Chianti…Remembrance of Wines Past
As a child growing up in an Italian-American family, I was forever fascinated by the straw-covered flasks of Ruffino Chianti (the only Chianti my father would drink). When it came time to go to the cellar and choose a wine for dinner, I was the first to volunteer and always returned with Chiantieven when it was not the most appropriate wine for the dinner. After all, in our home, Chianti (except perhaps for some Riserva Ducale) was only for family meals, often for Sunday dinner when the menu was pasta with my aunts red sauce and some form of beef roast. Years later, when I became more interested in wine, and the straw-covered flask had gone the way of the red-checkered tablecloth, and southern Italian cooking began, unfairly, to be regarded as the ugly step sister of northern Italian cuisine, I began to learn about this variety that I still associate with my youth.
Chianti has a long history. Its been around in one form or another since at least the 14th century. The name of its eponymous district derives most likely from the sounds of the hunt (clanti) that filled the air in the area just south of Florence. In fact, in 16th century England, the wine from this region was referred to as Florence. It was in the later part of the 19th century, however, that the blend, or uvaggio, for Chianti was developed by Barone Bettino Ricasoli. This prescribed blend continued with many variations until the mid 1980s. The primary grape was, and still is, the Sangiovese, which gives the wine its characteristic plumminess and edge, along with the red Canaiolo, which was used to soften the Sangiovese . White grapes were also required in the blend including the Malvasia and Trebbiano, which were used to lighten and even to stretch the wine. Many producers of Chianti rejected this practice of blending and preferred to make their Chianti only from red grapes or desired to blend the native Sangiovese with imported varieties like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. Indeed, these disputes with the Italian DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) regulators gave birth to the highly sought after super Tuscans, like Solaia and Tignanello, which were humbly labeled Vino da Tavola. Today, however, the rules have been much relaxed and the use of white grapes is no longer an issue. Up to 10% of the grapes may be imported varieties including Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead, the focus of the regulators has shifted to the age of vines, vintage yields, and minimum aging requirements.
Producers have also disagreed over the use of the governo, a secondary fermentation induced by adding musts from sweet dried grapes or grape concentrate as the first fermentation begins to subside. Its been argued that this practice gives the wine more character and makes it more readily approachable. Another disagreement has been over the use of oak. For many years, Chianti was made in large Slovenian casks; today, however, some producers are employing smaller French barriques. More and more, the quality of this wine has been improving, but unfortunately at the same time the unique Italian Chianti seems to be becoming internationalized. Nonetheless, we can still find many examples of this wonderful wine.
Selecting a Chianti can be difficult if one is unfamiliar with the different types and districts whose names appear on the label. Essentially, there are three basic types of Chianti. The first is Chianti di pronta beva, a Chianti to be drunk young. This wine is not meant for aging and the governo is often used in its production. This is a refreshing wine with plenty of acid and fruit. Its usually bottled in the straw-covered fiaschi and is not generally exported.
The next is simply Chianti. These wines are DOCG (denominazione di origine controllata garantita). They are designed for aging and are usually bottled in the familiar shouldered Bordeaux style. Chianti is typically full to medium bodied. Its dry with good fruit and sometimes displays a certain angularity. The nose can be floral (violets and iris), berried, or earthy. On the palate, there can be flavors of black cherry, beef, earth, oak, and vanilla. Quality in Chianti can vary. The most consistently good ones usually come from the Chianti Classico district, which covers 173,000 acres from south of Florence to north of Siena. This district includes nine townships and hundreds of producers. Some of the better known townships are Greve, Radda, and Castellina. The wines from each township are affected by the different soils (rock, sand, and clay) as well as by the areas micro climates. The voluntary consortium of Chianti producers in this district, the Consorzio del Gallo Nero, has teamed together to protect the quality of their wines that bear their bollino, or seal, with a black rooster. The border of the bollino is red for Chianti Classico normale, silver for vecchio, and gold for riserva.
The six other Chianti districts that fall outside the classico district form what is called the Chianti Putto. They also have their consortium, the Consorzio del Chianti Putto, which uses a pink cherub (or putto) as their seal. These districts are named for the hills that surround Arezzo, Florence, Pisa, and Siena. Here again, the styles and quality vary.
The third type of Chianti is the Riserva, which is the finest. By law, riservas require longer aging in wood or in bottle; they can only be produced in the best vintages, and are made from the choicest of grapes. These are full-bodied wines with beautiful floral bouquets along with hints of pepper and spice. They can be assertive and velvetyand the best examples quite pricey. The finest riservas generally come from the Chianti Classico district; however, in the Chianti Putto, the riservas from Chianti Montalbano and Chianti Rufina (not to be confused with Ruffino) also have fine reputations.
Some good Chianti vintages are the 1997 (there’s been a lot of press about this one), 1995, 1990, 1988, 1985.
Chiantis make wonderful accompaniments for pastas with meat sauces, hearty bean soups, game, and beef. One great match is a grilled Tuscan steak marinated in olive oil and garlic.
For this feature, we tasted eight chiantis first alone and then with a simple grilled steak. We arranged the wines in flights of two paired by price and started with the least expensive. For purposes of disclosure, I would like to acknowledge that three wines for this tasting were provided free of charge by Winebow, one of the countrys leading importers and distributors of fine wine. These wines were: the 1997 Coltibuono Cetamura Chianti, the 1996 Castellare Chianti Classico, and the 1994 Montellori Chianti, “Vigne del Moro.” For more information on these wines, you can call Winebow (201) 445-0620 or visit their website www.winebow.com.
1997 Antinori, Santa Cristina, Toscana, Sangiovese ($7.99). Technically this is not a Chianti, but I’ve included it as an example of the new style of Sangiovese from the maker of some of the greatest super Tuscans. This blend of Sangiovese with a small amount of Merlot is medium red in color with good legs. Its nose is floral (mostly iris). The entry is smooth. The wine has a nice edge with dry, meaty flavors and some pepper on the finish. It went remarkably well with the steak; good flavor. Given its price, it’s a real bargain.
1997 Borgianni, Chianti D.O.C.G. ($8.99). Bright garnet in color, it has long, long legs and a big sweet and pungent nose predominantly of violets. Smooth on entry, the wine displays a pungency on the palate, but it’s thin and its flavors fade fast. Its appearance and nose promise more than this wine delivers. This wine also did not stand up with the food.
1997 Coltibuono, Cetamura Chianti D.O.C.G. ($12.00). Deep garnet in color with good legs and a pleasant earthy nose, the wine has a nice entry. It’s full to medium bodied with dry leathery flavors and mild tannins as well as some spice. It also has an adequate finish. Unfortunately, the wine’s flavors did not stand up well with the steak. Perhaps it’s better for sipping with mild cheeses.
1994 Montellori, Chianti D.O.C.G. “Vigne del Moro” ($11.00). Dark garnet in color, with good legs and a big nose of black cherries and some earth, this wine has a smooth entry and plenty of body. On the palate, there are dry, cherry flavors with some oak. These flavors linger. The wine has a good finish as well. This was one of the best wines with the steak.
1996 Castellare, Chianti Classico D.O.C.G ($16.50). Garnet in color with an attractive floral and earthy nose together with some red berries, the wine is very smooth, almost velvety on entry. Full bodied with dry meaty flavors, it lingers on the palate with a lovely piquancy. It also has a good finish. This wine’s flavors provided a nice counterpoint with the steak and herbed potatoes and made it one of the stars of the tasting.
1996 Coltibuono, Chianti Classico, “Roberto Stucchi ” ($17.99). Garnet in color with good legs and an earthy, berry nose, the wine has a nice edge on entry. Dry and full bodied with nice tannins, it’s a textbook chianti with clean Sangiovese fruit flavors and a good finish. This wine has plenty of flavor and depth and should go well with most beef and game dishes. It would be perfect with pasta and ragu Bolognese.
1996 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico D.O.C.G. ($16.99). Deep garnet in color with good legs and a pretty berry sweet nose, the wine has a smooth entry and good body. “Delicious,” remarked one taster. On the palate, there’s good fruit and some tobacco flavors. Another textbook Chianti with a nice edge to it. The wine went extraordinarily well with the food. Another star of this tasting.
1995 Monsanto Chianti Classico, D.O.C.G. Riserva ($17.99). Garnet in color with long legs and earth and irises on the nose, the wine has a smooth entry. On the palate, there are beefy flavors with some spice, but overall the wine was a little thin and somewhat monochromatic. It also has an adequate finish. This wine, however, improved with the food.
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