I don’t think anyone drinks great wine all the time. At least I’m sure I don’t, and not just for reasons of cost. Part of what makes greatness is its rarity, its intermittency in our lives. I couldn’t survive at the highest pitch of King Lear or of the Verdi Requiem every day, and I strongly suspect that a steady diet of foie gras and Yquem would pretty quickly become stultifying. So in this post and some future ones I propose to celebrate the everyday – some wines that are friendly, adaptable, and reliable, wines that consistently give pleasure, wines of less prestige, less pressure, and less price than the stratospheric level of great ones.
This lesser breed needs more recognition and more honor than it usually gets: Maybe these sorts of wine need their own classification – something indicative of their comfortable character. I therefore propose the honorable category of Amiable Wines.
This is bound to be subjective, of course, but what kind of wine writer would I be if I let that stop me?
That said, here is the first of the wines I propose for immediate election to the Cheerful Confraternity of Amiable Wines. Not surprisingly, given my palate, my first choice is red and Italian: Chianti Classico – not Riserva, just the normal bottlings.
Really, in a half-way decent vintage, it’s hard to find a wine that gives as much pleasure and adapts to as many different sorts of food. A few years back, I would have qualified that statement by saying “except Barbera,” but that’s no longer true: Too much Barbera these days has been monkeyed with and manipulated to make it “important,” so that as a species it’s now no match for Chianti Classico. Mind, I’m saying Classico and not simply Chianti, because the Chiantis from the numerous non-Classico zones are just too various and too uneven in quality (except Rufina) to generalize about.
They can be very good, but buying them is always a bit of a crapshoot (except Rufina). Among the Chianti Classicos, however, the level of quality is more uniform, selection is great, and distribution – especially here in the US – is wonderful, so that almost anyone in any market should have access to a reasonably priced, eminently drinkable bottle of good red wine.
In addition to the advantage of fine terroirs and expositions throughout the Classico zone, its Chiantis have the advantage that most of them contain more Sangiovese than the wines of the other Chianti zones. Up to 100% Sangiovese is permissible, and more and more producers are using it. Those that don’t, usually blend about 85% Sangiovese (80% is the legal minimum) with small quantities of native grapes such as Canaiolo or Mammolo or Colorino (all traditionally grown within the zone) or Montepulciano (despite the name, an introduction from the Marche) or even a little Merlot, which can gentle the sometimes sharp edges of Sangiovese.
Happily, Cabernet has almost completely disappeared from Chianti Classico: It never married well with Sangiovese, and even a small amount of it can take over a blend. It’s still grown in Tuscany, but these days tends either to be vinified and bottled separately or to be used in some Supertuscans, most of which for my palate are far from super and never very Tuscan.
That still leaves a lot of Chianti Classico to choose from. Some of my favorites? How much time do you have? All right, here are a few:
Badia a Coltibuono: This estate of the Stucchi-Prinetti family makes lovely, long-aging riserva Chiantis, but even its normal DOCG bottling is capable of great surprises, both in quality and ageability.
Casa Sola: This estate makes what tastes like classically Tuscan Chianti, even though its DOCG blend contain small amounts of international grapes.
Castello di Cacchiano: Not as well known in the US as it deserves to be, this ancient estate of the Ricasoli-Firidolfi produces some of the most Tuscan-accented of DOCG Chianti Classicos: 95% Sangiovese, 5% Canaiolo, and excellent.
Castello di Volpaia: Not so much a castle as a medieval village, Volpaia produces high-altitude Chianti Classico DOCG, marked always by grace and elegance. This is a distinctive wine, less of the Tuscan earth than of the Tuscan air.
Cecchi: A long-established Tuscan winemaking family in the Castellina area, Cecchi produces excellent value Chianti Classico DOCG year after year. Several different labels, all good and fairly priced.
Felsina: An estate in the far south of the Classico zone that is best known for its two superlative crus riservas, Fontalloro and Rancia, Felsina also produces a very reliable and somewhat hefty – “sturdy” is Nick Belfrage’s apt word for it – Chianti Classico DOCG.
Fonterutoli: The Mazzei family has been in the Tuscan wine trade for many centuries, and the current generation – brothers Filippo and Francesco – have held the banner high. Lovely Chianti Classico DOCG of Sangiovese blended with Colorino, Malvasia Nero, and Merlot.
Isole e Olena: This is the name of two tiny hamlets owned and farmed by Paolo di Marchi. It’s most famous for its once-revolutionary 100% Sangiovese Cepparello, still an IGT wine, but its equally 100% Sangiovese Chianti Classico DOCG is thoroughly enjoyable.
Poggiopiano: Last, but only alphabetically, this family-owned estate not too far from Florence makes wonderfully juicy Chianti Classico DOCG from Sangiovese with the merest whiff of Canaiolo.
You’ll have to take my word for it: These are only some of the many Chianti Classicos I could recommend. Happy hunting!