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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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)
• 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.