This Summer, Make It Chianti Classico

Some may be structured and tannic enough to wait a few years before drinking. Others are easygoing and ready to drink upon release. The best are fine and transparently express their origins, often with sweet, earthy and bitter flavors of cherries and flowers.

Long gone are the days in the 1960s when the local wine authorities mandated a maximum of 70 percent sangiovese in Chiantis and required that white grapes be blended in. Nowadays, Chianti Classico must be 80 percent to 100 percent sangiovese, with the rest made up of local grapes like canaiolo, colorino or malvasia nera; international grapes like merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah; or a combination.

With rare exceptions, sangiovese works best with the local grapes. Too often, the international grapes insert a discordant note — the chocolate of merlot, for example, that can seem out of tune. Yet one of my recommended bottles does have some merlot in its blend, and I was not able to notice it.

What accounts for the differences in the wines? The region is a complicated jumble of soils, vineyards, elevations and microclimates, which can make wines grown in neighboring towns remarkably dissimilar. The differing intentions of the farmers and winemakers is also a crucial factor.

Chianti Classico is divided into eight subzones (it used to be nine, but in 2019 Barberino Val d’Elsa and Tavarnelle Val di Pesa merged and is now referred to as Barberino Tavarnelle), and a debate has long raged whether to permit producers to use these subzones on their labels. Proponents argue it will help consumers gain a sense of the character of a wine, while opponents say the variables are too many and that geographical divisions are too simple.

It’s possible both sides are correct. But I believe more information is better, and I have certainly noticed some correlation between subzones and styles. The wines from Radda in Chianti, for example, seem to be elegant, with great finesse, while those from Castelnuovo Berardenga are often richer and weightier.

The other five subzones are Greve in Chianti, San Casciano in Val di Pesa, Castellina in Chianti, Gaiole in Chianti and Poggibonsi.