Spotlight on Chianti Classico: Castello Vicchiomaggio Vigna La Prima Gran Selezione 2010

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photoCastello Vicchiomaggio seems as much tourist destination as winery, with its lodgings listed in the likes of Lonely Planet and Fodors amongst others. The 15th century castle (where Leonardo da Vinci spent time painting Mona Lisa) and its beautiful view of Greve is clearly the main draw. But Castello Vicchiomaggio is extremely serious about its wine-making, particularly since 1964 when London importer Federico Matta purchased the estate and revamped the vineyards. The style is powerful, lush and elegant Chianti.

Traditional vs. Modern Grape Varieties in Chianti

Current owner John Matta blends many of his Chiantis with the traditional tuscan grapes Canaiolo and Colorino. The style, while clearly focusing on a more modern lush fruit driven approach, does not shy away from acid and tannin, which are perfectly balanced in this ‘La Prima’, the top wine from the estate. The La Prima is also 100% Sangiovese, and the use of ‘traditional’ grapes is a point of pride with Matta. While the more basic Chianti’s are fermented in larger oak barrels the La Prima sees 18-24 months in French barrique after fermentation in tank.

Despite this classic traditional/modern divide we read about regularly, the debate over pure Sangiovese is somewhat more complex than this, a fact I learned in an email exchange with Querciabella’s Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni, who both happily produces single vineyard 100% Sangiovese (in a new project) and defends the use of Cabernet Sauvignon in Chianti. Rather than summarize, I will reproduce Sebastiano’s comments below:

“Regarding the varieties we plant and cultivate, let me make a fundamental premise. As you surely have read before, the real widespread dissemination of wine grapes across Europe happened with the Roman Republic and its conquest of Europe. DNA research points to most primal varieties originating around the Mediterranean. Among the key areas, very important is Etruria (the original Tuscany). Not only were grapes cultivated here for millennia, but during the Roman Republic this became the true and main Roman vine nursery, from where all varieties that eventually became common in the rest of Europe came from. So we can accurately say that most European (therefore global) wine grape varieties started spreading to other regions from Tuscany. Let’s also add that the first four official wine denominations in the world (Chianti, Pomino, Carmignano and Valdarno Superiore) were officially created in Italy, in Tuscany to be precise, in 1716, decades before any French official denomination. Two of these denominations (Pomino and Carmignano) officially included Cabernet Sauvignon.

This is to say that I have no issue with the use of Cabernet Sauvignon in Tuscany, and that any doubt about it being an appropriate, native variety does not take history into consideration. It may be an international variety because of its widespread use around the globe, but at the same time it is legitimately a Tuscan variety for the two reasons above. And if a grape variety cannot be considered native after 300 years of official use, and centuries of unofficial use in one region, I guess no variety can be called native anywhere. It is about time wine writers around the world took these facts into consideration. While Cabernet Sauvignon may be considered a foreign variety in, say, New Zealand, that is definitely not the case in Tuscany. Cabernet Sauvignon is as legitimately an original Tuscan variety as Sangiovese or Colorino.

That being said, we have decided a few years ago, because of the amazing and ever-improving quality of some of our Sangiovese vineyards, that it was time to release 100% Sangiovese based Chianti Classico. Our 2010 was the first release – although in recent years we had used no more than 5% Cabernet in the blend, out of the authorised 20% –, and all the vintages following 2010 were and will be pure Sangiovese. Let me add, because again history needs to be taken into consideration, that 100% Sangiovese is as historically inaccurate a blend as one containing 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Although some historians claim that until the 1700s Chianti was made primarily or solely with Sangiovese (this information is debatable and difficult to prove, on top of being improbable), the original blend, officially decreed in 1840, contained 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo and 15% Malvasia, the latter a white grape. We can certainly say that not a single producer uses this blend nowadays. And the various bureaucrats at the helm of the Chianti Classico Consorzio in the past few decades have contributed their worst effort in imposing the oddest standards, up to the current “20% of whatever grapes one could imagine” in the blend.”

I put these propositions to some wine-makers at this year’s wine festival and I got mostly equivocation. Sebastiano’s comments are thought-provoking and controversial and I think deserve considerable follow up research, a project I hope to take on in a future trip to the region. For now, it’s food for thought.

What 100% Sangiovese Has to Say

Back to the wine itself, this is beautiful Sangiovese and of a quality equivalent to many good Brunello di Montalcino’s. The fruit is rich and dense, but the wine is also extremely elegant with a deft touch of oak. The finish is very long and focused. This is pure Sangiovese flavour – sweet cherry fruit and bitter chocolate and herbs. What I find interesting about Sangiovese is that the flavour profile does not have huge diversity, so what distinguishes great wines from mediocre ones is more the purity of fruit, texture of the wine, balance and elegance. This wine has all those qualities and is maybe the best Chianti I’ve tasted so far in this spotlight and a ringing endorsement for 100% Sangiovese.

Excellent to Excellent+
$60 at BCLDB


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