For many of us old enough to remember, Chianti meant cheap wine in the traditional 'fiasco' straw bottles (which then doubled as either a lampshade base or, more often as a romantic candle-stick holder, enhanced by the dribbles of melting red wax down the sides of the bottle and onto the straw).
This was the 1970's and early 1980's. Even as far back as 1975, leading Chianti producer Ruffino made international headlines by replacing this traditional straw fiasco with a more refined Florentine bottle.
However, the enormous quality improvement in Chianti is not just due to the abandoning of the fiasco. Yes, this has helped the image, but the real evolution is due to the dedication of conscientious producers to high quality, better selection of Sangiovese plant material and, important changes in the laws regulating how Chianti wines can, and cannot be produced.
Today, Chianti is producing more exciting wines than ever before and while many single vineyard and the longer aged Riserva styles are expensive, for the most part Chianti remains within the reach of all wine lovers.
Chianti is probably Italy's most famous wine. Sometimes, in the shadow of its more illustrious brothers Brunello di Montalcino or Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, Chianti is now witnessing a well-deserved rediscovery. Located in Tuscany, Chianti it is broadly divided into the areas of regular Chianti (with its six sub-zones) and, the heartland itself, which is called Chianti Classico. Both Chianti and Chianti Classico are DOCG wines.
For years the region has been dogged by difficult appellation rules that focused more on quantity than quality. In Chianti, Sangiovese is the principal grape variety. Subject to extreme clonal variation, it is a very difficult grape to cultivate, and was until the 1990's considered somewhat of an underperformer, due to poor availability of high-quality clones.
In addition, written into the original appellation rules, Chianti wines had to contain between 10 and 30 percent white grapes. Now, while a small proportion of white grapes can enhance the character of some red wines, for the most part the white grapes used in Chianti were not so noble, and did little else but augment quantity, resulting in lean, astringent wines.
Since then much has been done to reinforce the virtues of Sangiovese and Chianti wines. In the mid-nineties the appellation rules were modified, eliminating the obligatory use of white grapes, even allowing Chianti to be 100% Sangiovese. While white grapes could still be included, the maximum was 6%.
This was a huge catalyst for change, and worked hand-in-hand with the arrival of vastly improved Sangiovese clonal material, enabling producers to make wines with much more intense color, more concentrated fruit character and a greater ageing ability.
More recently the rules further changed, banning the inclusion of any white varieties in Chianti. 2006 is the first vintage under these new regulations, which is made all the more exciting, given the excellent quality of that vintage.
Chianti wines have long enjoyed a place at the table. Their relatively high acidity, absolute dryness, subtle aromas and flavors of tart cherry as well as a certain astringency makes them excellent food partners and less easy to drink on their own. While years ago I would have only sought out Chianti Classico or Riserva for quality, today I am enjoying more and more the regular bottlings of Chianti, such has been the enormous leap in quality.
And these wines are also easy on the wallet, usually selling for between $10 and $15.
Food pairings that we particularly like with Chianti include Pizza of any kind, Penne Puttanesca, Classic Hamburger and fries, Spicy chicken wings, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Shrimp with a spicy tomato sauce, marinated (lots of garlic & herbs), grilled flank steak or Chili con Carne. Also, because of the refreshing character of Chianti and their lack of heaviness or power they are perfect for the summer.
First here are some simple, yet elegant Chianti wines from the excellent 2006 vintage that are sure to please:
• 2006 Tenuta Mormoraia, Chianti Colli Sensi ($14) – enticing nose of black and red cherry with notes of tobacco, leather and spice. Medium bodied with lots of youthful red fruit flavors and a lingering, savory finish.
• 2006 San Fabiano, Conti Borghini Baldovinetti, Chianti DOCG ($13) - Vibrant, refreshing and packed with bright, ripe fruit. Aromas and flavors of plums, sweet cherries and wild strawberries with hints of earth and leather.
• 2006 Chianti "Governato," Saggio ($10) - Made using the ancient 'governato' method of winemaking, whereby a portion of the grapes are dried, pressed and then added to the wine that has already begun fermentation, intensifying the flavors and aromas. Cherries, plums, with a lovely spicy richness across the palate.
• 2006 Ruffino Chianti DOCG ($9) – A Chianti classic. Youthful bright cherry and blackberry nose with floral hints. Clean and refreshing with a slightly spicy finish and a touch of toasted nuts.
• 2006 Badia A Coltibuono Chianti Cetamura ($10) – Youthful and fresh cherry-berry aromas and flavors with spicy and floral notes.
And then for the weekend or special occasion why not try these superb examples of Chianti Classico:
• 2006 Santedame Chianti Classico, DOCG ($18) – Quality at a great price. Packed with ripe black and red fruit with enticing floral notes and spicy peppery and coffee notes.
• 2004 Fattoria di Rodano, Chianti Classico DOCG ($18) – Earthy, brimming with all sorts of red berries and hints of leather and tobacco. Medium bodied with a lingering finish
• 2005 Cennatoio, Chianti Classico, Cennatoio ($19) – Another classic style, made for the table. Medium bodied with aromas and flavors of blackberries, black cherry, plums overlaid with notes of spice, toast and earthy tones.
Stores carrying a good selection of Chianti wines
Chambers Street Wines (Manhattan, NY)
Harlem Vintage (Manhattan, NY)
Winerz.com (Orange, CA)
Fine Wine House (Upland, CA)
Astor Wines (Manhattan, NY)
Grapes of Norwalk (Norwalk, CT)
Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits (Washington DC)
Binny Beverage Depot (Niles, IL)
Corporate Wines (Woburn, MA)
Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PA)
PJ Wine (Manhattan, NY)
Beverages & More (Concord, CA)
Internet Wines & Spirits (Fairview Heights, IL)
Total Wine & More (various locations, FL, NC, VA)
The Wine Shop (Shorthills, NJ)
So get out there and enjoy simple Chianti in all its glory.
Until next week!
(Images: Chianti Classico Consorzio)