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Chianti: Still Tuscany's Flagship Wine?
By Ed McCarthy
Aug 13, 2013
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A few days ago, a friend asked me, “Are there still any true Chianti wines left?”  I told him that there were, but their numbers have decreased substantially in the past 25 years, at least in my opinion.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I still very much like to drink Chianti, when I can find one that I like.  For one thing, Chianti goes so well with much Italian cuisine, of which I am a big consumer.  I wrote some time ago that Chianti was one of the wine world’s great value wines, and that is still true, compared to most other fine wines, including Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino.

I believe that quite a few wine lovers would consider Brunello to be Tuscany’s foremost wine today.  But Brunello has two problems:  It is expensive; most Brunellos retail for over $50--and not a few are well over $100 a bottle; and Brunello takes many years of ageing, 20 years or more, before it fully develops and its tannins soften.

Chianti’s history dates back to the 13th century; Brunello is the new kid on the block.  It’s only about 150 years old; in fact, Brunello was first brought into the U.S. less than 40 years ago.

Perhaps because of the poor economy in Italy, and because it was Italy’s tradition regarding wine, Chianti was overproduced in the years following World War II.  Much of the Chianti that was made in the 1950s and ‘60s, and into the ‘70s, was not very good, and the image of Chianti as a wine suffered.

Chianti wines did generally get better in the 1980s, thanks to tighter wine regulations and a concerted effort among leading producers; I can still recall tasting some outstanding 1985 and 1988 Chianti Classico wines.  But stylistic changes in winemaking began around 1990.  Many producers believed that in order to compete in the international wine market, they needed to “improve” their Chianti, a wine always based on the Sangiovese variety, by ageing it in new oak (especially their Chianti Riservas) and by using international varieties--mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot--with Chianti’s Sangiovese, often replacing other local grapes in the blend.

Today, a majority of Chianti producers continue to use new oak in the ageing process for some--and in many cases all--of their Chianti wines.  Also, many producers still use the powerful Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot varieties with Sangiovese in their Chianti blends.  The issue for me with international varieties--especially Cabernet Sauvignon--is that they take over the soul of the delicate Sangiovese variety.  The wine often loses its identity for me; even 10 percent of added Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot can change the flavor and character of Chianti; with 15 or 20 percent added, the change becomes more pronounced. 

Ageing Chianti in new, small oak barrels often accomplishes the same end; the wine’s identity is masked by the new (usually French) oak.  As an Italian-wine loving friend of mine says, the wine has “gone over to the dark side.”  Literally, that statement is often true, as the new oak and added international varieties make Chianti considerably darker.  The old clones of Sangiovese were not a very dark hue of red (although new clones of Sangiovese being used today are darker in color).

I am happy to note that there has been somewhat of a return to indigenous varieties, such as Canaiolo and/or Colorino (usually up to 10 percent of the blend), to supplement Sangiovese.  Some producers are even making Chianti wines entirely with Sangiovese, which is now allowed by law.  Of course, a few of the traditional Chianti producers never added international varieties to their Chianti wines--or they tried it, and changed their minds.

Another trend is that new oak is being used more judiciously than before in Chianti.  I don’t have a problem with the use of oak as long as the taste of oak does not mask the fruit flavors of the wine.

A good Chianti wine, for me, is medium-bodied, firm, very dry, and not excessively dark in color.  It should have a medium amount of tannin and lively acidity, with tart cherry aromas and flavors.  It can also have delicate floral or nutty notes.  A good Chianti, unlike New World wines, is not rich-tasting on the front of your palate; you taste the wine on the middle and rear of your palate.

A fine Chianti from a good vintage can age and improve for 20 or more years when it is stored well.  The average Chianti has a shelf life of at least 10 to 15 years.

Almost all Chianti producers make a Riserva or sometimes a single-vineyard Chianti.  Although more expensive, these wines are not necessarily better, because many invariably have more oak aging and/or international varieties added.

I have compiled a list of my favorite Chianti producers.  Most are in the Chianti Classico zone, the oldest zone, where traditionally the best Chianti wines have been made.  Chianti Classico is now a separate DOCG zone, distinct from “Chianti.”  I also include one producer from the small Chianti Rufina zone, another area known for fine Chianti wines.

In alphabetical order, here are 9 Chianti Classico wines that I enjoy, and a 10th from the Chianti Classico zone but not labeled a Chianti Classico.  I also list the wine’s commune or village in the Classico zone in parentheses:

Badia a Coltibuono (Gaiole):  This traditional producer with a long history continues to make outstanding wines.  Its Chianti wines are aged in large, old casks, with 10 percent Canaiolo blended with its Sangiovese.  Both its Chianti Classico Estate (about $20) and its Riserva ($32) are exceptional.  The estate does organic farming (great olive oil), and has a restaurant, cooking school, and B & B apartments.

Castellare (Castellina):  One of the great traditional Chianti Classico producers, relatively unknown in the U.S.  Vineyards are over 1,000 feet up in the hillsides. No international varieties are used in any of its wines. Castellare’s Chianti Classico ($18 to $22) and its Riserva ($34) are very fine; no new oak ageing.

Castell’in Villa (Castelnuovo Berardenga):  One of the oldest Chianti properties, dating back to the 1200s. Its Chianti Classico, typical of most wines from this southerly commune, is darker and more full-bodied than most Chianti wines.  It is made from 100 percent Sangiovese, and is aged in used, large casks.  Its average price is $23.

Castello dei Rampolla (Panzano):  A sturdy, well-structured Chianti Classico.  It has long been one of my favorite Chianti Classico wines, even though 5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with 95 percent Sangiovese--not surprising, since this property produces the renowned Super-Tuscan, Sammarco, which is 85 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s a small estate dating back to the 12th century. Rampolla’s Chianti Classico sells for about $29.

Fattoria di Felsina (Castelnuovo Berardenga):  On everyone’s Best Chianti list, Felsina deserves the recognition it receives.  All of its four Chianti wines are full-bodied and quite tannic, and are made only from Sangiovese.  Its Chianti Classico ($18 to $22) is aged in used Slovenian casks.  Felsina’s Riserva ($26) is aged in both small and medium-sized barrels.

Fontodi (Panzano):  Fontodi is another esteemed Chianti Classico producer, with vineyards in a great location near Panzano.  Its Chianti Classico, more expensive than most ($36), is made entirely from    Sangiovese, with no new oak.  Even though its single-vineyard Riserva, Vigna del Sorbo ($70), has 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon along with 90 percent Sangiovese and is aged in 50 percent new oak barrels, it is a hard wine not to like.  Chalk it up to its excellent location.

Isole e Olena (Barberino Val d’Elsa):  Owner-winemaker Paolo De Marchi’s formula for great Chianti Classico is to grow the best Sangiovese in the best locations.  His Chianti Classico ($23 to $25) has 15 percent Canaiolo along with 3 to 5 percent Syrah (which he says complements Sangiovese better than Cabernet Sauvignon). Isola e Olena’s Chianti Classico is aged in used small barrels along with used large casks.  Cepparello, 100 percent Sangiovese, is Isola e Olena’s super Chianti Classico, although not labeled as such.  It is aged in small barrels, one-third of which are new.  An outstanding wine (about $70).

Riecine (Gaiole):  Another traditional winery making excellent Chianti Classico (entirely Sangiovese), but not well-known in the U.S.  The surprise here is that Riecine has an Irish winemaker, Sean O’Callaghan.  Riecine Chianti Classico ($23 to $25) is aged in large, used casks.

San Giusto a Rentennano (Gaiole):  One of the most acclaimed Chianti Classico wines, and for good reason.  San Giusto a Rentennano ($23 to $26) is always outstanding.  It has 95 percent Sangiovese and 5 percent Canaiolo, and is aged in medium-sized casks.  The winery also produces one of the great Super-Tuscans, Percarlo (about $78), made entirely from Sangiovese.

Montevertine (Radda):  Sergio Manetti, late owner and founder of Montevertine, refused to follow the outdated formula for Chianti Classico 30 plus years ago (which included using white grape varieties) and in 1981 stopped calling his wine “Chianti Classico.”  Montevertine is made with 90 percent Sangiovese and 10 percent Canaiolo with a little Colorino.  It is aged in large Slavonian casks, and can age for decades.  Today, regulations have changed, and Montevertine could be called Chianti Classico, but the Manetti family declines to use the name.  Montevertine is expensive ($48 to $50), but worth it.  Montevertine makes a premium wine, Le Pergole Torte, entirely Sangiovese, which is aged for 18 months in Slavonian casks and 6 months in barriques.  I have tasted older Le Pergole Tortes, and the wine seems to be able to age indefinitely.  Le Pergole Torte ($90 to $98), a complex, exceptional, world-class wine, demonstrates what the Sangiovese variety is capable of performing in the Chianti Classico zone under the best circumstances.

Chianti Ruffina:

Fattoria Selvapiana:  This gem of a winery produces an exceptional Chianti which retails for $16 to $17 (Note the price: hardly that of a “Chianti Classico”).  Selvapiana is made with 95 percent Sangiovese and 5 percent Canaiolo, Colorino, and Malvasia Nera, and is aged mainly in large casks.  Selvapiana also makes a superb Riserva, Bucerchiale (about $30), entirely Sangiovese, that is aged in both large and small oak barrels.  Bucerchiale has to be the best value around among Chianti Riservas.
If I have left out one of your favorite Chianti wines, I am sorry.  I have devoted this column to ten of my personal favorite producers.  I do hope that you may discover, or re-discover, a few excellent wines from my selections.