Afternoon, Exel. You seem particularly excited.
We are, we are. It’s this Chianti, you see.
And that would be which Chianti, exactly?
The Chianti that tops this month’s Decanter panel review of the very top-end Chianti designations … that one.
Ah, that Chianti. It’s good, is it?
We thought it was genuinely amazing when we tried it in Tuscany back in October (to such point as we wanted to bring to the UK). More crucially, it’s just (May 2018 edition) topped Decanter’s blind tasting of Chianti Classico Gran Seleziones and Riservas from 2013 and 2014 with a whopping 96-point score, making it
- officially Outstanding;
- the highest-rated of seven Outstandings (many of which are unavailable in the UK in that way they often are); and
- the highest-rated of the 160+ wines on test.
But wait. Chianti? Really? As in bottles in baskets, fava beans, that sort of thing?
Not really, no. You see - and this is important - there’s Chianti and there’s Chianti, and they are very definitely not the same thing.
<blank look, silence, etc>
Should we explain?
If you would, please.
OK. We’ll start simply. ‘Simple’ Chianti comes from Tuscany, from a zone of around 15,000 hectares, very broadly enclosed by the cities of Florence, Siena and Pisa. From this zone, wines made with at least 70% Sangiovese, made to a few stipulations, can be termed Chianti. At the geographical heart of that region lies an additional 7,000 (not 70,000 as Decanter have published!) hectares of prime vineyard land – superior soils, aspects, microclimates etc – which is termed Chianti Classico (and symbolized by the famous black rooster symbol). Chianti Classico is made to much tighter restrictions on quality (lower yields, higher alcohol, 80% proportion of Sangiovese etc).
And therein lies the confusion. As the (ever-useful) Oxford Companion to Wine puts it, “the very irregular quality of wine labelled simply Chianti has always had a very detrimental effect on Chianti Classico’s reputation”. As so often happens, Chianti producers made to the lowest allowable standards, just about qualifying for the name, leading to huge volumes of questionable wine being sold at low prices and bringing the whole Chianti name into some disrepute. See also: Cava...
Chianti Classico, for that reason, has done all it can to put distance between itself and the lesser, broader zone ... to such an extent, in fact, that wine cannot be declassified from Chianti Classico to basic Chianti (should it ever fail to meet Classico standards).
You’re real Chianti Classico fans, it seems.
Too right we are. What’s not to like? Good Classico is the real deal: a wine of big tannins and acidity, of stunning intensity, complexity, food-pairing-ability and ageworthiness. Barolo, granted, is perhaps Italy’s most famous red export (although not everyone’s cup of tea) and Brunello has its legions of oak-loving fans, but Chianti Classico is unquestionably one of the world’s Top Ten Wines.
I’m guessing your new Chianti isn’t "just a Chianti", then?
You guess correctly. It’s the apotheosis and very pinnacle of Chianti Classico: a Gran Selezione.
<faint groan> And I was just starting to get the hang of this: what’s a Gran Selezione?
We sympathise. As with many of the world’s great wine regions – Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace – there’s a designated hierarchy of quality. For those three regions, it’s based on the quality of production land within their regions. For Chianti Classico, once you’re inside that zone, it’s then largely about the winemaking.
Standard Chianti Classico (if you can call it that) must be aged for a full year before release; although it need not be in oak, it almost invariably is.
Riserva Chianti Classico (which also gets reviewed in the Decanter test) – about 30% of all Classico production – must be aged for two years (and carry a touch more alcohol).
Gran Seleziones (GSs) are the tip of the quality pyramid and account for just 4% of production; all grapes used must be grown on the estate on which they are vinified and the finished wine aged for a minimum of 2½ years (many are aged further). A high proportion of GSs are single-vineyard wines, although, technically, they need not be. There are only some 100 GS labels currently under production: these are rare beasts indeed. The whole idea of a Gran Selezione is that it represents a producer's best wine. There was plenty of controversy when the GS category was created: did Chianti need a new classification, after all? Those that chose not to recognise the GS category typically make a Riserva their best offering.
In the end, of course, the value of the designation comes down to the quality of its wine. The jury may still be out, but it’s telling that over two-thirds of the wines scoring 92 points or more in the test were GSs.
I feel you may be about to tell us about the wine itself and how you found it?
That we are. Maybe it was kismet, but it was definitely by chance. One of the Exel team was on winery visits and holiday in Tuscany and stopped for a few nights into a winery hotel: no agenda, no expectation. By curious chance, he suddenly found himself involved in a vertical tasting (comparing vintages) of their Riservas and Gran Seleziones as they worked out which they would submit to Decanter for review. He was left in no doubt at all that a) these wines would do well and b) these were wines the UK should see (as, to be clear, they have not been here before).
And here we are.
Quite. The winery is Il Palagio di Panzano, situated in the geometric centre of the Classico zone, in beautiful Panzano in Chianti. Wife and husband owners, Monia and Franco Piccini, are the third generation of their families to run these vineyards, and - together with their lead oenologist, Marco - their long-term love for the land and wines is super-apparent. All of their wines are certified organic. The winery runs as a delightful agriturismo (seriously recommended) and we say a big hello here to all their customers in the UK who can, from today, finally source in the UK the wines they’ve tried out there in recent years.
Looks lovely, but my diary is a little full this week and a Tuscany trip will have to wait. But tell me about this Le Bambole...
It's a labour of love, intense care and time. All grapes are hand-picked from a single Palagio di Panzano estate vineyard called Le Bambole (see foot of the article for the story of this vineyard name and the bottle label), which benefits from some of the very best soils and aspects anywhere in the Chianti Classic region. After a meticulously-controlled fermentation, it then sees two-and-a-half years of maturation in French oak, both new 500-litre and 1000-litre botti, before another two years in bottle. For all the craze of new French oak, this use of larger vessels and some partially-used oak is quite deliberate: the ripeness of the small berry Sangioveses here needs little new oak influence, and would only smother the delicious aromas and flavours and sense of terroir.
Those aromas/flavours: Decanter drew these out as some combination of "leather, cigar box and forest fruits" (Andrea Briccarello), "tar, polish and black olive" (Susan Hulme MW) and "undergrowth" (Andrew Jefford). The product page features the full review and comments, but these tasting comments from the three judges are well worth the reading.
Sounds pretty awesome.
It really is. For all that we love Brunello, there's something even better about this. Sangiovese - and its rich spectrum of flavours - really sings here, without the background noise from too much oak; the oak in the Bambole is judged brilliantly. So this wine is already starting to build up some interesting age complexity - hence those savoury flavours in which the judges revel. It'll drink now beautifully, but it'll also age beautifully for (easily) 10 years.
I've got one small problem - it's a bit pricey.
We hear you. We've two thoughts on that:
- This is a very high-class wine of ultra-low production - only 2,400 bottles were made (we have been allocated 200) and Le Bambole will only be made in great years. We've priced this down as low as we can go because we really want this wine to "break" the UK market.
- We do have a solution. The rest of the Il Palagio range is super-impressive, and we are now able to supply this too. From the more modest price point of £16,there's something here for the Chianti/Sangiovese fan, be it:
Should I be asking you about vintages?
You should. It's fair to say that vintage variation is important, such can be the task of getting Sangiovese just right. The 2013 Bambole is just perfect and besides, the only vintage available. But, with the Chianti Classico and the Riserva, there is a choice to make. Indeed, Decanter make the point well in their article: on paper, 2013 was a more ideal vintage - "classic, supremely harmonious and elegant" - and/but has produced wines that will drink now, but are perhaps best in a year or two. 2014, a tougher year, has made some very fine ready-to-go wines - indeed, some of the judging panel clearly felt the 2014s in the review were the better - and we'd argue that, of the Palagio di Panzanos - the 2014s are the better today.
So, for the standard Classico and the Riserva, there's a choice to be made: do you want your Chianti Classico now or in a year or two? Either way, these wines will not disappoint and we're delighted to be bringing them to you.
The vineyard/label story: We don't really do sentimentality, but this is rather lovely. Monia's father was a huge force in the development of Il Palagio di Panzano. He had always dreamed of naming his best vineyard after a grandchild. Sadly, he never got to meet Monia's daughters, Giorgia and Gianna. The two girls were described as looking just like dolls from the beginning of their lives, and so Bambole (Italian = dolls) became the name of the vineyard. And hence the label....
Awarded 88 points and Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their May 2018 edition review of the top tiers of Chianti Classico (see blue link below).
Il Palagio di Panzano produces wines that mirror the unique character of the area. They are members of the Unione Viticoltori di Panzano and have made the decision to produce organic wine. For the family, sustainability is a synonym for “family-run”. They have the belief that they can guarantee the high quality of their wines by remaining as a small, family-run winery.
The grapes are harvested by hand following a careful selection of the best Sangiovese grapes from the different vineyards of Il Palagio.
Fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks at a maximum temperature of 28° for 21 days. The wine then matures for 24 months in oak barrels of 1000 litres before further ageing in the bottle for a minimum of 6 months.
The Chianti Classico is a clear purple red with slight nuances of garnet in colour. Its aromas are expressive, with notes of red fruits and a hint of oak. The flavours are well structured, harmonious, fresh, elegant and long lasting finish.
Il Palagio di Panzano produces wines that mirror the unique character of the area. They are members of the Unione Viticoltori di Panzano and have made the decision to produce organic wine. For the family, sustainability for us is a synonym for “family-run”, too. They have the belief that they can guarantee the high quality of their wines by remaining as a small, family-run winery
The Torgentile is an unusual wine for the very heart of Chianti Classico country. It is 100% Merlot, but made with all the same love, care and attention used for Il Palagio's Chianti Classicos. Chianti Classico must (absolutely must) be 80% Sangiovese, and although that allows for a blend light on Merlot, it does not allow for a full Merlot blend... which is a shame given how very well it grows here. Hence, the Torgentile steps outside the Chianti Classico DOCG rules and into the denominazione of IGT Toscana which allows for the use of Merlot.
The grapes for the Torgentile are always harvested by hand from Il Palagio's single hectare of Merlot. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks at a maximum temperature of 28° for 21 days. Malolactic fermentation is then allowed to occur before a full 24 months of maturation in French oak barriques.
The Torgentile is bright ruby red in colour with light reflections. The aromas are intense with hints of red fruits, spices and oak. The palate is well structured and harmonious with well-rounded, persistent tannins. The finish is reminiscent of spices, oak and liquorice.