Alameda/Oakland Magazine Article on Chianti
Oakland/Alameda Magazine November 2010
Explore Versatile Chianti by Jeff Diamond
Chianti is one of the most popular wines in the world. When made well, this versatile wine goes with many foods, and is a good choice for holiday fare — as its natural acidity and Montmorency cherry flavors complement turkey, beef and ham.
The word Chianti refers to wines coming from the Chianti region of Tuscany (simply called Chianti DOC — Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata — on the label) or with grapes coming from and produced in any of the seven Chianti DOCG subregions (Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) is the Italian quality assurance label for wines and is modeled after the French AOC system. DOC wines are produced in specified regions, according to well-defined rules that are designed to preserve traditional wine making. Vino a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) is a similar system to DOC, but that indicates wines of the highest quality. Generally yields are lower than DOC wines, and the wines need to be aged longer. All DOCG wines must pass an evaluation of a tasting committee.
The subzones produce wines of higher quality than the DOC. They include Chianti Colli Senesi, from the hills above Siena; Chianti Colli Fiorentini, from the hills surrounding Florence; Colline Pisane, near Pisa; Chianti Colli Aretini, from Arezzo; Chianti Montalbano, from the northernmost part of Chianti; Chianti Rufina, northeast of Florence; and Chianto Classico, the most celebrated region of Chianti, located south of Florence.
Chianti Superiore is an Italian wine that is produced with stricter requirements than the regular Chianti wines, with grapes that come from any of the subregions besides Chianti Classico. The wine must contain at least 75 percent Sangiovese and be aged for at least nine months, three of which must be in bottle.
Tuscans have been calling the local wine Chianti since at least the 11th century (although back then it was a white wine),and by the 18th century, historians note
that it was a red wine, comprised mainly of Canaiolo grapes, along with Sangiovese and other varietals. In the 19th century, Baron Ricasoli developed the modern
recipe for Chianti that was based primarily on Sangiovese.
That wine, a blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Malvasia and Trebbiano (two white varietals), aged in large neutral casks and bottled in straw covered fiascos or standard Bordeaux bottles, is the Chianti that was a mainstay in Tuscany and American-Italian restaurants. However, much of the wine that was being produced was cheap swill, a result of over-cropping and a lot of Trebbiano being added to the mix. That all changed with the Super Tuscan movement of the late 1970s.
The Super Tuscans were a group of mostly Chianti producers who wanted to make either 100 percent Sangiovese wines, to add in international varietals (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah grapes) to soften the flavors, or to use new French oak barriques, instead of the large neutral vessels that were used traditionally — all of which were banned under the Chianti’s–wine making rules.
This movement produced wines that garnered huge scores with the wine pundits, and appeared on wine lists in top restaurants. The wines started to be coveted by collectors around the world.
As a result, Chianti production techniques started to improve in the 1980s, with the rules in the Chianti Classico region leading the way. Lowering crop yields, clonal research, meticulous farming practices, extended macerations of the skins and the rewriting of the rules (up to 25 percent international varietals can be used at present) — all contributed to wines that had more extraction, length, color
There are two distinct styles of Chianti that I’ll call traditional and international. Traditional styles have good acidity and cherry flavors, with notes of dried herbs, earthy minerality, dusty tannins and cedar, while international styles tend mask some of those flavors with deeper extraction and vanilla/oak overtones. The international wines tend to be sweeter, while the traditional wines are better matches
Chiantis are readily available in the Bay Area, ranging in price from the $5 range for a generic DOC that doesn’t have much character, to the $60 range for some single vineyard Riservas. Wines labeled Chianti, Chianti Classico and Chianti Rufina are generally readily available in the Bay Area, while wines from the other subregions are harder to find. Chianti Rufinas tend to have a bit more natural acidity and great aging potential, while the Classicos have a bit more earthiness and a characteristic violent touch to the nose.
Here’s some great Chiantis currently available in shops and restaurants in the East Bay:
San Felice Chianti Classico – Il Grigio. More blueberry than cherry, but with fine dusty tannin
Felsina Chianti Classico – winner of a recent New York Times survey of Chianti Classicos; bright
Le Corti – A great example of old-school
Chianti; fermented in cement and neutral large wooden vessels
Badia Coltibuono – Organic and biodynamic, with the plushness and ripeness that many California wine fans will love
Basciano – an inexpensive yet well-made Rufina; easy drinking with lots of fruit
Frescobaldi Montesodi – 100 percent Sangiovese in new French barrels; international in style
Selvapiana Bucerchiale – an organic single vineyard offering that tastes great now, but will age for many years; layered bright fruit, spice, leather, with plum and cherry flavors.