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Grander Chianti

by Kelly Magyarics, DWS

Almost two and a half years ago, the Chianti Classico Consorzio debuted a new sub-category of Chianti Classico. Called Gran Selezione, it was designed to be the pinnacle of the region's Sangiovese-based wines. However, the new designation brought with it equal parts anticipation and skepticism. Proponents claimed it would boost quality of Chianti at all levels, while critics argued it was just one more confusing term on a label. So what's the latest on how the designation is being accepted in the wine world, both among producers and restaurant professionals?

"[Gran Selezione] was designed and promoted by top Chianti Classico producers as a way to market more premium Chianti in way that can compete more competitively with Brunello di Montalcino," explains David Kurka, General Manager and Beverage Director for Masseria, a Puglian-inspired restaurant in Washington, D.C. "With the additional aging that is required for Gran Selezione, you have better grapes and more new oak, which results in a deeper, more full-bodied wine."

Just what are the actual legal requirements for a bottle of Chianti to be labeled Gran Selezione? For one, the wine must be produced at an estate in the Chianti Classico DOCG from at least 80% Sangiovese, with Colorino, Canaiolo and other grapes (including international varieties) allowed in the remainder. It must also be aged a minimum of 30 months, with at least three of those months in the bottle, and bottled with an ABV of at least 13%.

"Gran Selezione [shows] the truest expression of the terroir," says Gabriele Tacconi, winemaker for Ruffino. His winery produces the Riserva Ducale Oro Gran Selezione, whose inclusion of up to 20% of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes complement the Sangiovese and ramp up structure and complexity, he says. This stylistic decision in the cellar is proof of the shifting nature of the region's wines that's occurred since the 1990s. "With this change and growth in the number of quality-minded producers, today the region is producing a diverse range of exciting and complex wines."

Right now, Gran Selezione accounts for around 4% of Chianti production, and its addition to the region's portfolio validates all of the wines produced there, says Giuseppe Liberatore, General Director of the Chianti Classico Consortium, in a press release. "By introducing Gran Selezione wines, Chianti Classico sent the market a definite signal of its desire to further increase the qualitative level of the denomination."

Sangiovese, as many a winemaker will point out, is very susceptible to terroir. When it's grown in Chianti, it tastes like nowhere else in the world, says Tacconi. "It's difficult to identify another grape variety that has the ability to interpret its own soil characteristics and modify its aromas in accordance with the terrain in which it grows." Because of this, winemakers releasing Gran Selezione wines must be sure that the lengthy oak treatment does not strip away its signature terroir-driven notes of cherry, strawberry and earth, and at the same time must be able to balance its high acidity. On the flip side, the wine's aging and complexity translate to aging times referred to in decades instead of years.

Because of its additional oak aging and higher minimum alcohol content, Gran Selezione wines partner up with fuller-flavored, richer foods whose flavors don't get next to the glass. Tacconi likes the aforementioned Ducale Oro with ragu and homemade tagliatelle pasta. "We are talking about hearty main course meat dishes," agrees Kurka, who cites an dish at Masseria of goat cooked two ways-as a roasted loin and a braised shoulder-with sauteed green beans and garlic purée, as a perfect pairing. "It is nothing less than amazing with the 2006 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico Gran Selezione."

As for where the new Gran Selezione designation fits in with Super Tuscans launched in the 1970s as a way to bypass the government's restrictions for Chianti's permitted varietal inclusions, Kurka believes it all just adds to its diversity, resulting in a bottle for every palate. "It means that Chianti can be made into a variety of styles from a light and cheerful patio wine to a dark and brooding wine of contemplation."

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