March 16: The Tuscan Tasting Marathon took place this year, as it does every year, in February, in Florence, and sadly this year I was only able to do Chianti and Chianti Classico, therefore I title the article as The Chianti Marathon, writes John Salvi MW, who missed Brunello di Montalcino, Montepulciano and San Gimignano but the grand tour of Chianti was sufficient to understand the weather conditions that applied to the 2017 vintage
Photos By:: Subhash Arora
Today the two appellations are totally separated so we are talking only Chianti; believe it or not it is totally forbidden to produce Chianti inside the delimited region of Chianti Classico.
So what area do Chianti comprise? The appellations are: Chianti, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Colli Pisane, Chianti Montespertoli, Chianti Colli Aretini, Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Montalbano and ChiantiRufina. There is also Vin Santo del Chianti and finally Colli del’Etruria Centrale.
All Chianti must be produced in the Provinces of Arezzo, Florence, Pisa, Pistoia, Prato and Siena. These regions are characterised by hillsides, terraces and valleys crossed by rivers that give each one its particular micro-climate. I think that it is fair to say that no one region makes better wine than the others, but each has its own personality due to its microclimate and its soils. That is what we are looking at today. 2017 was an extremely difficult vintage.
The two signal features of 2017 were firstly a devastating frost, especially in the valleys, and secondly a very hot, dry summer with no rain. Many growers lost 60% or more of their crop to the frost, whilst the average loss overall is perhaps around 40%; enough to make it the smallest yield for a number of years.
The frost was followed by the hot, dry summer mentioned above, which led to a lack of balance in many wines between the acidity, sugar levels and polyphenolic compounds. Grapes ripened early, and some growers picked whilst others waited, creating considerable difference in the profiles of the wines.
The vines suffered from the heat and hydric stress. Some grapes were shrivelling. Growers who waited probably did the best as there were good rains early in September and also, strangely enough, acidities hardly decreased, and sugar levels rose very little while tannins ripened steadily. Most people say the results were good not great.
Salchetto said, “the vines were tired and overworked. Conditions were similar to 2007, but modern techniques coped with the situation better”. Another grower said, “We had heat stress on the hills and frost in the valleys – we hardly made any wine at all”.
Castello di Bossi, who picked fairly early, said, “it was too dry to make great wine. No rain at all from April to September. We picked with very ripe, too ripe, grapes with cooked skins as we felt it was too dangerous to wait. They picked the Sangiovese at the beginning of September and the wine already had 14° of alcohol.
Frescobaldi said, “we lost only 30% to the frost, but throughout the dry summer we only irrigated in Maremma. We had very small grapes, which profited from the rain early September, swelled and became very ripe, but maintained good acidities”. They were one of the few who felt that they had made FINE wine in 2017. At the end of the day 2017 could be summed up as ‘Good not great, often lacking balance, cohesion and character- small yields.
Chianti Classico Collection
Overall of course, weather conditions were largely similar all over Tuscany, but here in the delimited Classico region wine making has been fine tuned to a great art over more than 800 years. Many growers found their own way to cope with the difficulties of frost and drought. Unlike many Riecine said, “We produced an average crop of good quality as there was no frost in Gaiole where our vines were at 480-600 metres altitude. There it was bone dry with no water, but our vines have very deep roots and suffered only a little. August temperatures reached 42°C. Rain at the beginning of September was a saviour. Vines took heart and revitalised, but even so we waited until the beginning of October to vintage”.
The famous oenologist and winemaker Carlo Ferrini said “A difficult and complicated year. A year of the soil and the winemaker”. Badia a Coltibuono insisted’ “A year without water. The forests dried out and forest fires were frightening. We made only a tiny crop. Good rain on 9th September saved our bacon and we picked our Sangiovese from 15 – 30 September. Our smallest crop for 100 years. Because of the small crop and the tiny size of the grapes they ripened faster. Unlike many we are happy with our quality if not our quantity”.
My very good friend at Castello di Albola, and one of Italy’s greatest agronomists, summed up the 2017 vintage for me in his own words. “No rain at all from April to begin September. Small crop, small grapes, intense flavours, deep colours, sufficient acidity. Rain 9 September allowed them to swell. The secret this year was WAIT, WAIT, WAIT. We started picking Sangiovese 29th September and the quality was perfect. If the acidities were a little low, tannins were ripe if a trifle hard and alcohol levels correct”. The overall comment was again “Good not great”.
Castello di Gabbiano told me, “The year of the vine. Clay soils were saviours. Bet oils and old vines were vital to deal with the heat and the drought. Young vines suffered hugely. Old vines resisted. Reduced crop due to frost matured fully, sometimes too fully. Tannins were powerful. The wines will age for a very long time. We did a clean-up vintage before the main one. We feel that arduous, vigilant and attentive work in the vineyards, together with both skill and understanding, produced Top Quality, Low Yield wines from old vines. It was a pleasure to hear a really contented grower happy with is 2017 vintage.
There was no frost in Maremma being both hotter and further south. Two growers there admitted that due to the intense heat they should not have deleafed on the afternoon sun side and suffered considerable burn on the grapes at 51°C. Also, some grapes were small and juiceless and one vat at Principe Corsini reached 17° alcohol. Intense, concentrated and powerful it will be blended with less alcoholic vats.
I have already said that quantities varied hugely depending upon frost damage, but heavily frosted vines carrying very small quantities of grapes ripened faster, profited more from the rains around 9th September and were fully ripe by the end of it. However, remember that a very small crop results in a shorter sales period so all is not lost.
I think it is clear- Huge variations, in many cases very low yields, hugely varied results and from most growers in Chianti Classico Good not Great. The few GREAT will be exceptional, worth looking for and will last for many years.
John Salvi MW