A lesson in Chianti Classico from a Wine Novice

Chianti Classico 101. That’s this week’s lesson. Lesson? Well, I received notification from the Wine Scholar Guild in Washington, D.C., that I passed my final exam, taken March 31, and I am now a certified Italian Wine Scholar. My diploma arrived in the mail two weeks ago.

Nearly 18 months of class work, online study and tasting wines are over — for now anyway.

I want to thank my instructor and mentor, Jo-Ann Ross of Boston, for all her patient and inspirational instruction on the art and science of Italian viticulture. Of course, the Wine Goddess, my wife Mary Lee, deserves ultimate credit for lending me her support and palate when most needed.

So back to the lesson.

I fell in love with Chianti Classico during my studies.

It’s an intriguing red wine from central Tuscany whose history dates back to the 14th century. Back then the wine was made with white grapes. Today, Sangiovese, the king of all Italian red grapes, dominates the Chianti Classico blend that originally gave rise to the Super Tuscans of the 1990s.

Chianti Classico of the 21st century is exquisite compared to the watered-down versions of Chianti made in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s when Italian wine houses glutted the market with inferior, watery blends in order to meet rising consumer demand.

Chianti’s reputation — once filled with glory in the Renaissance courtyards of the Medici and papal cellars of Vatican City — hit its low ebb as cheap. Sales declined.

The resurgence began in 1987. Italian winemakers and entrepreneurs dedicated to reviving the wine launched the Chianti Classico 2000 project. Over the next 16 years, researchers studied the grapes, soils, vines, vineyards and production techniques to develop best practices for improving quality. Stricter rules and regulations were devised.

The most dramatic changes occurred in the historic Chianti Classico zone, a prestigious area of hillside vineyards, olive groves and cypress trees stretching 40 miles between Florence and Siena.

In 1996, the zone was awarded its own independent appellation — Chianti Classico DOCG — and, for the first time, the controlling consorzio allowed wines to be made with 100 percent Sangiovese (by law, Chianti Classico requires a minimum 80 percent Sangiovese with a maximum 20 percent Canaiolo, Colorino, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon).

In 2006, white grapes were banned from the blend — ending a varietal mix traced back to the Middle Ages.

It’s fair to say that modern Chianti Classico wines, which differ in style and substance from those made in the broader Chianti region, are some of Italy’s most distinctive offerings. Annually, more than 100 million bottles of Chianti Classico are produced.

Quite simply, today’s Chianti Classico is not your father’s bottle sold in a straw basket.

Here are four recommendations for your tasting pleasure.

  • Santa Margherita Chianti Classico Riserva 2014, $23: “Riserva” on the label means stricter production standards. By law, Chianti Classico Riserva must be aged 24 months, including three months in bottle, with a minimum 12.5 percent alcohol level. The Santa Margherita blend is 85 percent Sangiovese (15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot fills out the blend). It is a complex, fuller version of Chianti Classico. I loved this wine. Everything was harmonious — bright acidity, smooth texture, sweet tannins. The Sangiovese was regal in rich plum and cherry flavors. The dry finish brought on lingering mint and herbal expressions. You can drink this all year-round with steak and other grilled meats or enjoy with a simple antipasto.
  • Lamole di Lamole Chianti Classico 2014, $18: Lamole is a hamlet of Greve, one of Chianti Classico’s four communes (of nine) that are located completely in the historic wine-growing area. This is sacred ground, where hillside vineyards reside on soils of galestro (flakey rocks) and alberese (marl). This is a younger, more approachable version of Chianti Classico. Blue label Lamole is aged 12 months in oak, the last six in French oak barriques. It’s very aromatic and fruit-forward fresh on the palate. It represents a classy staple for any Chianti Classico lover.
  • Castello di Albola Chianti Classico 2014, $19: Castello di Albola is located in Radda, another commune completely located in the Chianti Classico wine-growing area. Radda falls smack in the heart of the historic zone and boasts of the highest elevations. The blend is 95 percent Sangiovese and 5 percent Canaiolo, giving Albola more concentrated sour cherry flavors. The mouthfeel is elegant and the finish spicy and pleasurable. It’s a keeper from this truly wonderful vintage.

  • Castello di Albola Chianti Classico 2013 Gran Selezione, $60: Don’t let the price get in the way of what is the capo di tutti capi of Chianti Classico DOCG. Gran Selezione sits at the top the three-tiered quality pyramid (“Riserva” is No. 2 followed by Chianti Classico annata). Wines are made from the best estate grown grapes and often from single vineyards. Most are 100 percent Sangiovese. They must be aged at least 30 months. To obtain the Gran Selezione designation, the wines must be subjected to laboratory analysis and tasting commission approval. (That’s my dream job!) Albola Gran Selezione is smothered in finesse from sight (deep garnet color) to sip (sour cherry, savory) to swallow (velvety smooth, dry). It’ll get better over the next 5-10 years, but this one is reaching its peak now. If you can buy this on sale (New Hampshire Liquor Outlets are offering 15 percent off on a mixed case of Italian wines through the end of May), it’s worth getting a bottle for a special occasion.