Chianti is Italy’s oldest wine region (it goes back to the 14th Century), and the best-known (formally legislated by the Medicis in 1716, sold all over the world, it nearly became a generic name for Italian red wine). Until very recently, however, you could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss was about - no other wine in the world was so muddled and misshaped, by interfering politicians, bureaucrats, and mass-market industrialization; even in modern times, the best wines were rarely more than ordinary, pizza-parlor staples before pizza got sophisticated.
Aside from the Italian genius for interpreting the rules in creative ways, the biggest problem was that they had the wrong sort of grapes in the wrong places - quantity was valued more than quality. That began to end in 1989, with a project to select and grow the best sort of grapes, and to simplify the rules, and to bring Chianti into the 21st Century with some degree of grace and style. I was at the conference that launched the project, walked through the experimental vineyards, and wished the winemakers luck; many of us still had doubts. Not any more. It worked.
The proof is in the heart of the region, known as Chianti Classico (there are six other zones ranging around the Classico zone, all entitled to use the “Chianti” name as a prefix, i.e., Chianti Rufina, etc.). Chianti Classico is not only the best territory for grapes, but the wines are made to a higher standard. The main grape, sometimes the only one, is Sangiovese; small amounts of other wines may be blended in. What you get from it is a lovely aroma, almost perfumed, of cherries, violets, raspberries, and a flavor of cherries, sometimes a hint of plums, with a nice smack of refreshing acidity at the end. It’s a lean and, ideally elegant wine, angular rather than bulky or dense.
The good news doesn’t end there. The last four years have been a string of good vintages, so there’s an abundance to come for quite a while, and because of its previous reputation, prices are still fairly low. In fact, Chianti Classico is one of the best values in the wine world today.
THE BEST CHIANTI CLASSICOS
These are chosen from the 2004 vintage, which was released in the autumn of 2007, but their track records are based on consistent quality over several years’ worth of tasting. There is still some 2001 around by the way, a superb vintage. If you see it, don’t think twice, go for it.
Choose the best Chianti Classico for your next Italian meal. Always the best price, Chianti wine offers some of the best vintages in the last years for superior taste.