Chianti has long been synonymous with straw flasks, red-checkered tablecloths and inexpensive pizzerias. Though this less than stellar reputation for producing weak, weedy red wine lingers—fallout from decades of overcropping and quantity-focused production—the denomination has moved on. And today’s Chiantis are well made, fresh and savory.
“Over the last 10 to 15 years, producers have been investing in the vineyards with better clones, and lowering yields to improve quality,” says Giovanni Busi, president of Consorzio Vino Chianti.
“And over the past seven or eight years, there’s been a growing number of small and medium-sized firms that now make and bottle their own wines instead of selling grapes to large producers. This has also driven up quality within the denomination.”
The vast majority of Chiantis are geared for everyday enjoyment, though select Riservas (especially Chianti Rufina Riservas) boast elegance and aging potential. And though the array of styles produced can make it tough to define a region-wide identity, one thing all Chiantis have in common is their fantastic quality-to-price ratio.
Here’s your primer on this rejuvenated denomination.
Chianti is generally a laidback, straightforward red, but the denomination causes more confusion than any other appellation in Italy, starting with its name.
The Chianti DOCG spans six provinces in Tuscany—Arezzo, Firenze, Pisa, Pistoia, Prato and Siena—and is one of the biggest denominations in Italy, in addition to the country’s largest for still red wines. With more than 3,000 producers and over 38,000 acres of vines, its massive output exceeds 100 million bottles per year.
Besides straight Chianti, the enormous appellation also has seven official geographical subzones: Colli Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, Colli Senesi, Colline Pisane, Montalbano, Rufina and Montespertoli. There’s also the Chianti Superiore category, made with lower yields and higher quality grapes than the straight Chianti, as well as Riserva versions, which must age at least two years before release.
Typical Chiantis boast violet and wild berry aromas that follow through to the palate alongside fresh acidity and pliant tannins.
Many also assume that Chianti Classico DOCG is synonymous with this much larger Chianti denomination, but they are indeed two separate classifications, with different production regulations and growing zones.
Sangiovese is the main grape in Chianti, and the region’s wines must be made from a minimum of 70% of the variety. Decades of research into this fickle variety have prompted many Chianti producers to replant their vineyards with the latest generation of clones. These plants are more resistant to disease and allow for better grape maturation.
Merlot and Cabernet were planted extensively a few decades ago, but an increasing number of producers have returned to adding native varieties to the blend. Some use grapes like Canaiolo and Colorino, while others opt for 100% Sangiovese.
Up to 10% of white grapes are allowed in the wines, once considered essential to soften tannins and make the wines more approachable. Most winemakers have since phased them out, but Piccini, one of the denomination’s largest producers, has revived the custom for its latest Chianti, Mario Primo.
“Mario Primo is a nod to tradition,” says Santo Gozzo, winemaker for Piccini. “It’s made with 80% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo and 10% white grapes, mostly Trebbiano and a little Malvasia, that impart aromas, lightness and drinkability.
“It’s the kind of fresh, easygoing wine people here used to drink to give them energy back in the days when wine was a part of the daily diet. Today, it’s for enjoying at lunch or by the pool. It’s even better slightly chilled.”
Lively and made to be enjoyed young, straight Chianti is the easiest drinking of all the versions. Of all the Chianti designations, it has the highest permitted grape yields. The assorted subzones, with the exception of Rufina, also turn out predominantly early-drinking reds that are all about juicy fruit and freshness.
Chianti Superiore bottlings have more structure, but they’re also best enjoyed within a few years of harvest to capture their succulent fruit sensations. Riservas can be enjoyed for several years after harvest, and the best offer impressive medium- to long-term aging potential.
“Chianti isn’t Barolo and doesn’t want to be,” says Busi. “Producers aren’t trying to make a wine to ponder and mull over. With a few exceptions, Chianti is a social wine to open with friends over conversation and share over a few laughs.”
Typical Chiantis boast violet and wild berry aromas that follow through to the palate alongside fresh acidity and pliant tannins. They can be paired with everything from appetizers to fish and pasta. Riserva bottlings generally have more tannic structures and work with a variety of pasta dishes and heartier meat courses.
Rufina stands out for its finesse, structure and longevity. The area has long produced fine wines: In 1716, Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, included it in his proclamation that demarcated the four best wine areas in Tuscany. (Rufina was then part of Pomino.)
The smallest zone in Chianti, both in size and production, Rufina has only 22 producers and around 2,500 acres of vines (mostly Sangiovese), which only account for about 4% of total Chianti production. Its hillside vineyards, the highest in the denomination, enjoy a unique microclimate.
The area is in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains, farther north than the rest of Chianti, and benefits from cooling nighttime breezes that relieve hot daytime temperatures during the growing season. These temperature changes prolong maturation, generating complex aromas and firm acidity.
Rufina sales have risen over the last few years, but this wasn’t always the case.
“Up until about five years ago, the market demanded muscular, concentrated wines, and didn’t want elegant, precise wines like Rufina naturally produces,” says Lamberto Frescobaldi, a winemaker and president of the Marchesi Frescobaldi Group, which counts the stunning Castello Nipozzano as part of its vinous dynasty. “It wasn’t that long ago that what we now call elegant used to be called diluted.”
To satisfy the market, some Rufina producers previously tried to beef up their wines with techniques that included extensive green harvesting to drastically lower yields for greater concentration and aging in new oak. But thankfully, consumer tastes have changed, and these winemakers now focus on what the area does best: fragrant, linear and vibrant reds destined for long-term aging.
“Now, we use more Sangiovese and concentrate more on the vineyards,” says Frescobaldi. “Planting at higher densities, three times higher than before, and switching to the Guyot training system from spurred cordon allows our grapes to achieve greater polyphenolic ripeness while keeping alcohol levels in check. In the cellar, we’ve also decreased maceration times from five weeks to about 25 days, to avoid over-extraction.”
Winemaker Federico Giuntini, the estate manager of Selvapiana and adopted son of the winery’s owner, Francesco Giuntini, has been a staunch defender of Sangiovese.
“In the 1980s, we didn’t have enough money to replant the vineyards, so we skipped the whole Merlot and Cabernet craze,” he says. “For the last 20 years, we’ve invested heavily in Sangiovese, using better clones, planting at higher densities and planting in better vineyard sites. We’re now benefitting from the results.”
Giuntini farms organically and shuns selected yeasts for vinification, relying instead on natural or wild yeasts for fermentation. “Sangiovese best expresses Rufina’s growing zone,” he says. “It produces elegant, structured wines with serious aging potential, where the tannins, alcohol, acidity and fruit are well balanced.”
As the market looks for elegant, terroir-driven wines, Giuntini welcomes the increased interest in Rufina.
“It’s finally our moment,” he says. “And we’re ready.”
Classy Chianti to Try
Selvapiana 2013 Vigneto Bucerchiale Riserva (Chianti Rufina); $30, 94 points. This opens with enticing scents of blue flower, ripe dark-skinned berry, new leather, vanilla and sandalwood. Elegant and full-bodied, the palate delivers crushed raspberry, wild cherry, truffle and chopped herb, while intense licorice notes linger on the long finish. Fine-grained tannins and bright acidity provide impeccable balance. Drink through 2025. Dalla Terra Winery Direct. Cellar Selection.
Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi 2014 Nipozzano Vecchie Viti Riserva (Chianti Rufina); $30, 91 points. Red berry, blue flower, tilled soil and a whiff of dark spice take delicate shape on this polished red. The elegant, almost ethereal palate offers wild cherry, strawberry, star anise and dried aromatic herbs framed in bright acidity and refined tannins. Drink 2019–2024. Shaw-Ross International Importers.
Cecchi 2015 Riserva (Chianti); $36, 90 points. Ripe berry, star anise, forest floor and a whiff of toast lead the nose. On the round, chewy palate, supple tannins frame succulent flavors of black cherry, raspberry compote and dark baking spice. Drink through 2020. Terlato Wines International. Editors’ Choice.
Bindi Sergardi 2016 Al Canapo (Chianti Colli Senesi); $15, 89 points. Aromas of red-skinned berry, underbrush and a hint of mint merge together in the glass. The juicy palate doles out red cherry, raspberry jam and a note of eucalyptus, while pliant tannins provide easygoing support. Enjoy soon. Vinovia Wine Group.
Conte Ferdinando Guicciardini 2014 Castello di Poppiano Riserva (Chianti Colli Fiorentini); $28, 89 points. Tilled earth, underbrush, wild berry and blue flower aromas lead on the nose. On the full-bodied palate, bright acidity and solid, seasoned tannins support flavors of dried black cherry, green peppercorn and clove. Franco Wine Imports.
Donatella Cinelli Colombini 2015 Fattoria il Colle (Chianti Superiore); $22, 89. Aromas of ripe blackberry, tilled earth and pressed violet come to the forefront. On the juicy, savory palate, supple tannins cushion fleshy black cherry, raspberry jam and star anise. Enjoy through 2019. Banville Wine Merchants.
Castello Sonnino 2015 Riserva (Chianti Montespertoli); $20, 88 points. This blend of 80% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon opens with aromas of pressed violet, ripe wild berry and a whiff of pipe tobacco. Soft and juicy, the accessible palate offers crushed raspberry, vanilla and licorice framed in pliant tannins. Drink now. Omniwines Distribution.
Piccini 2016 Mario Primo (Chianti); $13, 88 points. This pliant, savory red opens with fruity aromas of crushed red berry and a whiff of dark spice. The bright, supple palate doles out succulent red cherry, crushed raspberry and a hint of clove alongside soft, supple tannins. This is delicious and enjoyable in the near term. Foley Family Wines. Best Buy.