Constant improvement: Outside of Brunello di Montalcino and (perhaps) Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the Chianti Classico zone is nowadays home to some of the greatest Sangiovese-based wines in the world. Awarded its own DOC between Florence and Siena in 1966 (promoted to DOCG status in 1984), the finest examples of Chianti Classico have undergone nothing short of a colossal leap in quality over the past dozen or so years, becoming an increasingly viable source for even the most discriminating of collectors.
Indeed, the advancements have been incredible. Compared to fifteen years ago, today’s Chianti Classicos are far better suited to the modern palate: fresher, rounder, and oftentimes just as complex, with better clones of Sangiovese being planted to full advantage on the famous galestro soils (schist-based, or shaly clay) and alberese (limestone-based) deposits found throughout much of Tuscany. Together with state-of-the-art winemaking facilities and an impassioned drive to craft the best wines possible, the finest bottlings of Chianti Classico have emerged, quite legitimately, as some of the greatest, most terroir-driven wines of Italy.
The blend for Chianti Classico is fairly simple. Producers are permitted to use 80-100% Sangiovese (80% being the proscribed minimum), along with up to 20% international varietals, with Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot being the most common. Even so, some producers still prefer using permitted local varietals in lieu of French ones: Canaiolo or Colorino. Yields in the vineyard may not exceed 52.5 hl/ha, though the best producers will often harvest far lower than this. The wine must be aged for at least 7 months in oak and may not be released to the public before at least 1 October the year following the vintage.
Chianti Classico Riserva, on the other hand, requires longer aging: 2 years in oak and at least 3 months in bottle. The type of oak used is decided by the producer, with some preferring Slavonian oak for a more ‘traditional’ style, while others may opt for French oak for a more modern, fuller, and slightly less austere type of wine.
Still, serious collectors should remember that not all Chianti Classicos are created equal. Despite enormous improvements in quality over the past fifteen or so years, there are still plenty of wines that simply do not measure up to the standards set by the finest estates, such as the labels shown in this column. At their best, a first-rate Chianti Classico ought to revel in beautiful, slightly rustic aromas of dark wild cherries and plums, cedar, undergrowth, light herbs, and spice; with more modern examples boasting additional scents of subtle black cherries, vanillin, and mild (never dominant) toasted oak.
Just as important, the best Chianti Classicos should have little trouble aging for well over ten years; though it is generally advisable to drink up between four and six years, especially when the wine hails from only a moderate vintage—as of late, I have begun drinking ’06 with absolute pleasure. Once again, it goes without saying that collectors should stick with the best producers. And yet, at the rate that overall quality keeps on improving, we can all trust to have many more choices over the next several years.