Chianti Classico a simple wine worth savoring

 
 
Published1/16/2008 12:16 AM

With cold weather here, you're probably going to need a red wine that will make everyone happy. This is it: Chianti -- but not just any Chianti, of course.

"Chianti" is one of those words that makes people smile. Maybe it's because so many of us remember it fondly from our youth, maybe it's because it makes us think of the beauty of Tuscany, or maybe it's just that the wine tastes good. In any event, a wine that brings a smile before it's even opened is certainly a good start. Unfortunately, it's not quite that easy.

 

Over the years, we have become increasingly disappointed with very inexpensive Chianti, the wine of our youth. We've found that most Chianti under $15 or so has become so simple and bland that it tastes, too often, like industrial wine. It lacks the lusty earthiness and true tastes of Tuscan soil that are so fundamental to Chianti's charm.

At the same time, there has been a revolution in the quality of better Chianti. In tasting after tasting over the past decade, we have found that somewhat-more-expensive Chianti is made more thoughtfully than ever but generally has stayed true to its roots. So here is some very specific advice on what to look for over the next few weeks if you're picking up a bottle of red to take to someone's house, if you're entertaining, or if you simply want to relax with a bottle of wine now that the festivities are over: Chianti Classico from the 2004 vintage.

Chianti Classico, which is made primarily from the Sangiovese grape, comes from a specific, traditional region of Tuscany, and 2004 was a very good vintage that now is widely available. We picked up 50 of them from stores in five states to see if they were reliable. The answer is, in a word, yes.

When we think about good Chianti, we think about red bricks. This is a bit difficult to explain, since we've never actually eaten a red brick, but if you think about why red brick is so attractive and homey -- relaxed elegance, a sense of earth, elemental smells -- you can get an idea why we think of Chianti the same way. We found that these wines, overall, had a combination of easy drinkability and confident depth that made them special.

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"These are not fussy wines," Dottie said at one point, and that's important. The best ones have relaxed, dry fruit, lively acidity, nice oak balance and an underpinning of earth and minerals that tell you where they came from. Some have a little touch of chocolate, and quite a few taste like blackberries or black cherries. They're medium-bodied; not so light that they can be ignored, but not so heavy that they're hard to drink.

People who know nothing about wine will drink them lustily because they simply taste good. People who know something about wine will be impressed that they are Classicos from a good year -- and will drink them lustily because they simply taste good.

Of course, they are not all winners. A few have fallen victim to over-oaked modernity, with tastes that are too sleek and have lost their slightly rough-hewn Tuscan charm. And there wasn't a single wine that totally wowed us.

None of the wines rated higher than Very Good, but the average level of quality was quite good. After almost every flight, we talked about the consistent friendliness, charm and pleasing tastes of the wines.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Favorites from our tasting are listed in the attached index. While it's always impossible to know what wines you might find, we feel confident that if you stick with Chianti Classico from 2004, you'll have a soulful, tasty experience.

After one of our flights, we took some of our leftovers to our next-door neighbors. They called the next day. "We hadn't had Chianti in a long time, and we'd forgotten how much we enjoyed it," they said.

We'd guess that would be a pretty common reaction.

The Dow Jones Chianti Classico Index

In a blind tasting of Chianti Classico from the 2004 vintage, these were our favorites. These are great with food, especially with the kinds of dishes you share with friends and family: roasts, meat or vegetable lasagna, sausage and peppers. Riserva means the wine was aged longer before release, but we did not find that riservas were consistently worth the higher price.

Cennatoio (Leandro e Gabriella Alessi)

Very Good. $15.99

Comments: Best of tasting. Hits all the right notes. Earthy but not heavy, easy to drink but with some underlying -- seriousness, nicely rich but with leavening acidity. Long-time favorite.

Casa Emma (Fiorella Lepri)

Very Good. $11.99

Comments: Best value. Rich, earthy fruit and an undertone of minerals that gives it a special sense of place. Lovely.

Ruffino Riserva Ducale 'Oro'

Very Good. $34

Comments: Smooth, with seriously purple fruit, blackberries, earth and some richness, like chocolate-covered cherries.

Villa Cafaggio

Very Good. $21.99

Comments: More serious than most, with tight, raisiny fruit and some structure. Almost chewy. Fine wine. Tastes expensive.

Fontodi (Giovanni e Marco Manetti)

Good/Very Good. $32

Comments: Blueberries and blackberries in the mouth and then a long finish of earth and lemon.

Livernano

Good/Very Good. $17.99

Comments: Easy and exuberantly fun, with everything in relaxed balance, with a happy, long, earthy finish.

Podere il Palazzino 'Grosso Sanese'

Good/Very Good. $39.98

Comments: Pleasant, grapey and relaxed, with a core of dark soil and lovely balance. Always a good name to look for.

San Giusto a Rentennano 'Riserva Le Baroncole' (Martini di Cigala)

Good/Very Good. $39.99

Comments: Unpretentious and very easy to drink, just about bursting with cherry-berry fruit. Demands a dish such as lasagna.

Volpaia (Giovannella Stianti Mascheroni)

Good/Very Good. $22

Comments: Easy to enjoy, but has stature, too, with balance and some depth. Buy more than you think you will need.

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