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The Chianti Miracle

November 11, 1998|BEN GILIBERTI Special to the Times

The summer of 1995 had been one of the coldest and most disagreeable that anyone in Tuscany could remember. The grapes were not ripening, and the usually cheerful vignerons of Chianti were uncharacteristically glum, contemplating another meager harvest.

Then came the miracle. In mid-September, the weather broke, commencing a perfect spell of 80-degree days and sunny skies that lasted through the end of picking in late October, one of the latest harvests on record. Dubbed the miracle vintage, 1995 has produced truly fabulous Chiantis, with ripe, violet-scented bouquets and warm, voluptuous fruit.

But as good as '95 was, there is a catch. The inexpensive regular bottlings, which began arriving over a year ago, are underwhelming. Now, the reason is obvious. To compensate for a short crop, the vintners apparently were compelled to hold back the really good stuff for their pricier riservas, which by law must be aged at the winery for a minimum of 24 months. The first 1995 riservas are just now arriving, and they fully justify the reputation of the vintage. Clearly, it is a year on a par with the top-notch vintages of 1990 and 1985.

The following wines are listed in order of preference, based on a tasting of 33 1995s (both riserva and regular). Though the prices may seem high, compare them not with those of regular Chianti but with those of the top wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and California, in whose company these riservas clearly belong. Prices are estimates.

* Frescobaldi 1995 Chianti Rufina "Montesodi" ($45): When Fattoria Monsanto releases its 1995 "Il Poggio" bottling, it may well set off a battle royal with this bottling for the title of best single-vineyard Chianti of 1995. Both are produced in small quantities from minute parcels of old vines, picked late for optimal ripeness and vinified separately from the estates' other riserva lots. Montesodi is produced exclusively from an ancient clone of the Sangiovese grape grown only on Frescobaldi's Nipozzano estate. Compared with other super-premium Chiantis, its distinctive feature is a magnificent red cherry-violet note of exceptional purity. The '95 Montesodi is powerful, yet the brightness and suppleness of the fruit beg for drinking now.

* Nipozzano (Frescobaldi) 1995 Chianti Rufina "Riserva" ($20): One sniff of the gorgeous red cherry and spice bouquet lets you know that this is a cheaper version of the famous single-vineyard Montesodi bottling, above. Like Montesodi, it's produced exclusively from the Nipozzano clone of the Sangiovese grape, grown only on Frescobaldi's estate. The main difference is that it is slightly more forward than Montesodi, a bit less structured and a lot cheaper. Please, spring for a bottle or two of Montesodi, but buy as much of this ultra-refined Chianti as you can afford. Delicious now, this wine can also age for decades.

* Castello di Fonterutoli 1995 Chianti Classico "Riserva" ($44): This wine is extraordinary, if somewhat atypical, for a Chianti Classico, exhibiting succulent Bordeaux Cru Classe-style purple-black fruit, with oodles of new French oak and a strong Cabernet Sauvignon component (the new Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita law allows up to 15% Cabernet in Chianti Classico). Though impressive now, this will need five to 10 years of cellaring to show its best.

* Badia a Passignano 1995 Chianti Classico "Riserva" ($40): Although this ancient estate is now owned by Antinori, out of respect for the Badia vineyards, which have a unique clone of the Sangiovese, this wine is vinified separately. Notes of roasted cherries and minerals, which are quite characteristic of this estate, are allied with soft rich fruit and generous new oak. Impressive now, this wine merits six to eight years of cellaring to integrate its complex flavor components with the oak.

* Antinori 1995 Chianti Classico "Tenuta Marchese Riserva" ($34): Unlike the grapes for Antinori's mediocre 1995 Villa Antinori "Riserva" ($16), the fruit for this exceptional riserva comes exclusively from Antinori's estate vineyards. The nose displays smoky black cherry aromas with a noticeable cassis component from 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. With 20 minutes of airing, the flavors really open up, displaying complex cherry and mocha flavors. Balanced and beautifully crafted, this really should be laid down for five years to show the greatness of the winemaking and the terroir.

* Castello di Ama 1995 Chianti Classico ($23): Though is known for its single-vineyard bottlings, this regular Chianti Classico would outshine many riservas. Its delicate, soft cherry fruit calls to mind a young Chambolle-Musigny as much as a Chianti. Perfect for restaurants, this is a wine to enjoy now.

* Monte Antico 1995 ($8 to $9): Bargain hunters, rejoice. This wine keeps getting better with every vintage. Although technically not a Chianti because it is made outside the Chianti zone, the 1995 Monte Antico has more plumpness than most Chianti normale (i.e., non-riserva) bottlings, without the excessive grapiness that increasingly typifies inexpensive Sangiovese-based wines.

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