Which Italian red wines are worth your money?

New York TimesNovember 5, 2013 

POUR CHIANTIS

A cork from a bottle of Chianti Colli Senesi opened as part of a tasting of wines from lesser-known Chianti appellations, in New York, Sept. 18, 2013. Though the sangiovese-based wines from the most prestigious vineyards of Tuscany are called Chianti Classico, there are seven other distinct appellations allowed to set themselves apart from simple Chianti.

TONY CENICOLA — NYT

  • The panel’s ratings 3 stars

    Paterna Chianti Colli Aretini 2009, $22. Earthy, pure and balanced, with persistent flavors of red and dark fruits and minerals.

    2.5 stars

    Pacina Chianti Colli Senesi 2008, $27. Pure and harmonious, with aromas and flavors of flowers and cherries.

    Valdipiatta Chianti Colli Senesi 2011, $17. Best value, pretty and graceful, with spicy cherry flavor; will improve over the next few years.

    Selvapiana Chianti Rùfina 2010, $16. Graceful, with almost delicate aromas and flavors of cherries, minerals and flowers.

    Sorelle Palazzi Chianti Colline Pisane Podere Il Ceno 2010, $19. Expressive, with aromas and flavors of flowers and dark fruit.

    2 stars

    Faltognano Chianti Montalbano 2011, $11. Balanced and energetic, with cherry and floral aromas and flavors.

    Lucignano Chianti Colli Fiorentini 2010, $12. Fairly simple but deliciously drinkable, with flavors of red fruits.

    Villa Sant'Anna Chianti Colli Senesi 2009, $18. Pretty and pure, with modest flavors of bitter cherry.

    Montenidoli Chianti Colli Senesi Il Garrulo 2010, $18. Slightly tannic, with meaty, spicy cherry flavors.

    Le Ragnaie Chianti Colli Senesi 2010, $18. Straightforward and balanced, with earthy flavors of red fruits and flowers.

    What the stars mean: Ratings, up to four stars, reflect the panel’s reaction to the wines, which were tasted with names and vintages concealed. The wines represent a selection generally available in good retail shops and restaurants and on the Internet. Prices are those paid in the New York region.

I’m in love with the sangiovese grape. This is not new. I’ve always loved Chiantis, the wines of Montalcino and the various other expressions of Tuscan sangiovese. But this year the affair has intensified.

What is the appeal? You could describe sangiovese as reminiscent of cherries and flowers, sometimes with a slight but welcome bitterness and an earthy minerality, but that’s not really the point. For me, it’s the purity and an almost translucent depth that cause me to return to the glass constantly to try to get to the bottom of it.

Well-made sangioveses are fresh, gorgeously aromatic and energized by vibrant acidity. As they age, they mellow. They can become earthier and maybe a touch leathery. But always, the best are focused, precise and transporting.

Brunellos di Montalcino as a general rule will be richer and more intense, with tannins that take longer to relax their hold, maybe 10 to 15 years. Rossos di Montalcino are enjoyable far sooner. Good Chianti Classicos can also be quite tannic, though they’re often more nimble and less concentrated than Brunellos.

By far the most prestigious and familiar Chianti today is Chianti Classico. These wines hail from the core of the historic Chianti region. They are the wines permitted to wear the black rooster label on their necks, and most of the famous Chianti names are Classico producers.

In an earlier, less-regulated time, when these wines were known simply as Chianti, many producers from surrounding areas sought to capitalize on its fame by calling their production Chianti, too. Eventually in the 1930s, rules were laid down. The historic region was defined as Classico. The wines made there were called Chianti Classico, setting them apart from those made in a more extensive area, almost 100 miles from north to south, which were permitted to use the Chianti name.

Within that greater region, other sub-zones thought to rise above plain Chianti were permitted to append a local designation. These, then, are those other Chiantis: Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colline Pisane, Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Colli Aretini, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Montespertoli and Chianti Montalbano.

Theoretically, at least, these wines are a step up from plain Chianti, which in general can be a simple, pleasant drink but not a whole lot more.

Panel’s taste tests

But how do they stand against Chianti Classico, wines that have improved exponentially since the old days of the straw bottles? To try to answer this question, the wine panel tasted 20 of these other Chiantis from recent vintages. Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Thera Clark, a sommelier at Carbone in New York, and Levi Dalton, a sommelier and host of the “I'll Drink to That” podcasts.

Not surprisingly, we found a mixed bag. Most had similar profiles, with pretty flavors of cherries and flowers of varying levels of intensity. The better wines were graceful, with an earthy, mineral component. A sense of place was clear – you know you’re drinking Tuscan sangiovese. In general, though, we found less complexity and concentration than we might expect from Chianti Classico.

Even though the dominant grape in these Chiantis is sangiovese, it’s important to understand that they are required to be blended wines. Unlike Chianti Classico, which under current rules can be anywhere from 80 to 100 percent sangiovese, these wines are 75 to 90 percent sangiovese. The remaining 10 to 25 percent can come from a wide selection of grapes, including indigenous varieties like canaiolo and colorino (preferable, in my opinion) but also interlopers like merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Even some white grapes, which were once part of the historic Chianti blend but are no longer permitted in Chianti Classico, are allowed.

No. 1 was the 2009 Paterna from Colli Aretini, from the hills above Arezzo, which had all the purity and balance I love in a good sangiovese wine. No. 2 was the 2008 Pacina from Colli Senesi, which was likewise clear and harmonious. The wines from Colli Senesi seemed to be the easiest to find. They accounted for 12 of the 20 bottles and five of our top 10. In all, we found wines from six of the seven subzones, lacking only Montespertoli.

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