Wine is an arena in which novelty and tradition are engaged in a complex and never-ending act of switcheroo. I was struck by this recently in contemplating two members of Italy’s wine elite—both Tuscan, both sangiovese—one of which could be characterised as an embodiment of newness, the other the culmination of centuries of tradition, the two unexpectedly simpatico in spirit. Never has Tuscany seen such a tranquil dichotomy.
NEW OLD / OLD NEW
Perhaps in reaction to an ever-more globalised world, recent popular wine opinion has swung decisively towards tradition, granting even once-maligned but historical names like Chianti a shot at a return to grace. The “traditional” wine of the pair I considered (though ironically the newer project of the two) is the most ambitious yet of the Chianti Classico Gran Selezione. “Gran Selezione”—stipulating estate-grown fruit as well as a maturation time exceeding that of the former pinnacle, Riserva—is a classification aimed squarely at the collector market.
With its first vintage released in 2015, Il Caggio Ipsus is a tinyproduction (3,600-bottle) estate wine from the deep-rooted Mazzei family; one ancestor, Ser Lapo Mazzei, penned a 1398 document that is the earliest known reference to Chianti wine. Spearheaded by 25th-generation descendant Giovanni Mazzei, Ipsus surpasses even the trio of Gran Selezione wines produced by the Mazzei’s historic Castello di Fonterutoli, in the family since 1435, and is priced less like something bearing the name “Chianti” and more like a top Super Tuscan.
Meanwhile, the pendulum swing towards tradition has left Super Tuscans, those hero wines of last century, in a tenuous position. Having once convinced the world that Italy was as capable of greatness as France or California, they now bear the uncomfortable pall of “modernism” that sends today’s discerning collector fleeing for more unpronounceable pastures.
The irony is that while some Super Tuscans were about bucking tradition, others were less so. Two distinct strains of this catchily named group evolved roughly simultaneously around the early 1970s, their only real commonality being their creators’ distaste for bureaucracy. One cohort was made from international grapes on the previously disregarded Tuscan coast; the other within traditional zones like Chianti Classico but with compositions disallowed by the appellations, either for including international grapes like cabernet and merlot; or, more absurdly, for excluding traditional grape varieties now largely conceded to be detrimental.
Thus 100 per cent sangiovese wines from within Chianti Classico like the iconic Le Pergole Torte were forced to bear the same newly created designation “IGT” (Indicazione Geografica Tipica, ostensibly lower on the totem pole than DOC and DOCG wines) as the Bordeaux blends of Bolgheri until 1996, when Chianti Classico’s DOCG laws began to permit wines of this type. Unfortunately for the official classification system, by that stage many IGT wines were dramatically outstripping their DOC and DOCG peers in price.
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