Many people still think of Chianti as the Italian wine that comes in a straw basket. Yet while I’m sure this gimmicky packaging can still be found, Chianti has gone through a dramatic change in the past two decades.
Chianti Classico is the leader. It is the historical Chianti district as well as the largest and most diverse, and arguably the one blessed with the best growing conditions. The surrounding areas are Chianti Montalbano, Montespertoli, Colli Fiorentini, Colli Senesi and Colli Pisane. In 1996, Italy changed its rules to allow the inclusion of up to 20 percent nonindigenous grapes (primarily cabernet sauvignon and merlot) and, more importantly in my view, permitting wines to be composed entirely of sangiovese. In 2006, white grapes such as trebbiano and malvasia were booted from the blend.
During the late 1990s, there were a lot of Chianti Classicos on the market that had prices to match their very high aspirations. Many were very good, yet overpriced. With the global economic shift, I don’t see this group of wines as often now, although it seems like the best wines, such as those made by Felsina and Fontodi, can still be found with relative ease.
The new pricing trend seems to be returning to the way things were — minus the straw basket, but with an improvement in quality. The days of high-quality $5 Chianti are all but gone, although if anyone knows of one, please let me know. But for $15 or less, there are options. Here are my top three, all three of which are available at Wine Club. Keep in mind that Chiantis can sometimes seem astringent, so have food with the wines; charcuterie and cheese will suffice.
Il Bastardo Sangiovese di Toscana, 2010: While labeled as an IGT wine — one from a specific region in Italy — this is 100 percent sangiovese and all of the fruit is from Rufina, so in a sense, it is a baby Chianti. A cheerful, fresh, fruity wine that still evinces terroir, this is a little gem. Paolo Masi is the consulting winemaker. Suggested retail: $9.99.
Baroncini Chianti Colli Senesi Panezio DOCG, 2010: Baroncini is based out of the must-see medieval town of San Gimignano, which is known for white wine, but it also makes wine from the nearby appellations in Chianti and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Composed entirely of sangiovese, this wine has a signature cherry, tobacco, licorice quality with bright acid and a fair bit of tannin. Suggested retail: $12.50.
Renzo Masi Chianti Rufina Riserva DOCG, 2008: Strangers neither to the area nor winemaking, the Masi family has been hard at work in Rufina for three generations. They own vineyards, but also purchase grapes. Made from 93 percent sangiovese, 5 percent canaiolo and 3 percent colorino, this is a fairly traditional wine with brandied cherry, tobacco notes, mounds of terroir and attention-getting tannins. Suggested retail: $15.
Pamela S. Busch was the founding partner of Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bars, and is a wine educator and writer.