Chianti, a wine region steeped in centuries of tradition, transition, transgression and trespass, rarely feels transcendent. Its storied setting in the heart of Tuscany, a stretch of hills between Florence in the north and Siena in the south, lend it a magical patina of Old World class that rather quickly for Americans and Brits descended into kitsch.

It was worst in the 1970s and 1980s. Chianti was checkered tablecloths, flasks (“fiaschi”) wrapped in straw, and red sauce. It was the backdrop to Sunday suppers with the cousins and nervous dates with someone you can’t remember. The wine was similarly forgettable: thin, acrid, rough, short. Most people who grew to love wine grew out of Chianti.

They grew out of something named that, anyway. The geographical expanse of Chianti is vast, and so is the number of ways its vineyards have been used to make wine. Wine has been documented in the area since the 13th century; in 1716 the Grand Duke of Tuscany legislated its official boundaries; and in the middle-19th century Bettino Ricasoli, Italy’s second prime minister, specified a “Chianti recipe” with percentages of various grapes, some of them white.

That blend, often too dependent on volume-boosting trebbiano and malvasia to the detriment of the finer and more complex sangiovese, led to rather pallid and quantity-oriented wines. Increasing quantity was also responsible for a concurrent trend: Wine estate owners, whose financial arrangements with the growers on their lands could legitimately be called feudal, continually expanded the “Chianti” zone past the original borders that had been based, at least roughly, on topography and geology.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that a consortium of winemakers within the originally delimited area made a concerted effort to restore their vineyards’ good names, demarcating a “Chianti Classico” zone within Chianti. Classico wines must also follow stricter requirements regarding alcohol levels, harvest yields and time spent aging in oak before release.

Chianti Classico produces far more reliable, fascinating wines than those simply labeled Chianti. Plain ol’ Chianti can produce excellent wines with real character, to be gulped young and fresh. Too often, though, they’re just generic, if not flat-out sour and ugly. So it would be simple enough to point people toward Chianti Classico as a way of rekindling an appreciation for this distinctive, beautiful wine whose good name was besmirched by a combination of mercenary corner-cutting and lifestyle hoodwink.

But the distinctions do not come close to ending there. Beyond the two categories of everyday-gulp Chianti and refined-for-the-ages Classico lie still more worlds of Chianti, often forgotten in a rush to crown the king. Of these, the two most noteworthy are Chianti Rufina in the region’s far northeast, and Chianti Colli Senesi in the extreme southwest. Tasting well-made Chianti from each of these areas reveals sangiovese’s remarkable variety, purity and charm.

Sangiovese belongs to a select class of grapes that show a rare combination of transparency and typicity, by which I mean that they simultaneously refract the influences of their surroundings and, when relatively unmanipulated in the cellar, could not be mistaken for anything else. One-hundred-percent sangiovese wines are exciting for this reason, but the varietal conducts itself so harmoniously with amenable support staff that Chianti blends (sometimes referred to as the “Bordeaux of Italy”) deepen the thrill.

My favorite wines of the outlying Chianti regions combine the sangiovese with assistance-level amounts of the other traditional grapes to provide inimitable snapshots of the region’s true nature. Canaiolo nero, especially, seems to clarify and intensify the brightness of sangiovese’s pretty fruit and flowers.

But what do I really know of Chianti’s “true nature”? Chianti is ever in one stage or another of development. Part of the fun of Chianti is not feeling so tethered to a single vision of “authenticity.” The best I can do is note what I’ve received from good Chianti most frequently, and what I appreciate: a firm but at most medium-bodied wine; tannins that ease up after just a couple of years in bottle but remain present and pointed enough to carry the wine through my mouth in stages; rather high acidity, refreshing and zippy, a natural match for tomatoes, herbs, greens that accompany a simple steak grilled hot and fast; red fruit flavors, especially cherry, laced with cinnamon; long, intricate aromas of flowers both fresh and dried; a silky finish that peeks out timidly from behind a grounded, animal rusticity.

That last contrast plays out markedly in the wines listed below: a Rufina exuding delicacy, softness and refinement; and a Colli Senesi that revs at higher rpm with mud on the tires. In the middle, a Classico so settled, structured and authoritative that you want it to offer lectures on the Great Books.

Throughout, pay attention most of all to their tantalizing aromatic intricacy, the vivid character of the fruit, the electrified acidity. Note the interplay between above-ground flavors of fruit and flowers at one moment and below-ground notes of earth and fungus the next. Grill a steak rare, roast some beets or tomatoes (the best treatment for that fruit this time of year), scorch some shishito peppers. Keep the flavors in your meal simple and etched, to match that character in the wines.

Marchesi di Frescobaldi is a hallowed name in Chianti, and their Nipozzano Vecchie Viti Chianti Rufina Riserva 2011 ($22) is just a joy to behold. “Vecchie viti” are old vines; these 40-year-olds dig deep into chalky soils and yield low. Ninety percent sangiovese meets malvasia nera, canaiolo and the aptly named dark-tinted colorino. After fermentation in cement, the grapes mature in the traditional style for two years in large oak casks.

The wine’s textbook earthiness is loamlike, fresh and wet. The red fruit veers into ripe strawberry, direct and succulent. At 14.5 percent alcohol, you’d think you were in for a wrestling match but you get the opposite: grace, refreshment, verve. In the end a wine is good when it’s balanced and bad when it isn’t. The Nipozzano holds each of its components in an ideal state of quiet tension.

In the warmer hills outside Siena, the traditional Chianti blend makes up the Sono Montenidoli “Il Garrulo” Chianti Colli Senesi 2012 ($22): sangiovese at 75 percent, plus canaiolo and a 5 percent blend of the white malvasia and trebbiano. This is wild-ride wine, down and dirty, untrendy, from the gut. Long fermentation on the skins, plus a lack of fining or filtration, help bring about a bracingly dry, somewhat raucous and Wild-West sort of wine.

Chianti’s trademark cherry notes have been dried here, and mingled with cinnamon, unsweetened chocolate, dried porcini. It’s amazing how Chianti-like this wine is, especially in its intense fragrances, yet how temperamentally distinct from the suave, polished expressions that have become Chianti’s norm. Lovers of dirt-flecked old-school red wine, edgy, bold and proud of its farmer origins, will find much to follow here, over several bottles.

Now that you’ve explored the poles, aim for the center. The Coltibuono Chianti Classico 2011 ($19) is, well, it’s classic. Relying on the region’s longstanding model of cooperative growing, with each parcel’s fruit vinified separately and then blended to age together in large oak, it exudes the foresty, leatherbound elegance of real-deal Chianti Classico. And despite the wine’s ringing acidity and overall tensile strength, its underlying softness shows the sheer pleasure at the heart of a classic.

Joe Appel is the Wine Buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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