Chianti Classico Triumphant

I spent a chilly, damp week last month in Tuscany. Sunny Italy it was not – but at least the wines were fine, especially the Chianti Classicos. The wines I tasted at the Chianti Classico Collection in Florence spanned three vintages – 2007, 2008, and 2009 – and I found a lot to like in all of them. Actually, those were just the regular bottlings; the Riserva samples ran back to 2006 and even a few from 2005. The greater age did nothing but confirm my respect for the level of expertise at which Chianti Classico producers are operating.

Reading through my tasting notes – a chore I’ll try to spare you – I was struck by the consistency of my descriptions. Ideally, that’s the way things should be when you’re tasting a lot of wines of the same vintage, from the same zone, vinified from at least basically the same grape variety. (For those who have forgotten, the legal formula for Chianti Classico now demands that Sangiovese be minimally 80% of the blend and may be all of it.) So you should perceive a certain consistency of flavors, even in a zone with as many microclimates as Chianti Classico. You should – but in the past that has not always been the case.

Chianti Classico: the heart of the heart of Tuscany

This time, however, it emphatically was, and that cheered me immensely. What I perceived in the wines I tasted was a return to Chianti’s roots, a re-establishing of its identity as Sangiovese, as Tuscan Sangiovese, as Tuscan Sangiovese grown and fermented in that magical stretch of hills south of Florence and north of Siena – in short, Sangiovese as it grows nowhere else, tasting as it does nowhere else. It’s no accident that most attempts to make wine from Sangiovese in California have come to nothing. This grape is picky, picky, picky.

Time after time, what showed on my palate and showed up in my notes was rich, intense black cherry – inflected with walnut or even chestnut, underbraced by minerality or even a little earthiness, stylistically varied into elegance or rusticity, lushness or austerity, modified sometimes by notes of toasted oak – but always and everywhere that marvelous Sangiovese fruit, for which black cherry is the closest human approximation (at least this human’s). If you’ve experienced it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, you may find it hard to imagine just how exhilarating it was for me to taste one wine after another that delivered that palate-tingling flavor.

So was everything perfect?  Well, no: Because of the way the event was organized this year there wasn’t much time to talk to the producers face to face, which always adds another dimension to the ultimately solitary act of tasting. And there were some wines I didn’t like – a few for stylistic reasons, and even fewer because I thought they were badly made. But on the whole, I was very impressed. I noted a dramatic reduction in the number of wines that were overwhelmed by the aroma or flavor of new oak: There were few of them on display, and that is very good news. There seemed to be a slight increase in aromas of toasted oak – it comes across as coffee or espresso – but most of the wines with those aromas didn’t follow through with those flavors on the palate, a restraint that is very good news too.

Probably what was most striking across the board, after the classic Sangiovese character of these wines, was their balance and structure: Everything seemed to be in place, and in most cases the wines seemed ready for drinking right now. They may very well go through a dumb phase – most quality red wines do – but they show every sign of having the ability to emerge from it better than ever. If you’re a Chianti lover, these vintages of Chianti Classico should be a very pleasurable part of your life now and for years to come.

I’m going to do now what every writer is always cautioned not to do. I’m going to give you a list, simply a list, of the wines I liked best, with maybe just a word or two added. If you’ve read this far, you know what my tasting notes would look like, so I’m not going to bore both of us by repeating them. Here are the wines:

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Five-Star Wines

Castello di Ama, Vigneto Bellavista, 2007 — Structured, fresh, supple.

Castello di Cacchiano 2007 — Lovely and understated; a beautiful wine.

Castello di Cacchiano Riserva 2006 — Rich, round.

Castello di Meleto, Vigna Casi, Riserva 2006

Castello di Monsanto, Il Poggio, Riserva 2006

Corsignano 2007 — Utterly pleasurable.

Felsina, Rancia, Riserva 2008 — Big and dark.

Fontodi 2008 — Superb, but needs some time.

Fontodi, Vigna del Sorbo, Riserva 2007 — Emphatic Sangiovese character.

I Sodi Riserva 2007 — Big and balanced.

La Casaccia Riserva 2007 — Lovely Chianti.

Melini, Vigneti La Selvanella, Riserva 2007 — An old reliable: classic.

Nittardi, Casanuova di Nittardi, 2008 — Elegant and full.

Ormanni, Borro del Diavolo, Riserva 2007 — Wonderful fruit: vivid.

Riecine Riserva 2007 — Sapid.

Rocca di Castagnoli, Poggio a’ Frati, Riserva 2007

San Felice, Il Grigio, Riserva 2007

Ruffino, Ducale Oro, Riserva 2006

Villa Cafaggio 2008 — Big, structured, intense.

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Four-Star Wines

Agricoltori del Chianti Geografico, Contessa di Radda, 2008

Carpineto 2009 — Lots of minerality.

Castell’ in Villa 2007 — Elegant.

Castell’ in Villa Riserva 2005 — Fine Sangiovese character.

Castello d’Albola 2008

Castello della Paneretta 2008

Castello della Paneretta Riserva 2007

Castello di Ama, Vigneto La Casuccia, 2007

Castello di Bossi, Berardo, Riserva 2007

Castellare di Castellina Riserva 2008

Castello di Meleto 2008

Castello di Querceto Riserva 2007

Castello di Querceto, Il Picchio, Riserva 2007

Castello di Verrazzano 2008 — Austere, structured.

Castello di Verrazzano Riserva 2007

Castello Vicchiomaggio, Agostino Petri, Riserva 2008

Castello di Volpaia, Coltassala, Riserva 2007 — Lovely balance.

Castello di Volpaia, Volpaia, 2008 — Elegant, cellarable.

Cecchi 2009 — Slightly closed; needs time.

Cecchi, Riserva di Famiglia, Riserva 2008

Felsina Berardenga 2009 — Very cherry.

Il Molino di Grace 2007

Il Molino di Grace, Il Margone, Riserva 2005

Isole e Olena 2008 — Medium scale and spot on.

La Madonnina Riserva 2008

Lilliano 2008 — Needs time, but potentially quite fine.

Melini, Granaio 2008

Nittardi Riserva 2007

Poggiopiano 2008 — Fresh, balanced, pleasing.

Poggiopiano, La Tradizione, 2007

Principe Corsini, Le Corti, 2008

Ricasoli, Castello di Brolio, 2008

Ricasoli, Colledilà, 2008

Rocca delle Macìe, Famiglia Zingarelli, Riserva 2008

Rocca di Montegrossi 2009 — Lively.

Tenementi Angelini, San Leonino, 2008

Villa Cafaggio Riserva 2007

Villa Cerna 2009

Villa Cerna Riserva 2008 — Juicy.

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