Back when Chianti was cheap, it wasn't very good. Now that it's good, it isn't very cheap. Yet, despite increased prices, many excellent Chiantis are still available for $10 or less.
A major reason for the plethora of good values currently is the arrival of the fabulous 1988 vintage. Though Tuscan winemakers rate 1988 a shade below 1985 in the best-of-the-decade sweepstakes, it's safe to say that '88, like '85, has provided Chiantis of deep fruit and character. Many are approachable in their youth owing to the soft tannins and fairly low acidities that typify the vintage.
Moreover, the tide of ripe, healthy grapes in '88 has raised the level of all ships. Regular (i.e., non-riserva) bottlings in some cases approach the level of riservas in other years. Cynics might say they are better, as it's never been clear that the additional cask aging required of riservas is necessarily good for the wine. In any event, it is clear that the vintage has yielded high quality wines in the low-to-moderate price range, which the riservas will have all but abandoned when they arrive in one to two years.
The following 1988 Chiantis are listed in order of preference within groups. Prices are approximate.
Castello di Fagnano (Geografico) Chianti Classico 1988 ($10): Spicy, crushed-berry flavors on the palate and a sweet, perfumed nose provide irresistible, drink-now charm. Fagnano is the private label of the Geografico cooperative in Chianti Classico. While co-ops often aspire merely to mediocrity, this one employs winemaker Vittorio Fiore to select only superior lots for the Geografico label. Only about 90,000 cases out of a total production 225,000 cases are so honored. As Geografico also bottles a riserva (Tenuta Montegiachi) and a premium Chianti Classico (Contessa di Radda), Fagnano would appear to be at the lower end of its "selected" wines. That piques one's interest in the co-op's higher level bottlings, which were not tasted but presumably are even more impressive. (D.C. retailers may order through Wine Source/national importer is Winebow Imports)
Capezzana Chianti Montalbano 1988 ($8.25; Best Buy): Don't be fooled by the light color of this bottling. As with Burgundy, what counts in Chianti is not color but complexity, and this wine has plenty of the latter. Indeed, it bears some resemblance to a village-level Volnay, as it is marked by an enticing, spicy, earthy, mineral bouquet, and silky, strawberry notes on the palate. Note that Capezzana is the leading producer of Carmignano, a rare sangiovese-based wine that includes small amounts of cabernet and merlot from vines first imported into the region from Bordeaux by Capezzana's owners, the Bonacossi family, generations ago. Its 1983 Carmignano Riserva ($20) is a stunning wine that could teach a thing or two to some of Tuscany's new wave, sangiovese/cabernet blends priced twice as high. (Forman/IVW)
Talosa Chianti Colli Senesi 1988 ($10): Probably declassified wine from Talosa's impressive Vino Nobile de Montepulciano ($13) production, this displays lavishly soft, ripe, opulent fruit and an attractive, mature bouquet. Now at its peak. (Wine Source/Winebow)
Fattoria di Felsina Chianti Classico "Berardenga" 1988 ($10): Sometimes referred to as the Margaux of Chianti because of the svelteness of its wines, the Felsina-Berardenga winery also produces two levels of riserva and a great pure sangiovese wine, Fontalloro ($30), under enologist Franco Bernabei. In an ordinary year, this would have undoubtedly been declared a riserva and kept an additional year or more in cask. Such was the abundance of riches in 1988, however, that Felsina was able to use superior fruit in the regular Chianti Classico as well. Though somewhat tight now because of its riserva character, this wine displays admirable depth, complexity and breed. It should open splendidly with one to two years of cellaring. (Bacchus/Vinifera)
Lilliano Chianti Classico 1988 ($10): Impressive color. Herbal, earthy bouquet. On the palate, robust, almost chewy, packed with flavor. Though vinified modernly, captures some of the rustic charm of Chiantis of old. (Kronheim/Neil Empson)
Melini Chianti Classico "Isassi" 1988 ($9.50): Solid core of fruit, supple, with a distinctive gout de terroir. (Forman/F. Wildman)
Good Antinori "Santa Christina" 1989 ( $7 - $8; Best Buy): Though technically not a Chianti, this sangiovese-based wine from Tuscany's most important Chianti house delivers excellent value, with an appealing bouquet of fresh grapes and light oak, and lively, lush fruit on the palate. (Kronheim/Premiere)
Nistri Chianti 1988 ($6; Best Buy): Delightfully fresh and fruity, with good complexity for a wine in its price range. (De Rosa Imports)
Badia a Coltibuono Chianti "Cetamura" 1988 ( $9 - $10): With a noticeable herbal, cabernet-like complexity on the nose, this medium-bodied, restrained wine captures some of the style of the luxury blends at a modest price. (Washington Wholesale/William Grant)
San Fabiano Calcinaia Chianti Classico 1988 ($10): Light to medium weight, not without some style. (Bacchus)
Fattoria Le Corti Chianti 1988 ($10): Easygoing, charming fruit, perfect with pasta and tomato sauces. (Stocked in D.C. at MacArthur/Marc de Grazia Selection)
Fattoria di Lucignano Chianti Colli Fiorentini 1988 ($7): Tropical fruit bouquet suggests liberal use of white grapes in the blend; very fresh and very tasty, though part of the charm comes from modest residual sugar, to which most will not object. (stocked in D.C. at MacArthur/Marc de Grazia Selection)
Melini Chianti Borghi D'Elsa 1988 ($7; Best Buy): Open, fruity and round. (Forman/F. Wildman)
Salcetino Chianti Classico 1988 ($7.50): Pleasant, very fruity quaffing-style Chianti. (Mayflower)
San Leonino Chianti Classico 1988 ( $10 - $12): Seemingly robust fruit not yet integrated with strong oak. Has potential. (Forman/Ch. St. Jean)
G. Cappelli Chianti Classico "La Quercia" 1988 ($9): Unusual style, very grapy, some spritziness. (Wine Source/De Rosa)
San Fabiano Calcinea Chianti Colli Senesi 1988 ( $6 - $7): Acceptable. Light, aromas and tastes of white grapes (Bacchus)
Castello D'Albola Chianti Classico 1988 ($10): Fruity, almost beaujolais-like. Nothing special here, but Castello D'Albola's sangiovese/cabernet blend called "Acciaiolo" ($48) is stunning. (Washington Wholesale/Seagram Classics)
In addition, don't overlook some excellent (mostly riserva) bottlings from earlier vintages that still sell for about $10. Excellent examples tasted recently include, in order of preference: Nozzole Chianti Classico "Riserva" 1986 ($10-$12; Forman/Kobrand); Fontodi Chianti Classico 1987 ($10-$11; Bacchus/Vinifera); Villa Antinori Chianti Classico "Riserva" 1986 ($10-$12; Kronheim/Premiere); Pomino-Frescobaldi 1986 ($12; Forman/Paterno); Frescobaldi Castello di Nipozzano Chianti Classico "Riserva" 1986 ($10-$11; Forman/Paterno); Castello Banfi Chianti Classico "Riserva" 1986 ($10; Kronheim/Banfi).
1988's Not Recommended Terre Toscane Chianti 1989 ( $6 - $7): Light pasta wash; white grape character. (Wine Source/Consensus)
Villa Banfi Chianti 1988 (Straw Basket) ($9; one liter bottle): Decent pasta wash, but nothing more. Belongs back at the old $6 price, where it offered reasonable value. (Kronheim/Banfi)
Aziano (Ruffino) Chianti Classico 1988 ($9): Potentially complex wine marred by metallic, off flavors. (Forman/Schieffelin)
Frescobaldi Chianti 1989 ($6): Cleanly made, but sweet finish is distracting. (Forman/Paterno)
Casa Francesco Chianti 1988 ($5): Only vaguely reminiscent of wine, to say nothing of Chianti. (International)
La Francesca Chianti 1988 ($5): Ever wonder what Italian dishwater tastes like? (Washington Wholesale)