Bauhaus's newly-appointed Wine Director, Alan Koller, is back. This time, he's exploring 1990s Vancouver wine culture, Italian Chiantis, and the Tasting Menu's coffee-marinated strip.
I am going to age myself a bit here: when I first started in the hospitality industry way back in ’91, it seemed like everyone was drinking was the Wolf Blass Yellow Label. Then, I moved to Vancouver in ‘94 and it didn’t take long for me to discover where Vancouver’s wine passion was focused… Italy. More specifically, oh boy, did Vancouver jump on the Super Tuscan bandwagon! I blame Umberto for this, but that is another story for another time. Of course, we had a short visit from Beaujolais Nouveau in the mid-90s for a couple of years.
In the 1990s, it was the new world that picked up the mantle. We began seeing the BC wines take off; it seemed that Burrowing Owl Pinot Gris and Merlot were on every menu. The fine dining world was being dominated by the big names of Napa. Joseph Phelps, Caymus, and Shafer were on ever table. That was until the late 2000s when it was Bordeaux’s turn to rule Vancouver. In some ways, you can see the immaturity of the Vancouver wine market by observing these trends. Now, this is not a bad thing! Out west, we live without restrictive rules. It is much more fun to live life as a maverick, without bias and rules. Trends always affect an industry, and wine is no different. The term ‘Super Tuscan’ was the result of a few decades of negative wine growth in Tuscany and wine makers wanting to up their game. ‘Beaujolais Nouveau’ was Beaujolais’s attempt to break into the New World market. It didn’t work as well as the Super Tuscan trend did. There was the ‘Robert Parker effect’ on Bordeaux and the ‘Wine Spectator effect’ on Napa. All these events created change – some good, and some not so much. Let’s explore this a little further and we will use Chianti as our case study.
The Italians have been growing wine in the Chianti region for thousands of years, but it was roughly in the 13th century that the term Chianti was first used. The term was used a designation for a collection of winemakers came in the 1760s - welcome to one of Italy’s earliest regional wine marketing plan! Also, this is the era that created the region Chianti Classico. Now, the fun fact about Chianti in the 18th century is it was predominantly white wine. It wasn’t until the 1880s when Baron Ricasoli set the standard for Chianti: a minimum of 70% Sangiovese, with 15% Canaiolo and 10% Malvasia, with an optional 5% of other varietals. This guideline was established into law with the creation of the DOC system in the 1960s.
What inspired the DOC system? Well after WW2, the world started drinking a lot of wine, and with few wine regions around, many regions focused on quantity instead of quality. Chianti was one of these regions, and sadly the quality of the wine was poor and was only getting worse. The DOC system was an attempt to improve the quality of the wine. Unfortunately, that improvement was delayed. There were a couple of reasons for this delay: ego, as Italian winemakers are very proud and they didn’t like being told their wine was poor; other winemakers wanted to use different grapes in the blend, and didn’t want the percent of each grape to be dictated by law. This group of winemakers began making wines that we now know as ‘Super Tuscans.’ FYI: the first Super Tuscan was the 1971 Sassacaia.
Now that there was a break-away group, there was a comparison available to us. There was a distinct difference in quality between a Super Tuscan and a Chianti, and it didn’t help that Chianti was still being sold in straw bottles. So, it took until the mid-80s before Chianti finally started making better quality wines. Some of the early ones I can remember are Ducale Gold Label and Nipozzano Chianti Classico. Since the 2000s, Chianti has maintained its market share, but recognized that another change was needed. The designation of Gran Selezione has been around for some time, and it represents a similar standard of wine production to the Classico, except that none of the grapes could come from a Classico vineyard. In 2014, we saw the latest change to Italian wine law. Now Chianti Classico wine makers could add the Gran Selezione designation to their wines, providing they owned the vineyard the grapes came from and it followed a couple of new rules. Thus, Gran Selezione becomes the highest designation for Chianti Classico. Does this mean better quality? Hopefully, but there is only one way to find out!
We have recently added two new Chiantis to our list, both from Castello Di Ama. We have the 2009 Chianti Classico Reserva and the Chianti Classico Gran Selezione San Lorenzo 2011. The vineyard sites have been around for centuries, but the winery was closed for many years until a couple of families decided to purchase the land and try and restore the vineyard to its former glory. They succeeded. In 2003, their winemaker was named winemaker of the year in Italy. In 2010, the San Lorenzo was number 6 in Wine Spectator’s Top 100.
Both of these wines are very good examples of Chianti, but there are some differences. The 2009 shows more of the classic Sangiovese fruit, the raspberry and the black cherry, along with a touch of pepper. Because of its age, it is also showing more tobacco and dried floral and herb tones. The nice part of the structure of Classicos is that you don’t have to wait as long as you must with a Brunello for the aged character to show itself. This wine still has a few years left in it but it is very enjoyable now. The San Lorenzo is a couple of years younger and is a little richer in the fruit, mainly because of the higher percentage of Merlot, and this adds a bit more plum flavour to the body of the wine. Because the winemaker was meticulous about only using his best grapes, you also get more spice and leather tones to the wine, creating more depth and character at its younger age.
Both these wines are very similarly rated, and both are about $140 a bottle. If you feel like a challenge, try them side by side with our new Tasting Menu. We will open them at the beginning and by the time we get to the coffee-marinated Cache Creek Striploin with the pumpkin, the challenge will be completed. One of these two wines will be a touch better with the beef. I wonder which one?
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