the mouth by virtue of its prominent acid.
2014 Cecchi ‘Riserva di Famiglia’, Chianti Classico Riserva, DOCG ($48)
Produced only in better vintage years, this wine is 90% Sangiovese, 10% “other grapes”. It is more opaque than the non-riserva and fiercely intense on the palate. A good representative of how Chianti has improved although I would keep it for a decade to prove that.
2013 Coevo, IGT ($130)
Partly described above. The Sangiovese is reduced to about 50% in this Super Tuscan and yields are reduced to a budget-busting 4.5 tons/hectare. Definitely rewards long ageing (10-20 years), this is a densely wound and complex masterpiece.