Skip to main content
waters on wine

The Castello di Gabbiano wine estate in Italy is one of the producers of Chianti Classico.Handout

Sangiovese is having difficulty shaking free of its mediocre past, despite it being capable of producing stylish red wines that possess elegance, vitality and complexity. The unpleasant taste of those tangy vinegar-like substances packaged in straw-bottomed flask bottles lingers.

Sangiovese is often viewed as a variety that needs a lift from international grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon or merlot, to produce something truly special. That’s certainly the rags-to-riches story of so-called super-Tuscan wines, which revolutionized a lacklustre wine scene in the 1970s by embracing French grapes and new oak to make glossy, Napa-style red wines. But there’s a steady stream of consistently exciting Chianti Classicos coming into Canadian markets today to remind us that sangiovese-based wines can be compelling in their own right. Like this season’s surging Toronto Raptors, sangiovese doesn’t need the performance-enhancing addition of a Kawhi Leonard superstar to be counted as one of the elites.

It’s high time we took notice – and advantage of their attainable prices.

Handout

The wines pouring out of the historic and revered Chianti Classico region today have never been better. Better-quality sangiovese vines are taking over vineyards that are being farmed more considerately to produce quality as opposed to quantity. The region’s warming temperatures are also helping produce riper grapes for winemakers.

It’s important to stress we’re talking Chianti Classico here. Classico means the original heartland of Chianti, stretching between Florence and Siena, that was originally decreed by Cosimo III de’Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1716. These are the rolling hills punctuated by stone castles and cypress trees that fuel the romantic spell of Under the Tuscan Sun.

Some 7,200 hectares (17,700 acres) of vineyards are registered for the production of Chianti Classico, which holds Italy’s highest wine classification, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita.

Producers are able to make a range of wines in three quality tiers, including Riserva, which must be aged by the winery for more than two years prior to release, and Gran Selezione, which was introduced in 2013 to represent the best single-vineyard wines.

Chianti Classico wines require a minimum of 80 per cent Sangiovese, the historic variety of the zone, with a staggering 49 other varieties allowed to make up a maximum of 20 per cent. These include native varieties such as canaiolo and colorino and international varieties cabernet, merlot and syrah.

Handout

Wines labelled Chianti come from a larger region and have less stringent regulations governing their production. Some can be exceptional – and tremendous bargains. Many are basic and blah. (Sangiovese is also responsible for Tuscany’s rare and collectable Brunello di Montalcino wines, which typically come with rave critical reviews and sky-high prices, and more affordable but varied quality Rosso di Montalcino wines.)

Much of the current excitement surrounding Chianti Classico comes on the heels of the celebrated 2015 and 2017 vintages, which produced particularly exemplary and age-worthy wines. But the quality of the wines coming out of the average 2016 harvest is what has me taking interest. These savoury and structured wines really show the ambition and higher standards that define the region. The 2016 wines might not be the longest-lived examples, but the best ones are really enjoyable now.

The attainable prices and food-friendly nature of Chianti Classico makes these wines darlings for many sommeliers. They can often represent some of the best value prospects on a well-crafted wine list. Look for these producers: Badia a Coltibuono, Castagnoli, Castello di Ama, Il Molino di Grace and Querciabella.

The region’s wines are also well represented at liquor stores across the country. This week’s recommendations feature a range of (mostly) larger-volume producers that provide a welcome introduction – or re-introduction, as the case may be – to the regal countenance of stylish and surprising sangiovese.

Castelli del Grevepesa Castelgreve Chianti Classico 2016 (Italy)

Rating:87 /100

PRICE: $17.95

Coming from the Castelli del Grevepesa co-operative, this simple and enjoyable red wine makes the most of its juicy fruit character. It lacks the complexity of the best Chianti Classicos, but it’s ready to drink and has all the makings of a fine dinner companion. Available in Ontario.

Castello di Gabbiano Riserva Chianti Classico 2015 (Italy)

Rating:90 /100

PRICE: $22.95

Another consistently pleasing model of Chianti Classico, this estate-grown blend of sangiovese and merlot is expressive and enjoyable. Nice complex character and a long satisfying finish make this stand out. Available in Ontario at the above price, $16.95 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $17.29 in Saskatchewan, $22.99 in Manitoba, $23.85 in Quebec, $27.49 in New Brunswick, $24.99 in Nova Scotia.

Carpineto Riserva Chianti Classico 2015 (Italy)

Rating:91 /100

PRICE: $28.95

Made with sangiovese and canaiolo, this dry and elegant red wine is a classic model of Chianti Classic. The fragrance and flavour profile are refined and intense, with lots of savoury and earthy complexity adding interest to a core of ripe black cherry fruit. Drink now to 2030. Available in Ontario at the above price, $32.99 in Manitoba, $26.95 in Quebec,

Rocca delle Macìe Famiglia Zingarelli Chianti Classico 2017 (Italy)

Rating:88 /100

PRICE: $18.95

Produced with sangiovese and 5-per-cent merlot, this offers pleasing ripe red fruit and a smooth texture. The soft and supple house style makes this really approachable and crowd-pleasing. Drink now. Available in Ontario at the above price, $19.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta.

Ruffino Riserva Ducale Riserva Chianti Classico 2016 (Italy)

Rating:90 /100

PRICE: $25.95

First released in 1927, Riserva Ducale is Ruffino’s brand name and the wine is made to be Chianti Classico Riserva, which makes this the only Italian label to sport the word Riserva twice. Consistently offering a complex aromas and flavours of red fruit, spice and herbal notes, this has long been a textbook example of Chianti Classico. Available in Ontario at the above price, $25.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $28.99 in Manitoba, $24.95 in Quebec, $29.99 in Nova Scotia, $33.48 in Newfoundland.

Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro Gran Selezione Chianti Classico 2014 (Italy)

Rating:91 /100

PRICE: $47.95

One of the founders of the Gran Selezione category, Ruffino’s Ducale Oro offers serious complexity in the form of leather, spice and savoury notes. The palate is rich and concentrated, with youthful tannins and bright acidity that suggest good aging potential, but I’d worry the fruit is going to fade quickly. Drink now to 2026. Available in Ontario at the above price, $48.99 in British Columbia and $47 in Quebec, $49.98 in Nova Scotia.

Plan your weekend with our Good Taste newsletter, offering wine advice and reviews, recipes, restaurant news and more. Sign up today.