This blog is inspired by the film, Nice Guy Johnny, brought to us by the Tribeca Film Festival. From Tribeca’s Ed Burns, comes a film about relationships, promises, and doing what you love. Johnny Rizzo has promised his fiancée that he’ll find a “real” job that will pay more than his current dream job as a sports talk radio host (for the 2 AM slot). He flies to New York for an interview, his uncle takes him for a last fling to the Hamptons, and he meets Brooke…you’ll have to see the movie for any more details.
How is Chianti Classico linked with this film? At Maslow 6 we were inspired in general by the TFF, which is airing some fantastic films this year and we were reminded of the stories that lay behind so many great bottles of wine. Part of what makes them what they are is their story. We thought it would be a fun exercise to pair some of the wines with the films – to link the stories in an admittedly loose fashion. And to maybe spark some interesting conversations along the way.
So, back to Chianti Classic and Nice Guy Johnny. The film is from someone who loves old New York: Ed Burns, who has Tribeca as his home and muse (see the Tribeca Trib article in the April 2010 edition). Our minds went to Little Italy with old New York, and from there to Chianti. The chord that struck us about this film is the struggle to become yourself: to define who you are, to be willing to change some things but also to stick to the core of what defines you as you, even in the face of outside pressures.
Chianti Classico is a wine region that has struggled to define itself: what is it, and what makes this historic zone Chianti. It has undergone major changes over the last 20 years – both good and not-so-good. The geographic boundaries of the zone, and grape variety have been primary to Chianti’s struggle. These, along with yields, density of planting, and clones used, have all played a role in what ultimately Chianti (Classico) is today.
For a long time Chianti did not produce high quality wine. The old bottles with straw on the outside that were used as candle-holders with wine that was too acidic were unfortunately not uncommon. Today however that picture has changed completely.
Chianti’s roots go back several centuries. The zone of Chianti was originally identified back in the days of the Florentine Republic. In the 1870’s Bettino Ricasoli defined the ‘formula’ for Chianti: Sangiovese, with a significant portion of white grapes. Canaiolo in particular was used for softening. Here we have the essence of Chianti defined: geographic zone and varietal(s).
Several things happened to Chianti that were not-so-good:
• The varietals used at the time became part of official policy in 1967 when the DOC enshrined the traditions of the time and captured the letter of the original formula if not necessarily the spirit: 30% of white grapes were allowed.
• The original zone that had been defined as Chianti was greatly expanded when the officials attempted to capitalize on the Chianti “brand”.
• The government sponsored re-plantings which resulted in a “quantity over quality” approach for many people.
As a result, some producers decided that being identified with the supposedly more prestigious classification of Chianti DOC was really not where they wanted to be and they went off to make wine as either a Vino da Tavola or later as an IGT wine (see another blog for more details here). Others worked to make the best wine they could make, as Chianti, but also to change the rules.
The Chianti Classico consorzio has existed for some time. This consorzio has operated under the principle that the original geographic (and not the extended) boundaries should be observed for the Classico designation – this was officially recognized when Chianti Classico became its own independent appellation in 1996. In 1989 the consorzio initiated the Chianti Classico 2000 project which experimentally tested things like the specific clone of Sangiovese used, the yields, and the density of plantings in the vineyard. Great improvements have been made in the vineyards partly due to this project.
The crux of the identity struggle recently has come down to varietal: how much Sangiovese does one need to have and how much is ‘too much’ or ‘not enough’ of something else ?
In 1984, the blending rules were changed so that only 2% of white grapes had to be in Chianti (but you still needed a minimum of 2%). Also, up to 10% of “foreign” varietals could be used – i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
In 1996, the rules changed again: the requirement of having a minimum percentage of white grapes was removed entirely. Now, one could have a 100% Sangiovese wine and call it Chianti Classico (a good thing I think). However, the maximum allowance for “international” grapes increased to 15%. It increased again recently, to 20%.
Is a wine with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon still Chianti Classico? I side with the folks that say no. Or at least it is awfully difficult. Cabernet is simply too powerful to take a back seat at that high a percentage. Sangiovese needs to be able to show its own elegance, nuances, and red and dark cherry perfume that gives it its Sangiovese Chianti Classico character. That core of angular firmness and grace without relying on sheer power. (see Nicolas Belfrage’s boook: Brunello to Zibibbo for a persuasive argument). The key here is typicita, or retaining the essence… not an easy or simple formula to be sure nor does having a low percentage of Cabernet guarantee a good Chianti Classico (or one that shows typicita). Back to the film, I am dying to see what decision Johnny makes.
A producer who embodies the true essence of Chianti Classico is Felsina. Albarese – rocky, limestone and clay – is the predominant soil type of their Chianti Classico holdings. The current owner is Giuseppe Mazzocolin and his father-in-law acquired the property in 1966. The Rancia Riserva bottling is 100% Sangiovese, made from a single vineyard. It is a pure wine and structured for aging. Refined, nuanced, aromatic, and totally in balance. Chianti Classico comes into its own. Try the 1995 with us on April 23rd.
For a producer who is on the higher edge (in my opinion) but who does a gorgeous Chianti Classico and is a master of the Sangiovese grape (and yes, it does show all those great Sangiovese nuances and can be at peace with itself), try Fontodi. The Fontodi Chianti Classico Riserva “Vigna del Sorbo” 2006 is richer than some, yet elegant and beautiful. Even with high Parker points. It has dark cherry fruit, with minerality and a bit of tobacco. Or the 2006 Fontodi Chianti Classico, coincidentally written up in the Los Angeles Times today.
Vino Italiano: the Regional Wines of Italy by Joseph Bastianich & David Lynch
Brunello to Zibibbo by Nicolas Belfrage