Food & Drink: Ah Tuscany! Oh artful, beauteous clone zone

What is the difference between Chianti and Chianti Classico? And why are they replanting all those lovely Tuscan vineyards?

THINK BORDEAUX, think Port, and an association with quality automatically springs to mind. No matter that much cheap claret could usefully be consigned to the distillation vat, or that most ruby Port is so strong and sickly that only the French (yes, the French!) will drink it. Now try the exercise with Chianti. Do raffia flasks pop into your head? Candles dripping wax from bottlenecks? Or perhaps at best a pallid, cheap beaujolais-like drink?

Why is this? Bordeaux and Port have assiduously polished the quality image over the years (albeit based on no more than five per cent of their top wines), whereas Tuscany has, until recently, done little to fulfil the true potential of its greatest vinous asset.

It all started to go pear-shaped in the 1960s when Tuscany's vineyards badly needed an overhaul. Instead of focusing on quality in the face of increasing demand, producers planted up any old site no matter how unsuitable with inferior clones of high-yielding vines. Then came regulations sanctioning the tired old formula of high-yielding vines stretched further with blends of white grapes. Tuscany's quality heartland, the Chianti Classico region between Florence and Siena, lost its historic identity and became submerged under the generic Chianti name.

The DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) rules introduced in 1984 were supposed to iron out discrepancies. But, as the Oxford Companion to Wine points out, instead of transferring the prestige and historical reputation of the Chianti Classico zone to secondary Chianti, "the results have been precisely the opposite: mere Chianti has sunk to the level of a quaffing wine without notable characteristics of quality".

Stung by criticism and embarrassment, the Consorzio Vini Chianti Classico, the body which represents 600 producers (about 80 per cent of production from 5,500 hectares) finally got to work. It demanded tighter controls and set up a major research project, Chianti Classico 2000. In 1996 Chianti Classico was given its own separate DOCG. It distinguishes Chianti Classico from the Chianti of the other six zones by specifying stricter production rules, among them lower yields, higher minimum alcohol levels and longer ageing on bottle and, for riserva, cask. And recognising existing practices, it allows Chianti Classico for the first time to contain pure sangiovese, the main Chianti grape.

There's no doubting the ambitious aims of Chianti Classico 2000. By the beginning of the new millennium, more than two-thirds of the zone's vines will no longer be productive and will have to be re-planted. The objective therefore is no less than the entire re-planting of the zone's vineyards with better clones of sangiovese in more suitable locations.

To date four clones have been approved as outstanding for their soil, terrain and microclimate, along with 34 others which are acceptable. The aim is to obtain a range of clones capable of adapting to the diverse terrain of the region and consequently to produce wines of character and complexity. At a recent tasting in London, the Consorzio demonstrated how three clones in particular stood out for their colour, tannins, body and ageing capacity.

It is estimated that around a quarter of the zone has so far been planted with the new clones. The re-planting programme is due to be completed by 2010. Although an improvement in quality is already evident, there is some way to go yet. As Dr Francesco Mazzei, one of the project directors points out, "the sangiovese's real potential is still largely unrealised".

Top Chianti Classicos

1997 Castello di Volpaia, pounds 7.99-pounds 8.95, Oddbins; Adnams (01502 727222). Perfumed quality, elegant rosso with silky-textured, cherryish fruit, oak spice and concentration, one of the best value 1997s on the market.

1996 Castello di Querceto, pounds 8.50, Justerini & Brooks (0171-493 8721). Understated but classic 100 per cent sangiovese red with perfumed, spicy aromas and soft, voluptuous fruitiness.

1997 Collelungo, pounds 11.99, Wine Society (01438 741177); Raeburn Fine Wines, (0131-343 1159). A characterful beauty with classy aromas of cedary spice, almost burgundian in its sleekness and sumptuously ripe red berry fruit.

1997 Querciabella, pounds 11.95, Lea & Sandeman (0171-244 0522). An opaque, gorgeous Chianti Classico with classy oak, delicious cherry fruit and balanced richness (from end September).

1997 Fontodi, pounds 9.99, Liberty Wines (0171-720 5350). A stylish 100 per cent sangiovese Chianti with great finesse and intense, almost gamey flavours.

1996 Riserva Petri del Castello Vicchiomaggio, pounds 10.59, bottle/ case, Belloni (0171-704 8812). Deep colour, spicy oak, black cherry fruit with silky, supple tannins but good structure.

1996 Chianti Classico Riserva Castello della Paneretta, pounds 14.99, Valvona & Crolla (0131-556 6066). Herby aromas, good intensity of flavour in the modern style with rich cherry fruitiness and silky tannins.

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