Chianti Classico : 5 satisfying values to stock up on

Over the past year I’ve explored Chianti Classico a bit and came to appreciate these wines as very attractive, often displaying ripe and juicy cherry fruit, mediterranean herbs, and sometimes mild tobacco notes. Often they are very accessible in their youth, but most also have the potential to age and develop more complexity. And what’s best : there are many values to be found between 10€ and 20€ on European webshops.

You may still find websites that talk about the Chianti in straw baskets (the “fiasco”), as the pinnacle of mediocre wine. While such bottles still exist, my experience with Chianti Classico is that these wines have actually become very reliable in terms of quality and offer a satisfyingly good price quality ratio.

The only drawback for those who are not so in the know about Italian wine, is the confusion that may still exist about Chianti Classico, so here are a few facts to help you find your way :

Which grapes?

First of all, the main grape for Chianti Classico is Tuscany’s super star grape : Sangiovese. For long the wine had to be a blend, which could even include white grapes. Since 1996, however, the rules allow to make a 100% Sangiovese, the minimum always being 80%. “International” grape varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are allowed, and there was a time that they were commonly used to achieve a recognizable style for the global market. But that trend seems to have come pretty much to an end, with local varieties such as Canaiolo or Colorino now being the preferred blending partners.

Chianti Classico vs Chianti

Chianti Classico is not the same as Chianti : while both are primarily made from Sangiovese, they refer to different geographical areas. Broadly speaking, Chianti Classico is the zone between Florence and Siena. The Chianti area lies around it and also has separate appellations such as Chianti Colli Senesi or Rùfina. The separation between the two finds its origin in the huge expansion of the production area in the beginning of the 20th century as a response to growing demands . As a counter reaction the producers in the original zone organized themselves in the Consorzio del Chianti Classico and achieved official recognition for the term Chianti Classico in 1934. It refers to the production zone as it was delineated back in 1716. So today Chianti and Chianti Classico are two different appellations with different rules and different productions zones.

The quality levels

Chianti Classico is the “entry-level”. In the hierarchy there is also the “Riserva” for wines that have aged longer (minimum 24 months) and then there is the “Gran Selezione”, added in 2014 to designate single vineyard wines made exclusively of Sangiovese and with an ageing period of minimum 30 months. Several wine writers criticized the Gran Selezione level and questioned the need for it. But the producers felt they needed something “ultra premium” in order to compete with their neighbors in Brunello and other top wines in the world. And behold, the first 100 point score for a Chianti Classico became a reality with Barone Ricasoli’s Ceniprimo 2018, Gran Selezione, receiving the perfect score from James Suckling.

The good thing, however, is that you don’t need to reach for the Riserva or Gran Selezion to buy a properly good wine as the entry-level Chianti Classico often are satisfyingly good. As a matter of fact, entry-level is to be taken with a grain of salt. At least if it is considered to be the cheaper bottle that you skip in order to get to the interesting wines. For Chianti Classico I don’t consider that to be the case. The “entry-level” wine is often the flag bearer of the wineries, the wine that should convince you of what they are capable of. And yes, that tickle you to want to try the Riserva. But by no means a wine that is an afterthought. And that is the difference, in my opinion, with Brunello di Montalcino, probably the most famous appellation for Sangiovese in Tuscany. The flagbearers here are the Brunellos. Their “second” wine, if you’d like, is the Rosso di Montalcino. These wines often have a comparable price setting as the Chianti Classico. But I will not hesitate to choose the Chianti Classico over the Rosso di Montalcino, because the winery just cannot afford its Chianti Classico to be average if they want to arouse interest in the rest of their wines.

If reading this put you in the mood to try out a Chianto Classico, here are 5 wines that you can safely buy and enjoy!

Vallenuova 2018, Tolaini

Tart cherries, ripe red fruit, and delicate herbs in the background. There is an attractive tension in this wine, a mouthwatering quality that makes you crave more. On the whole this is a rather light and elegant Chianti Classico, but don’t mistake that for a lack of body or interest. The picture is just right, and the pieces of the puzzle all come together perfectly. Difficult to stop refilling your glass with this one. And at less than 15€ in European webshops, this is perhaps the best value in this list!

Chianti Classico 2018, Castello di Monsanto

Very transparent red. Strawberry jam, cherries and a bit of pepper. The aromas are quite ripe and that is why the freshness on the palate comes a bit as a surprise, but a nice surprise. The acidity makes for a lively wine that beautifully balances the ripe fruit. There are fine and ripe tannins in the background which add a bit of backbone. Juicy and delicious, and again available under 15€!

Chianti Classico 16-18, Castello di Volpaia

The Chianti Classico 2016 of Volpaia was the wine that sparked my fondness for Chianti Classico. I had it in a restaurant and was immediately taken in by its attractive style combining vibrant red fruit with a subtle touch of cedar wood and ripe tannins finishing it off. In the unlikely case you can still find the 2016, stock up!

The 2018 has a more classic profile with ripe and juicy cherry fruit, making it more easy-going than the 2016. The subtlety it displayed on day 2, however, is promising for the future, so it is definitely worth waiting a couple of years for the 2018 Volpaia to show its full potential. Available between 15-20€.

Chianti Classico 2018, Castello di Fonterutoli

Fonterutoli is one the estates of the Mazzei family. Their Chianti Classico is one the classics of the region, but definitely a different type of wine than the previous Chiantis in this list. The style is much riper and fuller, with very seductive black cherries and well-dosed oak. There is also a savory element in this wine that creates an additional layer and more depth. This is a wine with substance and ripe tannins. It is clear that a few years of cellaring will help to integrate everything, but despite its youth, this wine is very attractive already now with its luscious fruit and smooth style. Prices tend to be a bit higher than the previous wines discussed here, around 20€. But that is still a good value for the quality you get here.

Chianti Classico 2016, Querciabella

Another household name when it comes to Chianti Classico, this Querciabella is an immediate pleaser with forest fruit, cherries, a bit of smoke, and attractive floral notes. This wine is rather full-bodied, smooth and nicely balanced. The tannins are still quite present, but they are very ripe and certainly don’t stand in the way of enjoying this wine already now. There is still loads to unpack here, and the elegance and precision it had gained on day 2, show that this wine will age beautifully. But if you cannot hold your guns, just pop it and enjoy. You will not be disappointed. If you look well, you can still find the Querciabella under 20€, and it’s worth every cent.

Enjoy, and let me know if you tried one of these wines!

MonteRosola : putting Volterra on the wine map

I received samples from a relatively new winery in Tuscany, called MonteRosola, which started activities in 2015. The winery in Volterra was bought by a Swedish family, who runs an investment company back home. If you’ve been to Tuscany, then chances are high that you know Volterra. It’s one of those beautiful, dramatic hill-top towns that are so typical for the region. But the fact that it attracts many tourists every year, doesn’t mean that it has a strong reputation when it comes to wine. As a matter of fact, Volterra is more or less a stretch of no-man’s land in between famous wine producing zones such as Bolgheri in the west and Chianti in the east. So setting up a winery in such an area is a bold move, especially if you have high ambitions like the Thomaeus family.

The Swedish owners left nothing to chance. The winery is impressive, with ultra modern equipment and the capacity to host big celebrations. With the rolling countryside hills in the background, everything is set up to provide a luxurious “Tuscan” experience. For the wine making, they called upon Alberto Antonini, a wine consultant who formerly worked as technical director at Col d’Orcia and head wine maker at Antinori.

MonteRosola has a range of wines with on the one hand the typical Tuscan varieties Vermentino and Sangiovese, and on the other a more international line with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Viognier. The price of the latter category clearly follows a « Super Tuscan » approach.

The samples that are reviewed here are the Vermentinos and the Sangioveses.

Mastia 2018, IGT Toscana Rosso

Sangiovese blend. Ripe and generous cherry fruit on the nose, with a hint of florality just after opening. The generosity of the fruit is also reflected on the palate and there is a bit of heat noticeable, both contributing to a very round mouthfeel. A layer of powdery tannins makes for a grippy texture and there’s a slight bitterness in the ending. The balance is not quite right yet here.

Crescendo 2016, IGT Toscana Rosso

100% Sangiovese. Brambleberry, blueberry, and prominent but attractive Bordeaux-style cedar wood. There’s also a hint of leather against a pleasantly smoky background.

There’s a lot going on in the mouth with the forest fruit that opens the scene for a boisterous mix of fresh acidity and relatively muscled tannins. The latter again have that powdery quality, like in the Mastia, but they are better integrated here. The spiciness of the wood and the texture of the tannins beg for more bottle aging, but the balance is right and the classiness of this wine is already obvious now. Everything is in place for this wine to become really outstanding in three or four year’s time. The « international » style will perhaps not appeal to those who seek for “pure” Sangiovese, but the fact is that this is a really good and rather elegant wine.

Cassero 2019, IGT Toscana Bianco

Vermentino. Very lemony nose with candied lemon and lemon pith, and a bit of pear. Vermentino often has a tell-tale bitterness in the finish, but here it is already present on the mid-palate. This full-bodied white is definitely not an easy summer sipper, but rather a wine to accompany a meal. I had it with several different creamy cheeses, and that worked well. This is a characterful Vermentino, and in a region where a lot of bland whites are made, that’s a good thing.

Primo Passo 2018, IGT Toscana Bianco

Vermentino. Quite subtle nose. Attractive, fresh and smoky nose with pear and apricot. Beautifully cool, almost mineral, with a hint of aniseed in the backdrop. The freshness is also clear on the palate with a precise vein of acidity. That Vermentino almond bitterness is there but it is well measured and adds a bit of structure in the finish. Vermentino is not the easiest grape to get right, but this one is spot on!

Conclusion

MonteRosola definitely has something to show. It’s great to see, by the way, that ambition doesn’t come with bombastic wines, as they move from rather full bodied entry-level wines to more refined and elegant wines in the higher price range. And a little surprising, also, to see how good the whites are. Tuscany is a famous wine region, but the fame is made with the reds, not the whites. So to see them taking Vermentino to a really high level with the Primo Passo is great.

Sangiovese : how well does it stand the test of time?

I had the luck to participate in a tasting of old Sangioveses. Not having a proper cellar to keep wines for decades myself, I was very happy to be given this chance. And if that wasn’t enough, there was also a Sassicaia 1991 thrown into the deal! But more about that later.

Honestly, I wasn’t convinced of the ageing potential of Sangiovese… I have a difficult relationship with this grape. I have had very good experiences, but also less good ones. I like Sangiovese when the fruit is not cooked or too jammy, and when the alcohol levels are under control. But in recent vintages, alcohol levels of 14,5% or even 15% were more often the rule than the exception.  The fruit of those wines tends to evolve to dried fruit, and unless there’s good supporting acidity underneath that, such wines can be rather heady.

So when the opportunity came to taste a few really old Sangioveses, I knew I had to do this to finally know if these wines are worth cellaring for a couple of decades. When I say really old, they were indeed really old, the oldest bottle being a 1971… This was the line-up :

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  1. Isole e Olena 1983, Chianti Classico
  2. Brolio Riserva 1971, Chianti Classico, Barone Ricasoli
  3. La Casa 1979, Brunello di Montalcino, Tenuta Caparzo
  4. Il Poggione 1977, Brunello di Montalcino
  5. Tenuta Sant’Agnese 1979, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
  6. Avignonesi 1979, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
  7. Sassicaia 1991, (at that time still) Vino da Tavola

A really exciting line-up, with a perfect spread over the three most important wine producing regions for Sangiovese! Already the fact that I was going to taste a few wines that had spent more time on this planet than I have, was something to look out for. And yet, at the same time, I was kind of preparing myself for wines that were dead on their feet.

Isole e Olena 1983

The first wine was already immediately a surprise, because it appeared much younger than I had expected. Black cherry, plum, chocolate, tobacco, leather, a touch of cedar wood. Beautiful nose! The mouth feel was surprisingly fresh, and the wine even had some tannins still. Based on the nose I perhaps expected a wine with a bit more body, but still, this Chianti was alive and kicking. Good start! When I came back to this wine a bit later it was evolving to aromas of black tea, which I found less attractive, so no long airing needed here.

Brolio Riserva 1971

Twelve years further back in time, and that was immediately obvious, the color having evolved to copper/amber. It took a while for the aromas to show as there was a bit of dustiness that had to be whirled out the glass. After a couple of minutes we finally got some dried fruit, chocolate, dried spices, and even raisins. The wine was relatively thin, although not completely dead. Still a bit of dried fruit and chocolate, but it was clear that the best years of this Brolio were long gone.

La Casa 1979

Still ruby red with a brick colored rim signalling the evolution. Great nose! Dried fruit, floral tones, cedar wood, chocolate, plum, nutmeg, and a touch of animality. Very complex. The wine is very intense and deep, fresh as well, and still displays ripe red fruit. The balance here is remarkable. This wine is now perfect. Amazing after 40 years…

Il Poggione 1977

Clearly evolved color. The aromas come timidly out of the glass. Still some red fruit, spices, a touch of iron. It opens up a bit more after a while in the glass. After the impressive La Casa this wine appears a bit thinner, but it’s especially the tannins that draw the attention here, being a bit rough even after more than 40 years in the bottle. The balance is not completely right.

Sant’Agnese 1979

Transparent and evolved in color. Not very expressive, the fruit is ripe or dried even. There’s something dusty here as well. A touch of cedar and pine tree. In comparison to the previous wines, this Vino Nobile is a bit warmer, riper, and the acidity is lower than in the previous wines. Still noticeable tannines here. Good effort, but I personally prefer the elegance and freshness of the Brunellos.

Avignonesi 1979

Remarkably dark color in comparison with the previous wines. Quite a different nose also : black cherry, rubber, dried fruit, liquorice, coffee. Again a warmer impression in this Vino Nobile and again slightly drying tannins. The wine did evolve nicely in the glass, however, opening up beautifully with aromas of tobacco and more cedar wood. 40 years old and still margin. Hard to believe.

Before I move on to the Sassicaia : what’s my conclusion after these 6 Sangioveses? Well it’s clear that Sangiovese is worth tucking away in your cellar for a long, long time. Apart from the Brolio, all the wines were still in a good shape, which was much more than I had hoped for before the tasting. But not only were they not dead, most still displayed beautiful fruit aromas, noble cedar wood, and above all freshness. The Vino Nobiles were a bit warmer, but the Brunellos and the Isole e Olena were very fresh, even salivating wines, a characteristic I don’t often find in todays Sangioveses. That things have changed in Tuscany since the 1970s was probably the most obvious in the alcohol levels : all wines had between 12,5% and 13,5%. Difficult to imagine that nowadays…

If you were wondering about the Sassicaia, I will not beat about the bush : it was corked! What a bummer… But still, there are a couple of things worth mentioning for Sassicaia fans. 1991 was the vintage that received a 81 score in Wine Spectator, not a glorious score for  one of the world’s most famous wines. It is described as a wine that was thinner than other vintages. On top of that, Monica Larner, the Italian reviewer for The Wine Advocate, wrote this in April 2017 :

The 1991 Sassicaia has reached the end of the line. It shows overly oxidized aromas of dried meat, old leather and dried fig. This was a hot vintage and the bottom has dropped out on any residual fruit or fiber. The mouthfeel is tight, gritty and there’s a sudden note of bitterness on the finish. The effect is flat and void of any significant dimension. However, you do feel the vintage heat.

So I had no high hopes for this Sassicaia. When I discovered it had cork taint, I was even more disappointed of course. But I could still tell that this was not a wine that had “reached the end of the line”, quite the contrary actually, I could still discern loads of fresh fruit. Despite the off aromas there was still a glimpse of an elegant and vibrant wine, making the disappointment that it was corked even bigger. So if you’re lucky enough to have Sassicaia 1991 in your cellar, no reason to rush! Then why did Monica Larner say it was at the end of the line? Could it have been a badly stored bottle? Or was there bottle variation? It’s interesting to read the reviews on Cellartracker : some are really raving, while others mention oxidation. I wished there was a second bottle to put to the test, but alas…

To sweeten the pill our host came up with a replacement bottle for the Sassicaia : the Col d’Orcia 1991, Brunello di Montalcino. A good deal younger than the other Sangioveses we tasted earlier on, but still 28 years old! The difference in age was noticeable quite well : still loads of fruit, blueberry, rosemary, tobacco, leather, cedar. Great nose. The tannins were still present but in general the balance was good. Great length as well! Very enjoyable now, but still so many things going on that it can easily hold up for at least another decade!

And that was the end of a great evening. La Casa of Tenuta Caparzo was my personal favorite, but it was definitely not the only oldie with a good performance. This tasting illustrated very aptly how good aged Sangiovese can be. Anyone up for a follow-up tasting in 40 years?