Chianti: A Great Wine with a Split Personality
– by Terry and Julie Robards
Chianti has the dual distinction of being both Italy ’s most improved red wine and its most misunderstood.
The Chiantis of today are often lush with ripe berry fruit, generous, friendly and appropriate with many kinds of foods, including all meats, poultry, game and most pasta. Moreover, consumers need not spend large sums for good bottles: many excellent Chiantis are available at retail for less than $10.
Yet Chianti has an image problem. Many consumers recall the Chiantis of 20 and 30 years ago, which were often tannic, thin, high in acidity, made with unripe fruit and lacking in generous flavor qualities. The classic Chianti image of those days was the straw-covered bottle, or fiasco (flask), placed on a red checkered tablecloth and used as a candle holder once the wine was consumed. How could any such wine ever be taken seriously?
The vast majority of today’s Chiantis come in Bordeaux-shaped bottles with no straw covering and merit places in any serious wine cellar. Chiantis made from low-yielding hillside vineyards, stored in French oak barriques and bearing the riserva notation on labels can be surprisingly ageworthy, sometimes requiring 15 or 20 years to reach full maturity.
Chianti has benefited not only from modern techniques of vineyard management and winemaking, but also from changes in grape composition. Whereas once the Chianti formula called rigidly for about 70 to 90 percent sangiovese grapes, 10 to 15 percent canaiolo nero, and 10 to 15 percent trebbiano and malvasia, many of today’s Chiantis contain portions of cabernet sauvignon and other non-traditional grapes familiar to sophisticated enophiles.
The requirement for white grapes (trebbiano and malvasia) was based more on politics than wine quality. When the Chianti formula was devised and articulated centuries ago, the growers of white grapes would have been economically impacted if their vineyards had been excluded, so their grapes became part of the formula.
A number of leading producers quietly ignored the white grape requirement as well as some of the other stipulations of the formula for years before the formula was officially upgraded in more recent times. Their rationale was that ignoring the formula could be justified in the interests of producing superior wines.
The Chianti region is an important part of Tuscany in northern Italy , where the main cities are Florence and Siena . Chiantis bearing the black rooster neck label come from the Classico zone between Florence and Siena and for many years were promoted as being superior to other Chiantis from outside the zone. Today their superiority can no longer be assumed, for standards have been raised throughout Tuscany .
At one time the Chianti Classico Consortium had all of the major producers, including Ricasoli, Antinori, Frescobaldi, Banfi, Melini, Bertolli, Badia al Coltibuono, Castello di Gabbiano and others, but top producers began dropping out of the consortium decades ago because they declined to abide by the consortium’s rules and also because they felt they were financing their smaller competitors, since the dues structure was based on bottle sales: the more you sold, the more you paid. So there is much Chianti today that does not carry the black rooster label.
Just as there is no uniform style or flavor composition in Bordeaux and Burgundy, to name two important non-Italian regions, Chiantis offer a range of styles and qualities, reflecting the expertise and techniques of the winemakers as well as grape composition. Consumers should experiment to determine their own preferences.
One excellent buy today is the Castello di Gabbiano 2007 Chianti at $7.99. This is not a big and powerful wine, but it is round, generous and food-friendly, ready to drink with tonight’s meal. Consumers interested in experimenting might comparison-taste Gabbiano’s Chianti, Chianti Classico ($12-$14) and Chianti Classico Riserva (about $20) to discover the nuances and complexities available in the more costly wines from the same producer.
Other good buys are the Chianti 2008 of Cecchi ($10-$11), the Melini Chianti Borghi d’Elsa 2008, the Frescobaldi Castiglioni Chianti 2007 ($14-$15), the Ricasoli Chianti del Barone 2007 ($13-$15) and the Tiziano Chianti 2008 ($9-$10). All of these Chiantis would benefit from more aging, but all can be consumed with pleasure now, and all are a far cry from those inferior Chiantis of yesteryear.