This summer, make it Chianti Classico
By Eric Asimov
Here’s my wine for the summer: Chianti Classico.
I know, it’s not what people usually imagine as a summer wine. It’s red, for one thing. Sunny days, sweaty nights and poolside tables are the regular haunts of rosés and whites.
I’ve always resisted the notion that seasons alone dictate what’s best to drink. It’s the food at least as much as the weather.
The weather influences the weight and heft of what we cook and the sorts of ingredients that are available. The heavy stews and casseroles of winter give way to glorious salads and food cooked outdoors over coals. Even in the summer, certain dishes call out for reds, and the one I often want now is Chianti Classico.
Partly this is because I have a crush on the sangiovese grape, the crucial constituent of the wine. Sangiovese in its Chianti Classico form is a great match for steak, burgers, sausages and even grilled chicken. It has the depth to match their flavors, with enough acidity to refresh. And it takes nicely to a light chill — say, 20 minutes in the fridge or an ice bucket.
Other Italian wines are based on sangiovese, including Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which, like Chianti, are from Tuscany. It’s a popular grape in Emilia-Romagna to the north and in the Marche to the east.
But as much as I like these other wines, right now I’m obsessed with Chianti Classico. I find a lightness, purity and eloquence to the wines that in my mind sets them apart from other sangiovese wines.
Recently, shopping online in New York City, I picked out a dozen Chianti Classicos that will be great this summer, or for the next few years at least. Let me be more precise: I found 10 Chianti Classicos and two bottles that are Chianti Classicos in every way but name, their producers having chosen not to use the appellation for personal or historical reasons.
Chianti Classico is the historic heart of a larger Chianti region in the hilly area between Florence and Siena. Outside of the Chianti Classico area other wines can be labeled plain Chianti or, if they come from within seven subzones they can append a local designation.
Those include: Chianti Rùfina, Chianti Colline Pisane, Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Colli Aretini, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Montespertoli and Chianti Montalbano.
Those wines can be good, but in my experience few have the finesse or beauty of Chianti Classicos.
Even within the Chianti Classico category, different wines can offer very different expressions. Some can be almost achingly ethereal while others are richer and more substantial.
Some may be structured and tannic enough to wait a few years before drinking. Others are easygoing and ready to drink upon release. The best are fine and transparently express their origins, often with sweet, earthy and bitter flavors of cherries and flowers.
Long gone are the days in the 1960s when the local wine authorities mandated a maximum of 70% sangiovese in Chiantis and required that white grapes be blended in. Nowadays, Chianti Classico must be 80% to 100% sangiovese, with the rest made up of local grapes like canaiolo, colorino or malvasia nera; international grapes like merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah; or a combination.
With rare exceptions, sangiovese works best with the local grapes. Too often, the international grapes insert a discordant note — the chocolate of merlot, for example, that can seem out of tune. Yet one of my recommended bottles does have some merlot in its blend, and I was not able to notice it.
What accounts for the differences in the wines? The region is a complicated jumble of soils, vineyards, elevations and microclimates, which can make wines grown in neighboring towns remarkably dissimilar. The differing intentions of the farmers and winemakers is also a crucial factor.
Chianti Classico is divided into eight subzones (it used to be nine, but in 2019 Barberino Val d’Elsa and Tavarnelle Val di Pesa merged and is now referred to as Barberino Tavarnelle), and a debate has long raged whether to permit producers to use these subzones on their labels.
Proponents argue it will help consumers gain a sense of the character of a wine, while opponents say the variables are too many and that geographical divisions are too simple.
It’s possible both sides are correct. But I believe more information is better, and I have certainly noticed some correlation between subzones and styles. The wines from Radda in Chianti, for example, seem to be elegant, with great finesse, while those from Castelnuovo Berardenga are often richer and weightier.
The other five subzones are Greve in Chianti, San Casciano in Val di Pesa, Castellina in Chianti, Gaiole in Chianti and Poggibonsi.
Chianti Classico comes in three levels: Chianti Classico, which requires 12 months of aging before release, Chianti Classico Riserva, which requires 24 months of aging and Gran Selezione, which can only be made from estate-owned grapes and requires 30 months of aging.
I have focused on the straightforward Chianti Classicos, often referred to informally as “normales” to distinguish them from the riservas and gran seleziones. I find that the normales are the least likely to be burdened with the aromas and tannins of new oak barrels and offer an immediate, unmediated purity. Wines in the other categories can be wonderful, but may require a lot more aging before realizing their potential. They are also a lot more expensive.
A Dozen Bottles From Tuscany
Here are my 12 suggestions, in order of price. Many more excellent Chianti Classicos are out there, which for one reason or another I did not find. They include Caparsa, Castellinuzza e Piuca, Monte Bernardi, Isole e Olena, Lecci e Brocchi and Castell’in Villa.
Candialle Chianti Classico La Misse di Candialle 2017 $24
Josephin and Jarkko Peranen, a German-Finnish couple who own Candialle, practice regenerative agriculture at their small estate near Greve. La Misse di Candialle is 90% sangiovese, with 5% each of canaiolo and malvasia nera, fermented and aged in concrete vats. This lovely wine has spicy, peppery flavors of red cherries and flowers, with firm tannins that will soften with a few years aging. (Bowler Wine, New York)
Istine Chianti Classico Vigna Istine 2018 $24
This tangy, energetic Chianti Classico is 100% sangiovese from a high-altitude, organic vineyard in Radda, where the soils are a mix of limestone marl, sandstone and schist. It is fermented in concrete vats and aged a year in Slavonian oak, followed by another year of aging in the bottle. It is fresh and graceful, floral and elegant. (Soilair Selection, New York)
Fèlsina Chianti Classico Berardenga 2018 $25
Like the Vigna Istine, the Fèlsina Chianti Classico is 100% sangiovese and comes from a mixture of soils. Yet it is bigger and rounder than the Istine, with firmer tannins and earthy, stony flavors of ripe red fruits. Many variables could account for the differences, but significantly, the Fèlsina vineyards are at a lower altitude in the Castelnuovo Berardenga area. This excellent wine will improve with a few more years of age. (Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, New York)
I Fabbri Chianti Classico Lamole 2017 $28
In 2000, Susanna Grassi returned to her largely abandoned family estate in the Greve area and started I Fabbri. Her vineyards are relatively high, 1,900 to 2,000 feet, and she farms organically. The Lamole, 100% sangiovese and aged in concrete tanks, is fresh, light, pure, floral and elegant, even in a hot vintage like 2017. (Volcanic Selections, New York)
Pruneto Chianti Classico 2016 $29
This wine, from a tiny estate with high-elevation vineyards in Radda, is an exception in this group, because in addition to 95% sangiovese it contains 5% merlot. Unlike other wines with international grapes in the blend, I could not detect any influence in the wine, which was bright, juicy and vibrant, with pure flavors of red cherries and dusty tannins. Riccardo Lanza, the proprietor, is essentially a one-person operation. He farms organically, ferments in concrete vats and ages the wine in large oak barrels. (Coeur Wine Company, New York)
Montesecondo Chianti Classico 2018 $30
Silvio Messana farms his Montesecondo estate in San Casciano biodynamically. His lovely Chianti Classico is 90% sangiovese, with 5% each of canaiolo and colorino, blended from two sites and aged in concrete vats. It is spicy, pure and vibrant, with lively, stony, lingering flavors of red fruits and fine tannins. (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York)
Monteraponi Chianti Classico 2018 $30
The Chianti Classicos at this excellent estate, with high-elevation vineyards in Radda rich with limestone marl and schist, are superb year in and year out. The 2018 is substantial yet fresh, lithe and graceful, with earthy, stony flavors of red fruits. It is 95% sangiovese and 5% canaiolo, fermented in concrete vats and aged in large oak barrels. (Grand Cru Selections, New York)
Fontodi Chianti Classico 2017 $45
This large, well-known estate, owned by the Manetti family, has lower-elevation vineyards in Panzano near Greve. Fontodi farms organically, and its Chianti Classico is 100% sangiovese, fermented in tanks and aged in older barrels of French oak. The 2017 is rich and expressive, structured and linear, with fine tannins and flavors of dark cherry and flowers. (Vinifera Imports, Ronkonkoma, New York)
San Giusto a Rentennano Chianti Classico 2018 $54
The Martini di Cigala family has owned this estate in Gaiole for generations. This elegant Chianti Classico is made from 95% sangiovese and 5% canaiolo, all farmed organically. It is rather high in alcohol at 14.5%, yet it paradoxically seems light-bodied, with pretty flavors of cherries, flowers and herbs, and fine tannins. (Vinifera Imports)
Cigliano di Sopra Chianti Classico 2017 $56
Maddalena Fucile, with the help of Matteo Vaccari, restored the vineyards of her old family estate in San Casciano, the area of Chianti Classico closest to the city of Florence. They farm biodynamically, ferment in steel tanks and age in big barrels of French oak. This juicy, earthy wine is 100% sangiovese, with chalky tannins and red fruit and floral flavors. (Volcanic Selections)
Le Boncie Toscana Le Trame 2017 $60
Giovanna Morganti farms her small estate outside Castelnuovo Berardenga biodynamically. While her wines qualify as Chianti Classicos, she stopped using the appellation a decade ago, rejecting the bureaucratic details required. Regardless, her wines are pure, bright, fresh and juicy, with bracing acidity and lingering flavors of red fruit and flowers. They are almost entirely sangiovese, with tiny amounts of mammolo and foglia tonda, a rarely seen local grape, in the mix. (Rosenthal Wine Merchant, New York)
Montevertine Toscana 2017 $68
Like Le Boncie, Montevertine, near Radda, does not use the Chianti Classico appellation, though it would qualify. Its reasons are more historical, though. In the 1970s, Montevertine decided it could make better wines without following the blending rules that then governed the region. In rebellion, it stopped using the appellation. Chianti Classico has come a long way since, changing its rules to accommodate wines like Montevertine. But Montevertine persists in its independence. This superb wine, 90% sangiovese and 5% each of canaiolo and colorino, is rich yet tapered and precise, beautifully balanced and elegant, with stony flavors of red fruit and flowers. It will gain complexity and nuance with aging. (Rosenthal Wine Merchant)