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Chianti Classico: The Tale of Two Vintages
By Michael Apstein
Mar 26, 2019
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Consumers are lucky and should be thrilled that there are two stunning vintages, the 2015 and 2016, of Chianti Classico on retailers’ shelves now.  Although both vintages are outstanding, the character of the wines is very different.  In a word, so to speak, the 2015s are riper and fleshy while the 2016s are racier.  So, there’s something for everyone, whether you prefer the richer Chianti Classico, the 2015s, or the more traditionally framed ones, the 2016s.
The differences in the character of the wines can be explained easily by the weather.  At the risk of over simplification, but with the benefit of not getting too geeky, the weather in 2015 was generally warmer, which meant that the grapes were riper at harvest.  With riper grapes comes lower acidity--as all fruits ripen, sugar levels go up and tartness decreases--which translated into bolder wines with less acidity.  The 2016 growing season, by contrast, was cooler, which meant that grapes were slightly less ripe and the levels of acidity slightly higher, which translated into racier wines.

Consumers can find many well-priced examples from both vintages in the retail market.  Daniel Posner of The Grapes Wine Company, a major retailer in Westchester County, the northern suburbs of New York City, estimates that he carries 20 or so Chianti Classico bottlings, up from just two or three two decades ago.  He is enthusiastic about the category, “I’m happy to buy more, the quality is so high.  Compared to 15 years ago, it is hard to find a bad bottle of Chianti Classico in the $15 to $20 per bottle range.”

Bob Harkey of Harkey’s Fine Wines, a superb wine shop in Millis, Massachusetts just west of Boston, loves the 2016 vintage.  He, however, believes that many consumers will prefer the “more modern” 2015s.  He adds, “There’s nothing better than a well-aged Chianti Classico,” and thinks the 2016s will be better suited for the cellar than the 2015s.

Chianti Classico is the best known of the eight sub-regions of the greater Chianti area, which stretches from Pistoia, north of Florence to Montalcino, south of Siena, in central Tuscany.  Not only is it the best known, it also produces the best wines overall of the sub-regions and is the only one to have been awarded DOCG status, Italy’s highest wine classification. 

The greater Chianti region itself is also a DOCG, but none of the other sub-regions, Chianti Colli Senesi (the hills around Siena), Chianti Colli Fiorentini (the hills of around Florence), Chianti Rufina (northeast of Florence), Chianti Montalbano (northwest of Florence), Chianti Montespertoli (southwest of Florence), Chianti Colli Aretini (hills around Arezzo), and Chianti Colline Pisane (around Pisa), have that distinction.  Although that’s not to say that excellent wines are not produced in those sub-regions, because they are.  One taste of Chianti Rufina from Selvapiana or Frescobaldi will convince you of that.  It’s just that the wines from Chianti Classico are more consistently noteworthy and reliable.

Although Chianti is usually a blend, with Sangiovese as the primary grape, regulations now allow a pure Sangiovese-based wine as well.  Regulations for Chianti Classico, as opposed to Chianti, prohibit the use the white grapes, which were included in the historical blend, and require a minimum of 80 percent Sangiovese and a maximum of 20 percent of the autochthonous grapes, Canaiolo and Colorino, and the so-called “international” ones, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah in any combination.

The geography, soil, elevation, and exposure of the vineyards in Chianti Classico is extremely varied.  Add to that mix, winemaking preferences--which blend of grapes, how much extraction, how much oak aging--and you get a multiplicity of wine styles. That said, there should be a common theme of fresh fruit flavors intermingled, to a greater or lesser extent, with herbal and earthy ones, buttressed by vigorous uplifting acidity. 

There is a movement among some Chianti Classico producers to try to identify wine style according to the various villages within Chianti Classico, such as Greve, Gaiole, Panzano, Radda, and Castellina in Chianti, Castelnuovo Berardenga to name just six, as is common in Burgundy and Barolo.  No doubt, these villages with their different terroir produce wines identifiably unique to the particular locale.  Unfortunately for the consumer, identifying these unique characteristics is difficult because few producers make wines from the different villages.  Hence, separating terroir from the producer’s style is impossible.  Tasting Fontodi’s Chianti Classico from Panzano and Ricasoli’s Chianti Classico from Gaiole raises a legitimate question:  Are the differences between the two wines--and the wines are very different--due to the different terroir of Panzano and Gaiole…or due to the winemaking techniques of the individual producers?  Until the same producer makes wines from different villages, it will be impossible for the usual consumer to identify the unique influence of terroir in Chianti Classico.

The Chianti Classico Consorzio, the Galo Nero or iconic Black Rooster, has proposed a quality pyramid to guide the consumer.  At its base are the normale or annata, as the locals call them.  These wines are generally ready to be consumed upon release.  The next level up is Chianti Classico Riserva.  By regulation, Riservas must be aged an extra year in barrel as compared with the normale.   In practice, the Riserva should be a better wine, sufficiently concentrated and powerful to stand up to an extra year of barrel aging.  Chianti Classico Riservas are generally deeper, more complex wines with more tannic structure that need a few years of bottle age before pulling the cork.  At the pinnacle of the quality pyramid is the newly established category, Gran Selezione.  These wines must be aged for an additional six months compared to the Riservas--30 months overall--and are meant to be the estate’s best Chianti Classico.  Like the Riservas, Gran Selezione need more bottle age to show their grandeur.  In my experience, which echoes Harkey’s, one of the beauties of Chianti Classico Riservas, and presumably the Gran Selezione, though that category is still too young to know for sure, is how beautifully these wines develop with a decade or two of bottle age. 

Are Riservas always “better” than the normale Chianti Classico, and do the Gran Selezione always out-distance everything else?  The answer is a resounding no.  The pyramid is broadly helpful, but in my opinion, the best guide to choosing Chianti Classico remains producer, producer, producer.  Find producers whose wines you like and stick with them. Importantly, if you want to drink the wine tonight, then reach for a 2015 or 2016 annata, rather than a Riserva from those years.

Here are a half-dozen Chianti Classico normale from 2015 and 2016 that I enthusiastically recommend:

San Fabiano Calcinaia, Chianti Classico 2016 ($25):  Mouth-cleansing acidity enlivens this long and layered beauty.  Beautifully balanced, nothing is out of place. It’s a delight to drink now.  95

Fontodi, Chianti Classico “Filetta di Lamole” 2016 ($44):  The Filetta vineyard, though only a few miles from Fontodi’s home base near Panzano, produces a very different Chianti Classico because of the extreme elevation of the vineyard.  Lacey and sleek compared to their usual Chianti Classico, the pair clearly demonstrates the importance of terroir because both wines are made entirely from Sangiovese by the same winemaking team.  You can’t go wrong with either.  95

Tenuta di Nozzole, Chianti Classico “Nozzole” 2015 ($22):  Reflecting the ripeness of the vintage, the Nozzole even delivers hints of olives and chocolate.  But its energy is unmistakable.  The tannins are suave, lending support, but not astringency.  A long and succulent wine, it would be a perfect choice for a grilled steak.  94

Fèlsina, Chianti Classico “Berardenga” 2015 ($25):  Castelnuovo Berardenga is the southern-most subzone of the Chianti Classico area and typically is home to the densest and ripest wines.  Even with their location and the character of the 2015 vintage, Fèlsina imbues its Chianti Classico with energy and life that balances its concentrated flavors.  Herbal notes add to its allure.  A robust rendition of Chianti Classico, it nonetheless is bright and lively.  94

Fontodi, Chianti Classico 2016 ($44):  Fontodi, one of the great names in Chianti Classico, is located in the heart of that region, in what’s known as the Conca d’Oro (golden shell) because of the amphitheater-like exposure.  The wine is ripe, yet racy, refreshing and bright.  Its floral component tantalizes, while the deep, dark, bitter cherry-like flavors satisfy.  Ready to enjoy now, this bold, but balanced, wine will develop additional complexity with bottle age, so there’s no rush.  94

Badia a Coltibuono, Chianti Classico 2015 ($20):  This 2015 Chianti Classico is a gracious mix of bright red cherry-like flavors accented by earthy notes.  Mild tannins lend support without intrusion.  Its complexity becomes apparent with successive sips.  This long and bright wine is ideal for current consumption.  93

Vignamaggio, Chianti Classico “Terre di Prenzano” 2016 ($21): Gorgeous aromatics draw you in and the panoply of red fruit and herbal flavors keep you returning for more.  Bright and balanced, this mid-weight wine is a fine accompaniment to a grilled veal chop.  93

Istine, Chianti Classico 2015 ($22): Though packed, Istine’s 2015 is racy and elegant, so there’s not a trace of heaviness.  Still a mid-weight wine, pure and bright cherry-like flavors sing. Its length is impressive.  93

Principe Corsini, Villa Le Corti Chianti Classico “Le Corti” 2016 $24):  Made from organically grown grapes, Principe Corsini’s Chianti Classic are consistently satisfying.  The 2016 is ripe, yet racy with hints of tart cherries and balancing savory nuances.  Classically structured, it’s a delight to drink now.  93

Isole e Olena, Chianti Classico 2015 ($26):  The always inquisitive Paolo de Marchi consistently makes brilliant wines.  He refuses to make a Chianti Classico Reserva because he feels it would detract either from Cepparello, his spectacular Super Tuscan, or his annata, which probably explains why his Chianti Classico is so good.  His 2015 Chianti Classico, a mid-weight wine, delivers brightness and energy that balances the ripe red fruit notes.  93

Querciabella, Chianti Classico 2016 ($30):  Deep and concentrated, Querciabella’s 2016 is nonetheless, lively and invigorating.  Savory, “not just fruit,” nuances complement and balance the dark cherry-like flavors.  A hint of oak aging works well here.  93

Castello di Radda, Chianti Classico 2015 ($15): Though it shows the ripeness of the vintage, bright acidity lends a gracefulness and amplifies the mixture of cherry-like and savory flavors.  91

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Email me your thoughts about Chianti Classico at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

March 28, 2019