Now is the time to stock up on one of Italy’s greatest red wines – sangiovese-based Chianti Classico.

The last three recorded vintages from this DOCG appellation – 2018, 2019, 2020 – have earned high quality ratings of 92 points or better, and the 2021 vintage is trending in a classic direction (95 points and above) based on early reviews published to date.

It means Chianti Classico is on the muscle.

And for budget-conscious Italian wine lovers, Chianti Classico is a solid value compared to other prestigious Tuscan red wines – especially the prestigious Brunello di Montalcino. Top wines from reputable producers can be had for $30 or less.

On the recent Grapefully Yours Wine Podcast, co-host Michael Pigeon and I talked about the storied Chianti Classico zone, which first gained notoriety for its wines in the late 14th century and received protective status in 1716 under the Grand Duke of Toscana,  Cosmo III de Medici .

Watch the show by clicking on the following link:

During the podcast, we tasted the 2019 San Felice “Il Grigio” Chianti Classico Riserva that has earned high marks (90-92 points from various experts) and is selling for $17.99 at several area wine outlets. That’s a $10 savings from the suggested retail price.

Also discussed was the enlightening article on Tuscan wines written by Wine Spectator senior editor Bruce Sanderson in the magazine’s October edition (“The Riches of Tuscany”). Sanderson blind-tasted 575 wines in his report, including Super Tuscans, and concluded that:  “Chianti Classico and the greater Chianti region and its sub-zones are typically the best source of value in Tuscany.”

However, before we get into some of those top values, let’s get some background on Chianti.

Chianti is a town and region in central Tuscany.

There are two distinct Chianti DOCG appellations:

Chianti DOCG covers the broad, hilly area that spreads over the provinces of Prato, Pistoia, Pisa, Firenze, Arezzo and Siena. It is twice the size of the Chianti Classico zone and produces more than 100 million bottles annually. Chianti DOCG wines must be produced from a minimum of 70% sangiovese, with the remainder of the blend coming from other red authorized grapes including Colorino, Canaiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. In general, the best wines are good quality but often lack the complexity of Chianti Classico.

Chianti Classico DOCG sits inside the Chianti DOCG, in a historic district that hasn’t changed much since the 14th century, and spreads over nine medieval, picturesque communes from Firenze to Sienna. Vineyards are marked by a wide diversity of elevation, soil types and mesoclimates which impact the style of wine produced. By law, Chianti Classico must contain a minimum 80 percent sangiovese in the blend, although most producers go above 90 percent. On average, the wines age between one to two years in oak. (Riserva wines are required to age at least two years in oak and three months in bottle). In general, the wines of Chianti Classico express notes of violet and iris on the nose and sour cherry, tea leaf, and wild herbs on the palate.

The authenticity of Chianti Classico wines are marked by a gold DOCG ribbon on the neck of the bottle and the famous black rooster symbol.

San Felice Chianti Classico “Il Grigio” Riserva 2019, SRP: $25, abv. 13.5% – Wine Spectator gave the entire 2019 Chianti Classico vintage a 95-point rating, putting it in the “classic” category and signaling future years of enjoyment for this age-worthy crop. “Il Grigio” fits in well as a medium-bodied red that delivers bright cherry fruit, elegance, silkiness and balanced structure.  Much to my delight, I found this bottle selling for $17.99 at a local wine retailer. (WS rated it 92 points; James Suckling gave it 94).

San Felice Chianti Classico “Il Grigio” Riserva 2020, SRP: $25, abv. 13.5% – Be on the lookout for this beauty as it rolls into the U.S. market. WS reviewer Bruce Sanderson rated it as one of his top value recommendations, giving it 93 points. He wrote: “Bright, fruity, with cherry, strawberry and Mediterranean scrub flowers. Shows no shortage of structure, staying balanced.”

Frescobaldi Tenuta Perano Chianti Classico Riserva 2016, SRP: $30 abv. 14.5% – At this point, the 2016 vintage may be difficult to find but that shouldn’t stop you from hunting down any recent bottling from this top producer. The 2018 and 2019 riservas both scored 92+ ratings from various wine reviewers and are selling in New Hampshire for $27 through the end of October.

What makes this wine so formidable a future prospect is its pedigree. The grapes are sourced from a new Frescobaldi estate – Perano – located in Gaiole, considered the heart of the Chianti Classico district. The inaugural Perano Chianti Classico Riserva was produced in 2015.

I found the 2016 Perano Chianti Classico Riserva to be captivating. It is a 90% sangiovese wine that gets a 10% touch of merlot. Dark violet in color with a velvety texture, Perano expresses core fruit of sour cherry and plum while taking on complex notes of licorice, mocha and cinnamon. The dry, long finish excels with a mineral hint of iron. Now into its seventh year of life, the 2016 shows no signs of fading from a glorious future.

Volpaia Chianti Classico 2020, SRP: $30, abv. 13.5% – This is not a riserva, but it’s a great value from Radda, a wine-making village that dates back to the 12th century. It’s selling at some area outlets for $25 a bottle, nearly $25 less than Volpaia’s riserva and $40 less than its top-tier gran selezione.

Volpaia is an historic estate with family links to Leonardo di Vinci. Vineyards rise to 1,200 feet above sea level, among the highest elevations in Chianti Classico. Wines are referred to as “Alta Chianti” (High Chianti) and are noted for their expressive, perfumy aromatics.

I’ve been drinking the Volpaia brand for years. The high quality is as precise and consistent as a Swiss watch. And while I’d love to put a shelf of Volpaia’s high-end wines in my cellar, there’s no reason to when the so-called “entry-level” Chianti Classico is so good. The 2020 edition is ruby-red, vibrant and fruity with a good measure of earthy spices. The drink is smooth, enjoyable and long lasting.

Most wine critics gave it 91 points, a decent score for a wine that delivers a lot more for the price.

The following are several top value recommendations – with their wine ratings –  made by WS senior editor Bruce Sanderson. Most should be available in Massachusetts stores and throughout New England.

Lastly, Sanderson’s October article is worth the read for Tuscan wine lovers seeking to learn more about Italy’s new and exciting releases.

Castello di Gabbiano Cavaliere d’Oro Riserva 2018, $23, 93 points.

Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico 2021, $20, 93 points.

Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico Riserva 2020, $25, 93 points.

Carpineto Chianti Classico Riserva 2019, $29, 92 points.

Castellare di Castellina Chianti Classico 2021, $28, 92 points.

Capraia Chianti Classico 2021, $26, 91 points.

Castello di Radda Chianti Classico 2020, $27, 91 points.

Antinori Chianti Classico Pepoli 2021, $25, 90 points.