I love Chianti Classico. It’s made from the most quintessential of all Italian grapes, Sangiovese, normally with a dash of the local grape Canaiolo blended in. Basically though, it’s all about Sangiovese. It’s quite a lean variety, with slightly bitter cherry fruit flavours accompanied by really crisp acidity and rasping tannins that require food. It’s very savoury and once you’re into a bottle it always seems to get better as your dinner goes on. Don’t try and drink it on its own though; not full and generous in the fruit department and with unforgiving tannins it needs meat. Wine bar soft fruit juice this ain’t. There are two different bottlings of Chianti Classico – there are the Riservas, which are aged longer in oak, being richer, more tannic and needing more bottle time (say 8 years plus for a leading producer) and there are the regular bottlings which are perfect after about five to six years or so.
Note that I’m saying I love Chianti Classico, but not necessarily Chianti. Like many of the classic Italian wine zones, Chianti has been expanded over time to include areas that weren’t in the original heartland of the appellation. What then happens is the original heartland gets a Classico appended onto it, normally indicating superior quality and certainly greater typicity. In the case of Chianti, the outer ring surrounding Chianti Classico consists of seven other local Chianti appellations (Chianti this and Chianti that) as well as straight Chianti, but with the exception of Chianti Rufina (quite rare) none of the others can match Chianti Classico for quality and reliability.
Tuscany’s a very vintage dependent place, but in recent years we’ve been lucky with a couple of top-drawer years – 2004 and 2006. It’s quite easy to remember as 2005 was the nationwide great year in France, but conversely in Italy the two years sandwiching 2005 were great whereas 2005 itself was a bit of a dud. Anyway, the 2004 Riservas are now drinking really well, as are the 2006 regular bottlings.
So the other day I decided to open a couple of regular bottlings (as opposed to Riservas) of Chianti Classico that I’ve had in the cellar for a year or so and are now just about ready to go. They’re from a couple of leading estates - Isole e Olena and Fontodi and both cost £16 from AG Wines, an online shop specialising in Italian wine. It made for a great comparison with a big plate of Ragù alla Bolognese….
The Isole e Olena was absolutely textbook; not trying to be too full (although with high acidity and tannins, Sangiovese is quite light bodied and not overtly fruity), but with absolutely delicious crunchy crisp cherry fruit flavour, some secondary dried fruit complexity and a long finish. Lip-smacking and moreish it was absolutely delicious.
The Fontodi was undoubtedly of a similar quality, but for me didn’t quite reach the levels of the Isole e Olena. At least not for now. It was bigger and with tougher tannins and will probably last a bit longer. It was perhaps still a year too young, but at this point in time, I found the oak stuck out just a tiny bit whereas the Isole e Olena was absolutely spot-on.
I strongly recommend grabbing any 2006 Chianti Classicos you can whilst they’re still on the shelves.