Drink Like a Tuscan
Cheap Chianti is often better than the expensive stuff.
In pursuit of sangiovese rapture, I sampled a number of Chianti Classicos. I focused on straight Chianti Classicos—normales, as they are known—and didn't include any Chianti Classico Riservas. Riservas, which must be aged longer than normales before being released, cost more money and are considered a step up in prestige. But they tend to see more new oak than regular Chiantis and are often made in a more "modern" (read: anonymous) style. This is one of those delicious instances in which spending less not only saves you money, but it also usually gets you better wine.
Probably the finest Chianti on the market doesn't even go by the name Chianti: It is produced by the aforementioned Montevertine and is called Montevertine. (Manetti withdrew from the Chianti appellation in the early 1980s, frustrated by the poor quality of the wines and the regulatory wrangling; in doing so he gave up the right to use the Chianti name.) The 2004 Montevertine ($40), a blend of 90 percent sangiovese and 5 percent each of canaiolo and colorino, is a beautiful wine. It offers a beguiling nose of cherries, cedar, violets, and dirt and has the silken texture and finesse of a really fine red Burgundy. It makes a great case for sangiovese (and will make an even better case if you decant it a half-hour in advance). In addition to its namesake wine and the aforementioned, all-sangiovese Le Pergole Torte, Montevertine has a third horse in the stable, a wine called Pian del Ciampolo. The 2007 Pian del Ciampolo ($25), also all-sangiovese, doesn't have the same depth of flavor as the Montevertine, but it has almost as much aromatic appeal and is a terrific wine in its own right. The 2006 Montesecondo Chianti Classico ($24) has a classic bouquet, too, redolent of cherries, earth, leather, licorice, and herbs, and these flavors carry over to the palate. The tannins are a mouthful, but they simmer down a bit with time in the glass. It is an enthralling Chianti at a fantastic price.
The 2006 Castello dei Rampolla Chianti Classico ($28), from one of Chianti's most acclaimed estates, is also very good. With its lush black cherry fruit and roasted herb notes, it walks up to the edge of overripeness but does not cross it. It is a hefty Chianti, but there is balance and elegance to it. The 2006 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico ($20) shows a lot of ripeness, as well, but it has ample structure and minerality to support the fruit and also delivers a seductive tobacco scent. (If you have the money and want to see how sangiovese does on its own, try Isole e Olena's Cepparello, the all-sangiovese Super Tuscan mentioned earlier; the 2005 can be found for around $65 a bottle and is a sensational wine.) The 2007 Coltibuono Chianti ClassicoRS Selection ($16), * in addition to being a bargain, has an unmistakably Italianate nose evocative of cherries, dried herbs, and cedar. It is a wine, full of zesty fruit, brisk acidity, and pleasantly rustic tannins. A few other Chiantis worth seeking out are, in no particular order: Fontodi, Felsina, Castello di Ama, Villa Ritina, and Querciabella.
Chianti is often described as a great pizza wine, which could be construed as a backhanded compliment—a gentle way of saying that it's not to be taken too seriously. But while Chianti does indeed go well with sausage and pepperoni pies, it also works nicely with pastas and roasts, particularly if there are mushrooms anywhere in the vicinity. (Good Chiantis have an earthiness to match that of the fungi.) And Chiantis boast another virtue: Although not necessarily the most robust wines around, they do have a bone-warming effect, which is a selling point if you happen to be anywhere in the northern hemisphere at the moment.
Correction, Jan. 12, 2010: This piece originally listed the price of the 2007 Coltibuono as $11. It actually retails for $16. (Return to the corrected sentence.)