Special Report: John Szabo’s 90+ Chianti Classico Collection

2017, 2018 & and “Ottima” 2019

By John Szabo, MS

This past February saw the annual Chianti Classico Collection tastings unfold as usual at the train-station-turned-event-space Stazione Leopolda in Florence – little did I know it would be the last tasting of its kind I would attend for, well, who knows how long, and the last time I would be outside of Canada in 2020. But it was a suitably grand farewell event, as always, attracting some 200 producers, and this year 740 wines in the three “tipologies” of Chianti Classico: annata, riserva and gran selezione, nine more than in 2019.

There was unmistakeable enthusiasm in the air for the vintage that had just passed. 2019 was described by several producers present as “one of the greatest of all time”. Consorzio president Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi was less hyperbolic but no less enthusiastic in his vintage report to the press. “Ottima” was the Italian word he used to describe it, which translates directly as “optimal”, but more colloquially as excellent or exceptional. “We were back to a classic year, with normal yields, and perfectly healthy grapes”.

And the positives weren’t only weather-related. “Value just keeps rising”, he reported, with grape prices up 10%, and also bulk wine prices showing gains again this year. Sales, too, were stronger than the previous year, with more Riserva and Gran Selezione wines reaching the market; there are now 144 producers making a Gran Selezione, up from 95 in 2018. The two categories together now represent 55% of total sales value for Chianti Classico wines, up from 52% last year, all indicating that the premiumization strategy of the region is working. Canada, he also noted, is the second biggest market for Chianti Classico overall, behind only the United States.

I’m saddened to report that things have been extremely tough in Italy since the pandemic hit, hitting sales of premium wines particularly hard, including Chianti Classico. I’m equally saddened that the Collection tasting 2021 might well be postponed or even cancelled, and it might be a while before I can taste those hyped up 2019s.

But exports haven’t ceased, and Canadians continue to enjoy a wide selection of wines from the appellation. And as the first snowflakes fly and tables fill with the earthy, savoury flavours of autumn, and inclinations turn from crisp whites to more substantial reds, it’s time to finally bring out this long overdue report of top recommendations.

The focus of this Collection tasting was a first look at the 2018 annata wines, first level of the Chianti Classico hierarchy with the shortest ageing requirements, as well as late-released 2017 annata, and the first look at 2017 Riserva and Gran Selezione categories.

Panzano in Chianti’s famous ‘Conca d’Oro’ Vineyards

Vintage Report 2018

After the extreme heat and drought of 2017, and the dry years of 2016 and 2015, the abundant rains of 2018 were somewhat of a relief, if occasionally problematic in some parts of the region. Recurring rainstorms throughout August were conveniently displaced by a mostly sunny and dry September, though overall temperatures were below average.

As a general group, I very much enjoyed the 2018s, largely fresh, mid-weight wines with more moderate concentration relative to the previous three vintages. This was especially true for the wines of producers forced into early harvest by the threat of botrytis, when the grapes were still swollen from the rain. The best are immediately charming, with well managed wood impact (read: minimal to none) supple tannins and lively, sangiovese acids. Fruit remained vibrant and fresh, a stark contrast to the overripe/raisined fruit of so many 2017s. Over-ambition may have been the enemy this year, trying to impose structure on what were appealingly fresh, mid-weight wines. More will be revealed with the release of the more ambitious Riserva and Gran Selezione wines next year, but I feel this is not a blockbuster vintage. It is, however, a highly gastronomic one, which will deliver plenty of early pleasure. The world surely needs more wines of this kind.

Vintage Report 2017

As I wrote in my Chianti Classico Collection report last year: “2017 was by all accounts a challenging vintage, one in which growers faced not the old tribulations of rain and low temperatures, but the very 21st century problems of excessive heat and drought. A spring frost, and very hot and dry summer reduced production significantly; the Consorzio Chianti Classico reported a 27% reduction in quantity compared to average annual production in the DOCG.”

The principal problem with many of the wines is over ripe, raisined fruit, and hard, unripe tannins. In many instances, despite higher than normal alcohol levels, full maturity was compromised by the heat and the lack of water, when vines tend to shut down to save themselves, and berries literally shrivel, concentrating sugars, but also green tannins. This theme continued through the tastings this year of the late-released annata, and riserva and gran selezione categories.

But of course the vintage is not a write off; there are many excellent wines to be sure. The top viticulturalists in the region came out on top, as did the cooler, higher elevation areas in general, and the winemakers who held back on over-extracting and aimed for shorter or mid-term ageing wines. With a handful of exceptions, it’s generally not a vintage for long-term ageing, for the fear that fruit will disappear before the tannins soften.

After a decade of attending these tastings, it’s hardly a surprise to see the same names bubbling to the top, while also exciting to see some new names performing at the top level. Although not a fully comprehensive list – no human can taste 740 wines in two days – below are the top wines I tasted in February 2020, all reaching the 90+ threshold.

Castelnuovo Berardenga, Chianti Classico

Buyer’s Guide: Chianti Classico Annata 2018

92 Castello di Ama – Ama 2018 Chianti Classico
Properly fresh, ripe, spicy, a little more sappy and concentrated than the mean, with a fine streak of resinous-incense flavour, cedar and pine needle running through the tart-succulent red fruit. Excellent length and depth, saliva-inducing, saline finish. Drink 2020-2027. Tasted February 2020.

92 Monte Bernardi – Retromarcia 2018 Chianti Classico
Meaning “reverse gear” the Retromarcia is indeed made in a backwards spirit, which is to say wine made before winemaking was really a thing – good grapes simply lead to good wine. The 2018 is s highlight from the vintage, bright, ultra savoury and inviting, properly sapid and juicy in the regional and vintage expression. I love the salinity on offer the ripe but juicy acids, the overwhelming desire to have additional sips. Clean, without artifice, proper. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

92 Riecine 2018 Chianti Classico
On the riper, more concentrated side of the vintage mean, though with plenty of black pepper, bitter herbs and orange peel to add interest; the palate is fullish and succulent, genuinely concentrated but with freshness, with excellent length and depth. A grand success for the vintage, which can surely age more than the average as well, in fact, cellar another year or two before trying, or hold into the late ’20s. Drink 2020-2028. Tasted February 2020.

91 Castagnoli 2018 Chianti Classico
Fine depth here, richly fruity, fresh, open, with very good to excellent depth and weight in the category. Length and depth are also above the mean. Fruit is properly ripe, red and even some black, with rich tannic grain. Top stuff. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

91 Podere Poggio Scalette 2018 Chianti Classico
Open, slightly sweet and candied, lightly floral-vegetal, it’s a nose that really gains in time. I like the sapid palate, immediately, however, the mid-weight, the deceptive concentration, the excellent length on pure savoury-saline sensations. Considering the nose-palate split, I’d give this another year in bottle or so to meld together. I must say the depth is really quite excellent, the concentration genuine and not forced. There’s an ease and primal pleasure on offer here. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

91 Rocca di Montegrossi 2018 Chianti Classico
Pretty nose, clean, ripe, darker than the mean, with balanced fruit, wood, spice; the palate is fullish, firm, with a balance of tannins and acids, and very good length. Well-made on the sturdier side of the vinate style, also more ageworthy I suspect, indeed, try after 2021, or hold into the mid-late-’20. Tasted February 2020.

91 San Fabiano Calcinaia 2018 Chianti Classico
An inviting noseful of fruit, herbs and spice, especially peppery, gently reductive, juicy and well balanced on the palate, savoury and succulent. I like the balance and the savoury aspect, the tannins wrapped in fruit, the comfortable acids. A well made wine to be sure, representative of the vintage. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

90 Castello di Volpaia – Volpaia 2018 Chianti Classico
Closed for now, gently peppery on the nose with pink peppercorns in the Volpaia house style – these wines always need some time in bottle; the palate is light-medium bodied, lean but deceptively concentrated. Try in 1-2 years or so I’d say, even if not for long term ageing. Fine, refined and juicy. Drink 2021-2025. Tasted February 2020.

90 Castellare di Castellina 2018 Chianti Classico
Clean, in a particular herbal-resinous, old wood inflected style, appealing, not rustic. The palate is sappy and sapid, with snappy acids, fine tannins, and good to very good length. Solid wine. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

90 Fèlsina – Berardenga 2018 Chianti Classico
Pretty nose, classic sangiovese: fresh cherry and orange peel, no detectable wood, fresh, resinous herbs in a classic style, also true to vintage. Tannins are super fine-grained, acids sharp and ripe. And length very good. Drink or hold mid-term. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.


90 Poggerino 2018 Chianti Classico
Pretty, fresh nose, fleshy palate with fine acids and well managed tannins. Length and deptyh are good. Solid, pleasant, pleasurable Chianti, clean, with no evident wood influence. I like the thick tannic grain from the clays, and the fine, fresh, slightly darker fruit than the mean for Radda. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

Buyer’s Guide: Chianti Classico Annata 2017

92 Isole e Olena 2017 Chianti Classico
Finely perfumed, herbal, spicy, Mediterranean-style  Sangiovese here, with a wide range of aromatics on offer, and featuring mostly ripe red fruit, but slipping beyond as well. The palate is really well balanced, fresher than the mean, with an ease of drinkability, a suppleness of tannins and an overall poise that’s hard to match in 2017. I love the succulence here, the vague hint of citrus and tropical fruit (vermentino?), and the overall sense of freshness. A big success for the vintage.  Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

92 Val delle Corti 2017 Chianti Classico
Pale, transparent, luminescent red-garnet. Open, very pretty, floral perfume off the top, dusty red fruit and flowers, complex. I love the palate, the ample flavour, the freshness, the genuine depth and complexity on a proper mid-weight frame. Drink 2020-2026. Tasted February 2020.

91 Conti Capponi/Villa Calcinaia 2017 Chianti Classico
Ripe, open, with a fine mix of fruit and herbal spice, and low wood impact, this shows good succulence and juiciness on the palate, a saline sapidity that draws additional sips. Good to very good length, one of the successes of the vintage, with elegance and transparency. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

91 Renzo Marinai 2017 Chianti Classico
Deep garnet colour, very ripe, intense nose, blending blood orange and resinous spice with ultra ripe red berry fruit. The palate is uncommonly lush for the vintage, with loads of fruit extract. Tannins are nicely managed, grippy but polished, and length is very good. A success for the vintage, and very Panzano in style – concentrated but not heavy. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

90 Dievole Le Vendemmia 2017 Chianti Classico
Fine sweet-fresh red fruit here on the nose, with refined juicy acids, long, firm, abundant tannins, but honest, along with balanced acids. An accomplished, fresh wine in this hot vintage. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

91 Fontodi – Filetta di Lamole 2017 Chianti Classico
Open, herbal, spicy, lifted in the Lamole style, finesse was maintained by those sandstones and high elevation is this torrid vintage. The palate is fine and filigree, with no shortage of fine grained, grippy-dusty tannins. Very good length. Properly made, balanced, stylish wine for short-mid-term cellaring, not Fontodi’s best, but still excellent to be sure in that refined style. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

90 Il Molino di Grace  2017 Chianti Classico
Quite deeply coloured, with notable wood character, sweet baking spice, but more especially the creamy-leesy character that often accompanies wood ageing. The palate shows slightly raisined fruit, abundant, chewy tannins, concentrated acids, and good length. This has come out quite well nonetheless, considering the extreme vintage conditions – a success. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

90 L’Erta di Radda 2017 Chianti Classico
Impressive freshness here: lively red fruit, minimal oak influence, naturally balanced acids, and very fine-grained tannins make this a compelling 2017. Again the fresh Radda terroir becomes an asset in warm years like 2017. Complexity and depth are good if not exceptional, but overall this works well. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

90 Podere La Cappella 2017 Chianti Classico
Nicely lifted and fresh wine here, with ripe, sweet fruit cosseted by wood; tannins are supple and the ensemble coated in plenty of fruit extract. Very good to excellent length. Good stuff. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

90 Pomona 2017 Chianti Classico
Clean, open but not overly fragrant, more refined and subtle, in the more elegant line of Pomona’s wine. I like the well-managed tannins, the balanced acids, the fruit that remains tart-ripe-red and fresh. This is accomplished wine in the vintage, with a emphasis on vineyard, and wine, and balance. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

90 Quercia al Poggio 2017 Chianti Classico
Pale garnet. Open, floral, dusty-oxidative, with faded fruit and pot pourri, quite pretty. Delicate, elegant, firm, silky palate, with balanced acids and well managed tannins. Very good length. A fine wine in this vintage. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

90 Querciabella 2017 Chianti Classico
Clean, on the edge between oxidative and reductive, holding on to freshness and considerable fruit. The palate shows substantial tannic extraction but there’s also ample fruit to coat and cover. But ultimately, not a top vintage for Querciabella, even if well done under the conditions. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

90 Villa di Geggiano 2017 Chianti Classico
Clean, open, honest, fleshy-juicy palate cosseted by a firm tannic ring, but not overly extracted. This should come around nicely in 2-3 years – should have the stuffing to ride it out. Long finish, fine complexity. Drink 2020-2025. Tasted February 2020.

Buyer’s Guide: Chianti Classico Riserva 2017

92 Castello di Volpaia 2017 Chianti Classico Riserva
A rare ’17 to retain charm and grace, even if very well structured, this is also nicely balanced despite some back end heat. Tannins are fine and dusty, and length is very good. I’d cellar 2-3 years to fully evolve. Drink 2023-2027. Tasted February 2020.

90 Castellare di Castellina 2017 Chianti Classico Riserva
Candied, raisined, with dried cranberry fruit; juicy enough on the palate, with solid complexity. Tannins are still grippy, but acids are bright enough to cope and create succulence. Good to very good length. Tasted February 2020.

90 Riecine 2017 Chianti Classico Riserva
Solid, firm, deep dark fruit, on the edge of overripeness, with the firm tannins characteristic of the vintage and a spike of alcoholic heat. Well managed all in all, but I don’t see this as a long term wine – tannins are too brittle and the fruit already starting to fade. I’d drink younger to capture the fruit. Drink 2020-2024. Tasted February 2020.

Buyer’s Guide: Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2017

93 Castello di Volpaia – Coltassala 2017 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
A top example of the vintage/category. Intriguingly resinous-herbal, with plenty of citrus and especially blood orange, and residual wood influence lingering but well integrated. The palate is juicy-firm, lively, indeed surprisingly lively in this torrid vintage, function of the high elevations of Volpaia’s vineyard. Excellent length.  Drink 2022-2027. Tasted February 2020.

92 Castello di Ama – San Lorenzo 2017 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Clean, very ripe, offering cherries in liqueur, fresh herbs, sappy, rich, gently extracted but with real substance. Tannins are abundant but slippery, and acids are naturally in balance. I’d say the addition of merlot and malvasia really bring some freshness. It’s not a San Lorenzo for the ages, but as usual, Ama comes out on top of a tough vintage. Sangiovese, with 13% merlot, 7% malvasia nera. Drink 2022-2027. Tasted February 2020.

92 Castello di Fonterutoli – Badiola 2017 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Clean, fruity, ripe but still quite fresh, not over the top, with more modest wood impact than Fonterutoli’s other two GSs, indeed I find this the freshest, most lively and juiciest of the trilogy, with terrific persistence. This can also age, into the late ’20s without issue. Pure Sangiovese. Drink 2022-2030. Tasted February 2020.

92 Castello di Querceto – La Corte 2017 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Pure, very old vine sangiovese. A little finer, more juicy than the Il Picchio GS from Querceto. Tannins are firm but fine and tightly-woven, while acids are succulent and length and depth are very good to excellent. This has depth and substance. Drink 2022-2027. Tasted February 2020.

That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS