Chianti: Reviving a classic

24 January, 2019

Some of the shine may have come off Chianti since its 1980s heyday, but producers are showing they're determined to put it back on the map, finds Chris Wilson

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LONG WITH CHABLIS and Beaujolais, Chianti was a British wine bar and restaurant list staple in the 1980s, as ubiquitous as prawn cocktails, shoulder pads and mullet hair cuts. But over the following 30 years, as a ‘go-to’ wine it’s lost its way a little as other wines and styles from Europe and the New World have taken centre stage.

This is not to say that, as a successful and well-known wine, Chianti has been pushed completely into the wings. It holds firm on Italian lists across the world and there’s still a place for it in the casual dining and wine bar sectors.

“Chianti is an obvious Italian attraction that people have heard of, unlike, say, Brunello or Vino Nobile

di Montepulciano, despite being nearby and sharing the same grape variety,” says Edwina Watson, buyer at UK-based fine wine merchant Armit Wines.

Will Hargrove, who heads up the fine wine department at Corney & Barrow, holds a slightly different view. He believes there’s still a place for Chianti on many wine lists, but it no longer remains a staple such as Chablis, red Bordeaux and Rioja. “You’re probably more likely to find people who see Rioja as a must-have, rather than Chianti, as a style,” he says. “You often find customers who say they find Rioja very reassuring and they know it, and they say that possibly a little bit more than they do about Chianti.”

Berry Brothers & Rudd’s Italian buyer, Davy Zyw, draws a parallel between Rioja and Chianti too.

“There’s a clear customer quality ladder in Chianti which I think is really beneficial for customers,” he says.“A similar system has had real success in Rioja, where customers can move up a quality ladder.”

The understanding of the difference in quality and style of the wines at both ends of this ‘quality ladder’, however, is where many of the ambiguities around Chianti lie, especially when it comes to the end consumer. As a category Watson believes Chianti has “come on in leaps and bounds”, but is concerned that, while fine wine customers understand the addition of the word Classico and what it brings to the party, others at the lower end of the market still see it as cheap plonk. “There is clearly still a marked difference between Chianti and Chianti Classico,” she says.

CHANGED PERCEPTION

This is a view shared by David Gleave MW, managing director of importer Liberty Wines, which has one of the strongest Italian portfolios in the UK. He’s confident, however, that consumer perception has changed dramatically over the past decade in this respect. “Where once there was an important market for inexpensive, entry-point Chianti, today we have much greater demand for more premium wines from leading estates,” he believes.

Liberty imports wines from five Chianti Classico producers and has seen growth across the board recently. “Sales, especially at the more expensive end of the market, are going very well,” Gleave says.





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