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Clamoring for Chianti Classico
By Michael Apstein
Mar 1, 2023
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Daniel Posner, owner of Grapes, The Wine Company, a top wine retailer in Westchester County, just north of New York City, loves Chianti Classico.  Four years ago, he told me that he carried about 20, up from just two or three two decades earlier.  He remains enthusiastic about the category, “I’m happy to buy more, the quality is so high.” Currently, he has 26 different ones on his shelves.

The trio of vintages currently on the market, 2019, 2020, and 2021, supports his, and my, excitement for Chianti Classico.  I’ve come to this conclusion after tasting hundreds of them from these three vintages at the recently concluded Antiprime di Toscane in Florence, a comprehensive tasting sponsored by the Chianti Classico Consorzio that showcased about 700 wines.  Though I did not manage to taste all of them, I came away with a clear sense of these three superb vintages.

The 2021s, a product of a cool growing season, are what I would describe as pre-climate change wines.  The wines are racy and vibrant with plenty of ripeness, but not an iota of jammy-ness, that balances their energy.  Giovanni Manetti, who in addition to running Fontodi, one of the region’s top estates, is also the Chairman of the Chianti Classico Consorzio, the organization that represents the entire region, is wildly enthusiastic about the 2021s.  He told me, “It [the 2021 vintage] is really one of the best vintages ever made.”  That’s high praise considering Chianti Classico has had a string of superb vintages, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2019, and 2020 over just the last dozen years.  

2020 produced riper, lusher wines thanks to a spring frost that reduced yields, so all the sun’s energy went into a smaller crop.  The summer, meanwhile, was also hotter, which helps explains why these are more muscular, full-bodied wines.  For some of the riper wines, the fruit profile pushes towards plums rather than the more typical black cherry notes that Sangiovese often expresses.  The 2020s are clearly opulent, but the glorious Tuscan acidity keeps them fresh.  Manetti points out that part of high quality of the 2020s is, paradoxically, due to Covid because the region was in lockdown.  As he put it, “Believe me, I have never seen the vineyards so well-managed, so well-kept, because all of us we were there.”

For me, the 2019s are the “go to” wines for current consumption.  They are a delight, reminding me of the sleek and sculpted 2016s.  The 2019s combine the vivacity of the 2021s with the richness of the 2020s, which themselves are reminiscent of the 2015s.  And the few years of bottle age has given the 2019s great harmony.  

Advising when to drink the wines requires an understanding of the quality tiers of Chianti Classico.  First, though, remember that Chianti Classico, with its own DOCG, is the heart of the greater Chianti region, an elliptical area in central Tuscany that stretches from Florence to Siena.  For completeness, the seven other subregions of Chianti are Chianti Rùfina, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Montalbano, Chianti Aretini, Chianti Colline Pisane, and Chianti Montespertoli. 

Within Chianti Classico there are three quality tiers.  At the base is what the locals call annata, literally, “the year,” but a.k.a. non-Riserva.  A step up is the Riserva category.  By law, Riserva wines must be aged for two years prior to release.  In practice, a Riserva is a bigger wine with more complexity that will require and hold up to additional barrel aging.  It general, it’s a better wine, but typically needs more bottle age than the annata to reach its potential.  At the tip of the quality pyramid is Gran Selezione, a wine that needs at least two and a half years of aging before release and must be made from a single estate (that means no purchased grapes).  Starting July 1, 2023, Sangiovese must represent 90 percent of the blend of Gran Selezione.  The other 10 percent can be other local red varieties, but the so-called international varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah are prohibited.  

The important message to consumers from this hierarchy is that the most prestigious wines, the Gran Selezione, may not, and often are not, what you want to drink tonight because they need additional bottle age to settle down and show their complexities.  That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about the 2019 annata and Riservas.  They are delicious now, whereas the 2019 Gran Selezione, which ultimately—that’s the key word—will be better may not be as enjoyable to drink now.  

The Chianti Classico are brilliant with food because of their mouthwatering acidity.  It’s the acidity that refreshes the palate and invites another bite of whatever food you’re enjoying with your wine.  By and large, the annata are mid-weight wines, not ponderous block busters.  Riservas have more weight and complexity but are not heavy.  Certainly, they are an obvious choice with Italian food because their energy balances that country’s olive oil or butter-based cuisine.  But frankly, they are also terrific with a roast chicken with mushrooms or burgers.  To my mind, they are less well suited as a stand-alone aperitivo unless you’re nibbling on something.  

Here are a half dozen—three annatas and three Riservas—of 2019 Chianti Classico that are perfect for drinking now.  They will make you and your guests smile.  If you can’t find any of these, just ask your local wine retailer for recommendations:

Fattoria Le Masse, Chianti Classico 2019:  This family-run estate farms biodynamically and uses only naturally occurring yeast for fermentation.  Their 2019 annata, made entirely from Sangiovese, is stunning.  Bright red cherry notes atop a firm crystalline structure makes this racy red a delight to drink now.  (94 pts, $39)

Castell’in Villa, Chianti Classico 2019:  Made entirely from Sangiovese, this Chianti Classico combines a rich red berry-like fruitiness with spice and a subtle haunting bitterness in a long and fresh finish.  (93 pts, $33)

Isole e Olena, Chianti Classico 2019:  Always one of my favorites, Isole e Olena’s 2019 rocks.  This mid-weight wine combines cherry-like notes with alluring balsamic ones.  Classic Tuscan acidity keeps you coming back for another sip.  (92; $32)

Castello della Paneretta, Chianti Classico Riserva 2019:  Racy acidity balances the gorgeous dark cherry-like fruit.  Savory nuances add intrigue.  This long and elegant wine is a bargain!  (93 pts; $25)

Castello di Ama, Chianti Classico Riserva “Montebuoni” 2019:  This is just the second vintage of this wine for Castello di Ama, one of the very top Chianti Classico estates.  They aimed to make a Riserva that was more approachable than their famed San Lorenzo Riserva.  They have succeeded admirably.  Ripe and plush, the seductive Monebuoni has riveting acidity and beautiful balance that makes it a delight to drink now.  (93 pts $51)

Istine, Chianti Classico Riserva “Levigne” 2019:  Istine, still family run, has followed a familiar pathway from a family farm that sold grapes, to one that started bottling wine in 2009, to being certified organic in 2016.  The location of their vineyards in Radda, one of the highest elevations in Chianti Classico, no doubt helps explain the gorgeous energy of their wines.  This charming and bright Riserva leads with captivating floral notes and follows with elegant red cherry-like flavors.  Beautifully textured, this long and refined wine impresses with its elegance.  It’s a delight to savor throughout a meal.  (94 pts, $65)

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E-mail me your thoughts about Chianti Classico at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelApstein

March 1, 2023