In the past 20 years or so, Chianti's reputation has made a comeback. The region always produced some excellent wines, but it suffered from the generalization of poor quality due to its association with those squat, straw-covered bottles better suited for holding candles than for drinking. The region is huge, covering roughly one third of Tuscany and is divided into a series of subzones, Classico being the best known. Sangiovese is the primary grape though other varieties are permitted in the blend. To many people, the name Chianti is synonymous with Italian wine. Here are the panel's top picks.

2003 Colognole Chianti Rufina, $16.99

To the north and east of the central Classico region, Rufina is one of six Chianti subzones and probably the most distinctive, producing elegant wines with good aging potential. This wine opens with sweet cranberry and ripe cherry aromas. New-world in style, the Colognole has opulent dark berry fruit and supple tannins. Touches of chocolate and pepper add interest while the finish is long and velvety with just the right touch of tannin. It's a definite crowd pleaser at a good price.

2001 Melini Vigneti La Selvanella Chianti Classico, Reserva, $27

In the heart of the Chianti region, Classico (along with Rufina) has the distinction of being one of the first legally recognized appellations, having been decreed by the Medici Grand Duke Cosimo III in 1716. Nice light, earthy cherry blossom aromas play against an enticing hint of roasted meat. Thirty months in a cask earn it the "reserva" designation, but the oak is subtle while the aging has smoothed out any rough edges. Silky cherry fruit dominates the palate, and soft, ripe tannins mark the finish. This is a more traditionally styled Chianti that takes time in the glass to open up, and with the higher acidity that begs to be paired with food.

2003 Vincenzo da Filicaja Chianti Superiore, $18.50

The "superiore" designation was adopted in 1997 and requires stricter rules of production than wine simply labeled Chianti (similar to the regulations in the various subzones). Stylistically, the Filicaja falls somewhere in between the other two wines, marked by rustic aromas of earthy tobacco, creamy cherry and spice. It has remarkable balance in the mouth with rich, dark fruit backed by the perfect hit of acidity. It finishes with a light bit of pepper and lovely dark fruit that lingers on and on.

This week's panel: Dave Faulk, Porterhouse Meats; David Kirkpatrick, Boise Co-op Wine Shop; Karen McMillin, Young's Market; Kyle Mahler, Bardenay; Michael Molinengo, Idaho Wine Merchant.

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