The Chianti region of Tuscany, as was the case with many vineyard and wine-making areas of Italy, was assailed by the vagaries of reputation in the second half of the 20th Century, mainly of its own doing. Chianti was marketed as a cheap wine for college students and cheap restaurants; the straw “basket” covering didn’t help. Growers overplanted their vineyards and extended acreage into inappropriate terrain, resulting in wines that were diluted and bland, when they weren’t shrieking with acidity. Fortunately, the regulations of 1984, when Chianti became a DOCG wine, lowered yields and the amount of white grapes allowed in the blend and instituted more stringent vineyard and winery practices. Chianti Classico was granted its own DOCG in 1996.

The history of Chianti, as a wine and a region, is long and storied, though the story, as I have indicated, is not always a great one. The earliest written record of Chianti wines dates to the mid-13th century, referring to some villages around Florence; at that time, the wine was white. Cosimo III de’Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, laid out the official area of Chianti in 1716, an act that seems to be the earliest effort to regulate wine production and delineate a vineyard territory. The region was expanded in 1932 and 1967, the latter edict encompassing most of central Tuscany, from the hills of Pisa in the northwest to the hills of Pomino in the northeast and far south to Siena. The first “formula” for Chianti was elucidated in 1871 by Baron Bettino Ricasoli, who recommended a blend of 70 percent sangiovese, 15 percent canaiolo, 10 percent malvasia (later amended to include trebbiano) and 5 percent other local red varieties. That is not the Chianti we see nowadays, when the wine may be 100 percent sangiovese — the minimum is 80 percent sangiovese — or with dollops of “international” grapes like merlot, cabernet sauvignon or syrah. Only the most traditional estates include indigenous red varieties like canaiolo, ciliegiolo and colorino.

The other innovation in Chianti — particularly in Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva — is the use of 59-gallon (225-liter) French oak barriques for aging instead of the traditional large Slovenian oak casks; you will notice at least one of the wines under consideration today aged in 100 percent new French oak barrels, and when that process occurs I think we’re leaning more toward Pauillac and Napa Valley than Tuscany. In fact, if a Chianti Classico Riserva is made from 100 percent sangiovese grapes and ages, say, two years in barriques, how different is it from Brunello di Montalcino also produced completely from sangiovese and aged in barriques? If you smell vanilla, you smell French oak, no matter where the wine was made.

Today we look at a dozen wines, Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva, some fairly traditional, some more progressive or modern in spirit. Though I tend to like the traditional manner better, not a one of these wines is flawed or overplayed; most of the ratings are Excellent. Chianti Classico, by the way, derives from the heart of Chianti, the area south of Florence that still conforms largely to the geographical outlines laid down by Cosimo III in 1716. The implication is that the Grand Duke’s foresight was prescient and that Chianti Classico and Riserva remain the best that the region can offer, though the producers of Chianti Rufina, northeast of Italy might beg to differ.

Map from

Antinori Pèppoli Chianti Classico 2010 consists of 90 percent sangiovese and a 10 percent blend of merlot and syrah; yes, syrah is allowed in Chianti Classico. The great majority of the wine aged nine months in 55 hectoliter Slavonian oak casks, the rest in American oak barriques; 55 hectoliters equals 1,453 gallons, so those are large casks. This is a beguiling old-style Chianti Classico (despite the merlot and syrah) that displays a dried fruit/dried spice/dried floral character still fresh, ripe and appealing and singing in notes of red and black currants flecked with sour cherry, dusty plums and graphite. The color is medium ruby with a mulberry cast; the wine is quite dry, spare without being severe, elegant without being delicate. Vibrant acidity and a long mineral and woody-spice finish reveal the fine structure that underlies this enterprise. 13.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $28.

The Antinori wines are imported by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Woodinville, Wash.They were samples for review.
Villa Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva 2010 and Marchese Antinori Chianti Classic Riserva 2008. The Villa Antinori CCR 10 is a blend of 90 percent sangiovese and 10 percent merlot; the Marchese Antinori CCR 08 is 90 percent sangiovese, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon. The oak treatment reflects the slightly more serious nature of the “Marchese”; while it aged 14 months in new French oak barriques, the “Villa” aged 12 months in French and Hungarian small oak barrels. The color of “Villa” is radiant deep ruby with a hint of violet at the rim; aromas of black and red cherries and red currants are imbued with notes of lilac, cloves, sandalwood, graphite and a hint of mocha, and I’m saying that for such a young CCR, this is pretty seductive. The wine does not neglect a scrupulous structure, though, one resting on resonant acidity, sturdy yet lithe and harmonious tannins and a slightly dusty woody quality in the finish. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $35. The grapes for the “Marchese” 08 derive mainly from Antinori’s Tignanello estate, with the rest coming from Badia a Passignano (see the next entry) and Peppoli. There’s heft and character here, a depth of structure that touches on modernity without going all the way into an “international” or California style, held in check by the sangiovese grape’s typical acidity and spareness. The balance between freshness and ripeness — fruit lies in the red and sour cherry range (with a hint of cranberry and black currant) — on the one hand and the panoply of dried fruit, spice and flowers on the other is deftly handled, while the fairly dense chewy tannins lend a paradoxical dynamic of velvety elegance and muscular power, and granitic minerality adds intensity in the lower registers. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to 2020. Excellent. About $35.

Marchese Antinori Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva 2007. Gosh, what a lovely wine, beautifully balanced and harmonious. It was made completely from sangiovese grapes and aged 14 months in new Hungarian oak barriques. The Antinori family acquired the 1,000-year-old abbey and its vineyards in 1987. The color is medium ruby with a tinge of garnet; aromas of spiced and macerated black currants, raspberries and plums are permeated by notes of coffee and tobacco, dried orange rind and violets. Tannins are both plush and rigorous, and the oak brings not only spice on the palate and suppleness to the texture but a sense of distinguished austerity. For all that, Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva 2007 is delicious, tending toward mellowness, and finishes with a long swallow of graphite, brambles and lavender. Alcohol content is … percent. Now through 2017 to 2020. Excellent. About $53.
Tenuta di Arceno Chianti Classico 2010 and Chianti Classico Riserva 2007. (Jackson Family Wines) These are modern-style wines, each aging 10 months in French oak barriques. The CC 10 is a blend of 80 percent sangiovese, 19 percent merlot and a bare 1 percent cabernet sauvignon. The color is dark ruby; the wine is ripe, fleshy, spicy and oaky; notes of raspberry and black currant are permeated by cloves, orange zest, black tea and brambles; it’s really attractive initially, but you feel the sandpaper of burnished oak from mid-palate back. 14.5 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $20. The CCR 07 is a combination of 80 percent sangiovese, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent merlot. The color is dark ruby with a touch of mulberry at the rim;aromas and flavors of dried black and blue fruit and dried baking spices admit of some fleshy and meaty elements, a little spiced and macerated, but this is primarily dry, dense and chewy, smoky, austere, packed with spice, graphite, bittersweet chocolate and dusty oak that comes up in the finish. 14.7 percent alcohol. Try 2014 to 2020 or ’22, hoping for the best. 1,430 cases. Very Good+. About $25.

Samples for review.
Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico Riserva 2008 and Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico 2009. Here’s a pair of well-made traditional CCR and CC. Each is based on the sangiovese grape with dollops of canaiolo, ciliegiolo and colorino — no merlot! no syrah! — and aged in French and Austrian casks of various sizes, CCR 08 for 24 months, CC 09 for 12 months; the wines were produced from organically grown grapes. Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico 2009 offers a medium ruby color of moderate intensity and cleanly delineated black cherry and currant scents and flavors permeated by blue plums and blueberries, violets and cloves and hints of orange rind and pomegranate. A pleasing rasp of acid and slightly grainy tannins makes for an attractive texture, while the finish pulls together elements of graphite, bitter chocolate, lavender and leather. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 to 2018. Excellent. About $20, representing Good Value. Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico Riserva 2008 is rather a different creature, high-toned, taut, a tad imperious in the tannin and wood departments, very dry in the sense of encompassing not only a bit of austerity but the dryness associated with potpourri, woody spices such as allspice and sandalwood, the dried citron and currants of fruitcake; the oak comes up from mid-palate through the finish. Still, one gets undertones of the classic elements of sour cherry, violets, clean new leather, black tea and pomander, until they’re o’er-tower’d by the inscrutable lithic finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. Best from 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to 2022. Excellent. About $35.

The wines of Badia a Coltibuono are imported by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Calif. The badia (“abbey”) was founded in 1051. It has been owned by the Stucchi Prinetti family since 1846 and is home to the famous cooking school of Lorenza de’Medici. These were samples for review.

Fèlsina Berardenga Chianti Classico 2009. This ancient estate was purchased by Dominic Poggiali Fèlsina in 1966 and is now run by his sons. While the wine is composed of 100 percent sangiovese grapes, in the modern fashion, it aged only a year in “mid capacity” Slovenian oak barrels. The color is dark ruby at the center shading to slightly lighter ruby-garnet at the rim; beguiling aromas and flavors of dried red currants and plums, sandalwood, violets and dried orange rind are heightened by notes of oolong tea, graphite and new leather, a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of smoke, sour cherry and loam. The structure can only be called lovely; moderately dense and grainy tannins are supplemented by a gentle wash of granitic minerality and a burnished, lightly dusty wood influence; acidity is bright and supportive. 13 percent alcohol. A beautifully-made, nicely restrained Chianti Classico for drinking through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. I paid $24, but it can be found around the country as low as $18.

Imported by Delta Wholesalers, Memphis, Tenn.
Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Riserva 2007. The flagship of Ruffino’s “Ducale Trilogy,” the Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Riserva 2007 is regal enough for a dukedom and indeed displays a measure of Olympian detachment and power. The wine is a blend of 80 percent sangiovese with approximately 10 percent each cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The aging is ultra-traditional: six months in vats; 24 months in oak casks of 35- or 75-hectoliter capacity; another six months in vats; six months in bottle; for a total of 3 years. (How many gallons in a hectoliter, class? That’s right, Johnny, there are 26.4 gallons in a hectoliter!) The color is vivid medium ruby with a magenta tint at the rim; you can smell how dry the wine is in its legions of potpourri, racks of dried spices, bushels of dried, crushed black and red berries, in its tomes of dusty graphite and old leather and tobacco-like old paper qualities. Same in the mouth, as the wine develops a dynamic that pitches keenly expressed acidity against supple polished yet substantial tannins, a dry, dusty rather ecclesiastical woody character and an earthy, lithic foundation. 13.5 percent alcohol. Give this breathing space, elbow room, years to grow, say, 2014 or ’15 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $40.

Ruffino Imports, Rutherford, Calif. A sample for review. The estate was launched in 1877 by cousins Ilario and Leopoldo Ruffino, who sold it to the Folonari family in 1913. The Folonaris expanded the estate and the brand tremendously beginning in the 1970s. Constellation Brands acquired 49.9 percent of the company in 2010 and the remaining 51.1 percent in 2011.
Tenuta Vìgnole Chianti Classico 2008 and Chianti Classico Riserva 2007. This 51-acre estate was acquired in 1970 by the Nistri family and is operated by brothers Massimo and Fabrizio Nistri. The CC 08 is comprised of 85 percent sangiovese grapes and 20 percent merlot; the wines are aged separately for 12 months, the sangiovese in large casks, the merlot in barriques, before blending. The color is dark ruby with a slightly lighter rim; overall, the wine is seamlessly balanced and integrated, with aromas that twine the freshness of red and black currants and red cherries with cloves and sandalwood, notes of violets and dried orange rind and a light granitic, earthy, loamy quality. These elements segue smoothly on the palate, where the wine is dry and spare, and bright acidity keeps it lively, if not pert, and the earthly and mineral character asserts itself through the dry finish. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $37. The Vìgnole CCR 07 is a creature of different nature; medium ruby with a garnet tinge, it’s a blend of 85 percent sangiovese and 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, aged 20 months in a combination of 225-liter barriques and 400-liter tonneaux. The word is “tough,” as in a rigorous, leathery, stalwart tannic and woody structure that coats the palate and makes for a pretty damned demanding mouthful of wine. Traces of dried spice and a dried floral element lend a hint of piquancy, but this needs time in the bottle to soften and become more inviting, say 2015 or ’16 for consuming through 2022 through 2025. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent production was 1,200 six-pack cases. Excellent potential. About $60.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Calif. Tasted at a trade event in Chicago, May 15.