If you had to pick a wine to represent the entire country of Italy, a single wine out of hundreds of bottlings drawn from thousands of indigenous varieties, that wine would have to be Chianti. Of all the imported wines that are culturally significant in the American market, none, outside of perhaps Champagne, carries more symbolism.
Chianti's hold on our collective imagination has less to do with how it tastes than what it signifies, where it's drunk and when, and even the vessel it comes in. Because if you're a certain age, Italian meals were simply incomplete without it. These were the sorts of meals involving heaping plates of pasta and red sauce in a restaurant festooned with clichés: murals of gondolas, peasants and putti, a soundtrack heavy with accordion and kitsch. Oceans of Chianti, poured from fiasci — those bulbous, bottom-heavy bottles sheathed in straw — were part of the pastiche.
And yet who among you remembers what those Chiantis tasted like? Allow me to remind you: They were generic, thin, grippy and cheap, short on fruit and long on tannin, all but unpalatable without a mouthful of spaghetti to offset the astringency.
But in the heyday of the American Italian restaurant, demand for Chianti superseded any need for it to be good. By the time consumers finally began exploring the rest of Italy's vinous offerings, most were more than willing to leave Chianti behind.
In the ensuing years, producers from the region have rendered their wines more approachable, more charming and certainly more versatile with any meal, Italian or otherwise.
The wines of Chianti Classico will never be powerhouses. The region's cooler temperatures and relatively high elevations inevitably yield a subtler, chewier, more red-fruited wine — one whose varietal character renders a wine that's taut, firm and somewhat grippy. But in the last decade a great many producers — including the traditional houses such as Badia a Coltibuono, Felsina, Antinori and San Giusto a Rentenanno — have changed up their winemaking practices and are making wines that are approachable, tender and charming.
Partly this stems from an improvement in vineyard practices. (Badia a Coltibuono, for example, a thousand-year-old winery, converted to organic viticulture in 2003.) Partly it's better tannin management for this notoriously high-tannin, high-acid grape. Some producers may have climate change to thank. But few wine regions have seen a uniform improvement in quality.
The result is that Chianti Classico category where for $25 you can get a wine as authentic and "classic" as any in Italy. Maybe that accounts for why the fiasco is making a modest comeback. The Montebernardi is currently being made by an American, Michael Schmelzer, Chianti resident and grower since 2003, who seems more than happy to flirt with Italian American clichés — and, literally, put new wine in old bottles.
2014 I Fabbri Lamole Chianti Classico
100% Sangiovese, aged in steel — it's rare to find any red wine as pure and direct as this one. With its scents of red cherry and red plum, and a succulent bit of plum skin to the texture, there's surprising concentration to the tannins, which start out rustic and get more refined with air. The wine has more depth too after a day, a charming, fresh and lovely red for sausage pizza. About $22 at Wine House in West Los Angeles, Silverlake Wine and Highland Park Wine in Highland Park.
2014 Montebernardi Chianti Classico Fiasco
Light and slightly herbal when first poured, this Chianti smells a bit like tomato leaf. After an hour the wine unfurls like an hibiscus flower, its herbal edges softened by dusty red cherry and plum flavors. Charmingly light-bodied, it's a red for pasta or roast chicken. About $24 for a liter at the Wine House, K&L Wine Merchants in Hollywood and Lou Wine Shop in Los Feliz.
2015 Monteraponi Chianti Classico
The flavors of this wine are delightful — sour cherries and minerals with a bottom note of garrigue and cut tobacco leaf — but it's the texture that will seduce you above all: silky, light-toned, but with a beguiling and tender suppleness that showcases winemaker Michele Bragante's exquisite management of Sangiovese's acid/tannin matrix, making this wine seem impossibly finessed and sexy. About $30 at Esters Wine Shop in Santa Monica and Lou Wine Shop.