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 :
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!