Recently I had the opportunity to try any and every Chianti Classico I desired. I could drink the most expensive, the most loved by sommeliers, or the hardest to get.
But I used a different strategy: I tasted all the biggest-production Chianti Classicos. I tasted every wine of which at least 6000 cases were made. All told I tasted 63 wines. Almost all the wines I tasted are widely available in the US.
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What I learned is this: larger-production Chianti Classico is a very good wine and a safer bet than tiny production Chianti Classico.
This makes inherent sense. It's hard to sell 6000 cases of a bad wine, whereas if you are an ordinary wine consumer, you might be surprised at just how bad some 500-case wines are. We fetishize small production, but larger producers have to at least be competent.
Of course, "big production" for Chianti Classico is not the same as for US grocery store brands, many of which are churned out in lots of more than 1 million cases. In fact, Wines Vines Analytics classifies all wines at 5000 to 50,000 cases as "small". Only three Chianti Classicos exceed 50,000 cases in a year, and none were my favorites. For all of its worldwide popularity, Chianti Classico is still a limited geographical area. You cannot make a million cases of it. The very largest production wine is Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale, at 125,000 cases. Wines Vines Analytics would classify that as "medium" size production.
When it's at least competent, Chianti Classico is actually pretty great, one of my favorite wines in the world. You usually get red plum or dried cherry fruit; nice tannic backbone; some savory notes; and a core of freshness that makes Chianti Classico one of the world's most versatile red wines with dinner. You can have it with pizza, and you can have it with tacos.
Because I love Chianti Classico, I've been going to an event called Anteprime Toscana for several years. Wine critics and journalists from around the world sit in a room in Florence and sommeliers bring us whatever current-release wines we want. It's a wine geek's dream (and a travel writer's nightmare. I once saw a travel writer walk into the tasting room on the second day and announce with dismay: "Tasting wine AGAIN?" I was licking my chops.)
There are so many Chianti Classicos made – hundreds, by scores of producers – that it's not possible to taste them all in two days. You have to have a strategy. I have run through several. I tasted all the most expensive wines one year. Another year, I tasted all the organically grown wines. I tasted all the wines with the obscure secondary grape Colorino. I tried (and failed) to taste all the 100-percent Sangiovese wines.
All of these strategies found me wines I loved along with some duds that should not have been bottled. I never made the connection to production size before; that wasn't why I tried tasting this way.
I have been covering the "why won't Millennials ensure the wine industry's future by spending more on expensive wines?" story. Chianti Classico is so approachable. I wanted to recommend some great wines Millennials can afford. AND I wanted to recommend some great wines they could find, another thing wine journalists, myself included, don't do enough of. It doesn't do you much good to learn I loved a 200-case wine that you'll never see.
I thought I was going to end up recommending OK wines. Compromises. Wines you can get in your local megastore that are tolerable and affordable. I did taste plenty of those; wines like this form the backbone of the wine trade. What surprised me, though, was how many really great Chianti Classicos are made in large-ish quantities. I gave 17 of the 63 wines that I tasted 90 points or more. Below are the tasting notes for those wines. Among other small producers, they are giants.
(Brief note on classification: "Riserva" is supposed to be a slight step up in quality and price and "Gran Selezione" is supposed to be the top of the portfolio, but the production rules are murky and besides, it's Italy, who follows rules? I liked wines at all three levels.)
2015 Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva
90% Sangiovese 10% Cabernet Sauvignon 42K cases
Plenty of cherry fruit initially, with nice dried cherry character on the finish. An exuberant version, but you don't taste the Cab, except perhaps in the textural smoothness. The acidity isn't as notable as some, but it is sufficient.
2015 Carpineto Chianti Classico Riserva
80% Sangiovese 20% Canaiolo 17K cases
Dried cherry fruit with plenty of freshness and a nice tannic structure that lets you know it's there, but isn't gripping. Earthy and waxy notes in the aroma add interest.
2016 Casale dello Sparviero Chianti Classico
95% Sangiovese 5% Canaiolo 13K cases
Solidly balanced wine, with good freshness, dried plum fruit, good structure and a hint of spiciness. Classic classico.
2017 Castellare di Castellina Chianti Classico
95% Sangiovese 5% Canaiolo 10K cases
Appealing red fruit aroma with spicy notes and even interesting green-fruit notes. Fresh red fruit up front on the palate with spicy notes on the finish. Nice structure. Not overpowering; well in balance.
2017 Castello di Fonterutoli Chianti Classico Fonterutoli
90% Sangiovese 5% Malvasia Nera 3% Merlot 2% Colorino 22K cases
Waxy aroma with red fruit. Plenty of refreshing red fruit on the palate, with an interesting waxy note in the aroma. Not trying to do too much: it's refreshing and food-friendly.
2016 Castello di Fonterutoli Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
92% Sangiovese 4% Colorino 4% Malvasia Nera 7K cases
Nice aroma of dried cherry fruit with tobacco and savory notes. Elegant on the palate: good freshness and length, but also very smooth. Delicious. It's unusual to see Colorino and Malvasia Nera in a Gran Selezione but it works.
2016 Fattoria di Valiano Chianti Classico
95% Sangiovese 5% Merlot 10K cases
The Merlot aroma is surprisingly strong – there's more cherry on the nose than plum, with aromatic richness. Nice freshness up front; some roundness to the fruit on the finish. Atypical but a good combination.
2016 Fontodi Chianti Classico
100% Sangiovese 13K cases
Classic aroma of dusty red plum, tobacco notes, some deeper cherry. Palate of cherry and dried cherry fruit with tobacco notes. Rich, but not fat. An excellent version: ripe enough to please fans of that while classic enough to please everybody else.
2016 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico
83% Sangiovese 15% Canaiolo 2% Syrah 13K cases
Unusually bright cherry fruit with solid tannic structure. A little fruitier than you expect, but very nice freshness.
2016 Lamole di Lamole Chianti Classico Etichetta Bianca
90% Sangiovese 10% other varieties 11K cases
A restrained wine; all the characteristics are there but it doesn't leap at you. I like the balance and the subtlety. This is the kind of quiet wine that's easy to miss in a tasting, but that you would love over the course of a dinner.
2016 Lamole di Lamole Chianti Classico Etichetta Blu
80% Sangiovese 10% Cabernet Sauvignon 10% Merlot 10K cases
It's a super Tuscan with the Chianti Classico name, but you don't taste the presence of the Bordeaux grapes other than in the tannic structure and the absence of the dustiness you often get with Sangiovese. Good acidity with cherry fruit and smooth tannins; nice freshness.
2015 Lornano Chianti Classico
100% Sangiovese 13K cases
Dusty red plum aroma. Fresh on the palate, with brisk red plum and smooth tannins on the finish. Nice balance and a food food-friendly wine.
2015 Marchesi Antinori Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
100% Sangiovese 11K cases
Nice cherry and dried cherry aroma with tobacco notes. Very smooth initially: the freshness kicks in after the initial sip and it's almost a shock. This wine is meant to age; it's nice now but really shouldn't be drunk for a couple of years. The third-largest-production Gran Selezione in Chianti Classico, and a big step up from the winery's Riserva (which isn't always true).
2016 Rocca delle Macìe Chianti Classico Riserva Famiglia Zingarelli
90% Sangiovese 5% Cabernet Sauvignon 5% Colorino 23K cases
Classic character: dried cherry and plum with tobacco notes. Nice freshness and persistence on the finish.
2017 Rocca di Castagnoli Chianti Classico
90% Sangiovese 5% Canaiolo 5% Colorino 21K cases
The sort of wine that does poorly in blind tastings, but if you ordered a "Chianti Classico" and got this you would be happy. Earthy aroma. Some bright red fruit with tannic structure and a dry finish. Archetypal. The more I taste it the more I like it.
2015 Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
85% Sangiovese 10% Merlot 5% Colorino 28K cases
This is the largest-production of all Gran Selezione wines, and is an enormous step up on Ruffino's other wines. Hibiscus notes speak loudest from a shy aroma. Nice freshness up front, good balance and length; dried cherry fruit with hibiscus notes. A pleasant, well-balanced wine; it's priced like a Riserva, but do not mistake the two.
Fresh, with nice plum fruit and good structure. Very solid and classic. Fine food wine.