In 2006 and again last month I’ve had the luxury of swanning around the Tuscan countryside in the specific area of Chianti Classico. I’ve been madly lucky both times. Two years ago the terrific 2004 chianti reds had just, or were in the process of being, released and this time around it was the highly praised 2006s. Both are outstanding vintages in their own way though they highlight an anomaly in the way we now view wine.
Or at least in the way we appreciate the quality of young wine. No matter what anyone pretends, judging the quality of a very young wine made in a (hopefully) ageworthy style is an immensely difficult thing, and is beyond most folks. It’s difficult for critics and consumers and it’s even difficult for the winemakers tending them: many times I have heard Barossan winemakers, for instance, say that they over-judged the quality of the 1998 Barossa vintage when the grapes first hit the presses – in the next breath those same winemakers express their surprise at how well the 1999 vintage came to look over time, for when the grapes first hit the presses the hopes were not so high.
In other words even the people closest to the wines are continually reappraising their view of each wine and/or vintage. And when you look at various editions of Penfolds’ Rewards of Patience book you see that wines across all styles and varieties come to surprise the experts once time has elapsed.
In this context the ability to make a quick, confident, correct call on both the quality and character of a vintage is arguably the most important part of the winemaking process. Those who are best at this single skill are often the winemakers who rise to become wine’s most noted. Most winemakers tend to set a basic recipe for their wines, but when the grapes and their juices are sluicing through the winery they must take this recipe and tweak it accordingly. Easy to say; genius to enact.
As a simple example: a winemaker might decide that 75 percent new oak is the level of new oak desired for the estate’s best shiraz. When the grapes come in however it might be best to use only 25 percent – or 100 percent – and whether or not this call is correct will only be borne out over time. Each vintage there are myriad other tweaks and calls to be made.
The level-of-new-oak example is a simple one and of course pretty much every wine is a blend of many barrels, so there is quite some flexibility down the track. The decisions the winemaker made in the heat of the harvest though will forever effect exactly what, or how much, of the stuff that eventually turned out best that there is.
I thought of this as I moved across the lush green countryside of summertime Chianti Classico last month. I didn’t taste a great number of 2006 Chianti reds but I tasted enough and drank enough in various trattoria to see clearly that 2006 has produced reds wines with a robust power uncommon to the region. Wine quality in Tuscany, as with Italy generally, is on the rise so some of this extra power may well be due to improved vineyard management. But for whatever reason 2006 is also clearly a vintage that has produced more concentrated Chianti than normal.
And therefore (or in large part) it is considered a top Tuscan vintage.
Now, I have never seen or heard of any great individual wine in any style from any country (I love making grand statements like that) that did not have a powerful personality, even if that powerful personality was attached to a wine that also happened to be a divine expression of light-weighted (almost airy) elegance. A wine can have both a powerful personality and a wealth of saturated flavour, but saturated flavour is not a pre-requisite of power in wine.
This is what got me thinking as I walked out of a trattoria in San Casciano (I think it was; I am forever lost in Chianti) having just lapped lovingly of a glass of 2006 Fonterutoli Chianti Classico. I recalled the near-identical time two years ago when I’d tasted a great number of the then current release 2004 Chainti reds, and how balanced and at ease with themselves that that those wines had seemed. The 2004s were not great wines but they were better than good and a) they were routinely better than their asking price and b) I immediately wanted to buy and start drinking a great number of them, because while they were not the most concentrated bunch of wines on the planet, they were indeed among the most delicious.
There is a point to all this and it is this: 2004 chianti versus 2006 is, much like the 1990/1991 and 1998/1999 twin vintages in Australia, a set of vintages that will be argued over for some years. Which is better? In any settlement of the argument I hope that the power of the 2006s is admired for the wonder that it is, but that this concentration of flavour is not the deciding factor in its favour. I prefer the 2004s because they seem, as young wines, to be better balanced, better drinks and better messengers of Chianti’s famed sour-savoury edges. Power is something, but not everything.
My point: ‘medium-bodied’ are not dirty words in wine. Flavour concentration in wine is a great thing, but ‘balance’ is inherently greater, and as much as I loved the 2006 Chiantis (and will be buying them) I suspect that the earlier vintage is the better balanced of the two.
I do, though, reserve the right to change my mind… now, back to the ‘research’.
By Campbell Mattinson
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