Feature Story

The Case for Chianti Classico
Can a growing chorus of believers make Chianti Classico cool again?

Ask a roomful of bright young sommeliers to name a red wine that’s value driven, food friendly and terroir expressive: The likely answer is Beaujolais, which overcame its reputation as cheap swill and is now compulsory on any serious wine list. You almost certainly would not hear Chianti, a name that was synonymous with quality Italian wine for centuries but has fallen off the radar in recent years. That’s changing: A few key tastemakers have taken notice of the growing number of value-driven, terroir-expressive Chianti Classicos now coming into the market. Their voices, along with a pair of very good vintages about to hit our shores, might just be enough to push Chianti Classico back onto the lists of savvy wine buyers.

“The 1970s were a very dark time for Tuscany,” says Bobby Stuckey, MS, co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine, in Boulder, Colorado, and the newly opened Tavernetta, in Denver. He remembers going to a Chianti Classico seminar around 1993 and, he says, “questioning whether sangiovese was even a noble variety.” Stuckey is among those who believe Chianti Classico has moved beyond its dark days and deserves another look. He never fully lost interest in the wines, and began refocusing on Chianti Classico in the last ten years as he started seeing great wines for the price. He recalls asking job applicants about Chianti Classico and getting blank stares. “Young buyers just aren’t tasting Chianti Classico,” Stuckey finds. “It’s mind numbing to me, because there’s so much great wine. There’s a renaissance happening. Everything we pretend to care about is there. The wine team at Frasca jokes about it all the time,” he says, “how every somm in Brooklyn would rather drink twenty-seven fucked-up bottles of Beaujolais than a Chianti Classico. It’s not the cool-kid juice, but when I talk to experienced somms like Richard Betts, [MS], we wonder, how are all these people missing this?”

David Rosoff, who ran the Mozza group of restaurants before opening his own Triple Beam Pizza in Los Angeles earlier this year, has been buying wines for Italian restaurants since the early 1990s. “My body craves good sangiovese, but I had a really negative view of Chianti Classico for a time,” he admits. “There were so many dark years when everyone was tampering with the wines, putting international varieties in the bottle, messing around in the winery to make it taste like anything but sangiovese.”

“It’s not the cool kid juice, but when I talk to experienced somms like Richard Betts, we wonder, how are all these people missing this?” —Bobby Stuckey, MS
Rosoff is another who thinks Chianti Classico is ripe for a renaissance. His interest was rekindled in the last few years over a series of visits to the region, where he noticed more producers working organically and making pure sangiovese wines or using other indigenous varieties in their blends rather than cabernet or merlot. He was blown away by the number of high-quality wines. “Somehow, in my old age, I’ve come back to the classics,” Rosoff says. “I’m interested in previously prestigious regions that have fallen on hard times. We saw this happen a few years ago with Beaujolais, and now it’s starting to happen with Chianti Classico. It’s really exciting.” Like Stuckey, though, Rosoff isn’t seeing those great wines making their way onto American wine lists, at least not yet. Perhaps that’s because it requires a bit of convincing for customers who harbor a negative image of the wines. “Young somms aren’t buying Chianti Classico,” he says, “so you don’t see it on as many wine lists as you should. You can put a really good Chianti Classico on your list at $40 or $50 and make lots of people happy, but you have to convince most people to drink it. You can do that if you’re hands-on and your staff is motivated and trained.”

Ceri Smith is one of those beverage directors who is motivating her staff and customers to embrace Chianti Classico. Smith is the founder and co-owner of the Biondivino retail stores in San Francisco and Palo Alto, wine director at San Francisco’s Tosca Cafe, and a sangiovese superfan, having fallen in love with it during her first trips to Tuscany. “What I loved was walking down the road, seeing the deep orange sunset and smelling the dirt, rosemary and sage on the warm evening breeze. There’s something in well-made Chianti Classico wines that takes me back to those moments.” In Smith’s view, “well made” means no international varieties and no barriques. “If someone puts in even five percent merlot, I can see it and smell it,” she says. Smith finds that more producers are replacing international varieties with local grapes, like pugnitello and ciliegiolo, and ditching barriques in favor of large botti, cement tanks, and even clay amphorae. “It may be the younger generation taking over and bringing a new mentality that looks outside of the region, making traditional wine in a purer way,” she muses, but whatever the roots of this trend, it is highlighting terroir differences among the wines. “What’s amazing is that you can really taste the difference among the communes. There are so many different styles and flavor profiles.”

“Somehow, in my old age, I’ve come back to the classics.” —David Rosoff
When Smith talks about communes, she’s referring to nine towns and their surrounding areas (Castellina, Gaiole, Greve, Radda, Barbarino Val d’Elsa, Castelnuovo Berardenga, Poggibonsi, San Casciano Val di Pesa and Tavarnelle Val di Pesa) that lie partially or totally within the DOCG’s borders. Chianti Classico covers 270 square miles, nearly three times the total area of Brunello di Montalcino, and all of the wines produced within its borders (or at least, those that adhere to the DOCG’s guidelines) are called Chianti Classico. This can make the region seem like one big blob to consumers; why choose one wine over another? Or, for retail and restaurant buyers, why stock more than one or two wines from Chianti Classico; isn’t it all the same? Actually, it isn’t. Chianti Classico’s vineyards occupy only about ten percent of the land, with vines rooted in diverse soil types at varying altitudes and exposures that produce a range of wine styles. People who are into Burgundy or Barolo have come to expect terroir-driven diversity within those regions; a similar diversity of styles can be found in the wines of Chianti Classico, but until recently, that message hasn’t broken through. Now, there’s growing momentum behind a proposal to divide the region into subzones that roughly correspond to the historical communes, and allow producers to feature their subzone prominently on labels, giving consumers a reason to experiment with wines from different subzones, with an eye towards developing a set of stylistic “markers” for each one.

As with any change in Italian wine laws, the subzone proposal has its supporters and detractors. Jeff Porter, beverage director for NYC’s Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, is firmly in the former camp. Porter says he’s always loved Chianti Classico, but noticed in discussions with producers that they rarely mentioned terroir. “When you talk to producers from Barolo and Barbaresco, they always talk about the place first. That wasn’t happening with Chianti Classico. Then Masnaghetti did his map, and I thought, why don’t they do more with that?” Alessandro Masnaghetti is the wine journalist who has advanced the subject of terroir in Italy by mapping, in exquisite detail, the crus of regions like Barolo and Barbaresco. In the second edition of his I Cru di Enogea Chianti Classico map (published in 2016), Masnaghetti locates vineyards within Chianti Classico’s nine historical communes and indicates elevation changes, a factor that plays an important role in wine styles. Porter used it as a roadmap at Babbo in NYC, stocking more Chianti Classico wines and listing them by commune. “It was a total Field of Dreams thing,” he admits. “Zero customers were asking for more Chianti Classico. But now guests are getting curious when they see the [commune] listings, and their preconceived notions are challenged. We’re selling a lot more Chianti Classico because of that.”

“It may be the younger generation taking over and bringing a new mentality that looks outside of the region, making traditional wine in a purer way... You can really taste the difference among the communes.” —Ceri Smith
Regional differences were a theme at this year’s Chianti Classico Collection, a massive two-day tasting in Florence where producers from 186 estates introduced their latest releases. Producer tables in the exhibition hall were organized by commune rather than alphabetically, as they had been in the past. Porter was there at the invitation of the Chianti Classico Consorzio to conduct a seminar focusing on the stylistic markers of each of the nine communes. Participants then blind-tasted nine Chianti Classico wines and tried to match each one with the commune where it was produced. While it isn’t easy to draw the lines in Chianti Classico, where the soil types can change within a matter of a few feet, the styles of some communes seem more easily identifiable than others. Wines from the heights of Radda, for example, tend to exhibit high-toned floral scents and bright red-cherry flavors while those from the warmer, more southerly Castelnuovo Berardenga, with its heavier clay soils, tend to be darker fruited and more powerful, approaching the style of sangiovese-based wines from Montalcino, 30 miles further south. According to Porter, the results of the blind tasting were promising. At least 30 percent of the tasters correctly identified the wine from each region, and for Radda, Castelnuovo Berardenga and San Casciano, it was more than 40 percent, results that should encourage proponents of subzone labeling.

“Now guests are getting curious when they see the [commune] listings, and their preconceived notions are challenged. We’re selling a lot more Chianti Classico because of that.” —Jeff Porter
All of the wines Porter chose were in the annata category, wines that form the base of Chianti Classico’s quality pyramid. Unlike the higher-level riserva and gran selezione categories, wines which are aged longer, sometimes in barriques, annatas typically age in stainless steel, cement or neutral wood vessels. That unadorned style allows regional differences to shine through, especially with wines that are pure sangiovese or include small amounts of other indigenous varieties. Annatas are ready to drink upon release; they don’t require time in the cellar, though many are quite capable of improving with age. Consumers can pick up a bottle after work and drink it with dinner that same evening, and restaurant buyers can put an annata on their list right away, typically for less than $50—which today is considered a bargain at most highend restaurants. As Stuckey notes, “If you’re going to be a wine-hospitality person for the long haul, you have to know how to find great wines at all price points, and that includes those great $50 bottles.”

The number of truly delicious annata wines introduced at the Chianti Classico Collection was impressive. Most were from 2015 and 2016, two different but excellent vintages that may convert some of the remaining skeptics. The 2015s will come as a pleasant surprise to those who still think of Chianti Classico as a thin, shrill wine. The growing season was generally warm and dry, with an intensely hot period in July followed by milder temperatures and some rain in August. Producers at higher altitudes benefited from cooler evening temperatures, and the best wines are concentrated and fleshy, with generous fruit flavors and vibrant acidity.

If generous is the catchword for 2015, classic is a better term for 2016. Spring brought some rain and hail that reduced yields, and summer temperatures were cooler than in the previous year. The grapes maintained elevated levels of acidity during the long, slow ripening period while developing deep colors and aromas. Wines from 2016 may be less immediately appealing than the fleshy 2015s, but producers like Michael Schmelzer of Monte Bernardi consider it the more complete vintage, the wines more elegant and long-lived.

Many 2015 Chianti Classicos are already available in the US, and the 2016s will begin appearing over the summer and fall—the perfect time for this wine, in Stuckey’s view. “The Frasca team is into Chianti Classico from April to October, when it outsells nebbiolo ninety-nine to one,” he says. “It’s a wine that has cut, with scents of Mediterranean and alpine herbs, so it works great as a vin de soif red in the warmer months.” Funny, that sounds just as appealing as Beaujolais.

Exploring Chianti Classico by Commune

To begin to understand the diverse styles of Chianti Classico, track down wines from different communes and taste them side by side. This list offers a starting point, with selections from six of the communes. All of these producers make their annata wines—an unadorned style ready-to-drink upon release—solely with sangiovese or with small additions of indigenous varieties. Choosing wines from the same vintage will make the comparison more direct.

Gaiole in Chianti
• Badia a Coltibuono (90% sangiovese, 5% canaiolo, 3% ciliegiolo, 2% colorino)
• Riecine (100% sangiovese)
• Rocca di Montegrossi (90% sangiovese, 5% canaiolo, 5% colorino)

San Casciano in Val di Pesa
• Montesecondo (80% sangiovese, 15% canaiolo, 5% colorino)
• Principe Corsini Villa Le Corti (95% sangiovese, 5% colorino)

Castelnuovo Berardenga
• Castell’in Villa (100% sangiovese)
• Fèlsina Bernardenga (100% sangiovese)

Radda in Chianti
• Castello Monterinaldi (90% sangiovese, 10% canaiolo)
• Istine (100% sangiovese)
• L’Erta di Radda (98% sangiovese, 2% canaiolo)
• Monteraponi (95% sangiovese, 5% canaiolo)
• Pruneto (95 to 100% sangiovese)
• Val delle Corti (95% sangiovese, 5% canaiolo)

Castellina in Chianti
• Bibbiano (100% sangiovese)
• Castellare di Castellina (95% sangiovese, 5% canaiolo)
• Castello La Leccia (100% sangiovese)

Greve in Chianti
• Fontodi (100% sangiovese)
• Monte Bernardi Retromarcia (100% sangiovese)

This story was featured in W&S June 2018.