News that the powers that be in Tuscany's Chianti Classico region have created a new, super-duper designation for the region's wines—Chianti Classico "Gran Selezione"—got me thinking. I've got no problem at all with a special category of top-end Chianti Classico (about 10 percent of the region's wines will qualify); in fact, I think life would be excellent if various of my relatives and friends took it upon themselves to buy me cases of high-end Chianti. Why not? But I do have to admit: My real affection for Chianti has more to do with the fact that so many of the region's affordable wines are so appealing.
That appeal has a lot to do with the primary grape used in Chianti, which is Sangiovese. Medium-bodied, with zingy acidity, when Sangiovese is grown well it produces wines that have the crisp, bright appeal of fresh raspberries (or cherries). The initial taste of a good Chianti always reminds me of eating a newly picked raspberry or cherry, and feeling the skin pop as you bite down.
Chianti, the overall region, is divided into a number of subzones. Chianti Classico is the most well known of these (it's a geographical rather than quality designation), but the others, such as Chianti Rufina, are well worth checking out. Chianti in general must be at least 75 percent Sangiovese (80 percent in Chianti Classico); the remainder can be made up of local Tuscan grapes such as Colorino and Canaiolo, or international varieties such as Cabernet or Merlot. Here, for the curious, are some good introductory bottles.
2011 Banfi Chianti Superiore ($10) Juicy and ripe—this may not be the most complex Chianti around, but it's an impressively tasty wine at a very good price.
2010 Cecchi Chianti Classico ($13) A little forest-floor earthiness gives this inexpensive Chianti Classico an intriguingly rustic character.
2011 Coltibuono Chianti Classico ($15) Badia a Coltibuono makes a broad range of very good wines. Their basic Chianti Classico is a great introduction to the estate's portfolio.
2010 Castello di Bossi Chianti Classico ($20) Dark cherry flavors and crisp tannins that suggest the snap of a dry twig—in other words, classic Chianti Classico.
2010 Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva ($25) Layered and complex, with red licorice and cherry notes. Riserva Chianti Classicos must be aged at least 24 months before release (the new gran selezione designation requires at least 30 months of aging). Monsanto's riserva bottling inevitably ages well in a cellar, though the 2010 is also impressive right now.