(pronounced key-ON-tee )
Everyone loves Chianti, right? But what exactly IS Chianti, and why do so many people love to order it with dinner?
To begin, Chianti Classico is inside Tuscany, a region that raises the grapes that one day grow up to be part of Chianti Classico wine (Italy and France often name wines after their region). Typically, the wine is made from a large amount (90% or more) of Sangiovese, a red grape that grows very well in the Chianti Classico region, and blended with small amounts of the white and/or red grapes that also grow locally—as nondescript as Canaiolo Nero to as famous as Cabernet Sauvignon. (It is also possible for a Chianti wine to be made from 100% Sangiovese.)
For years the symbol of Italian wine was the straw-covered Chianti flask. Ever since Laborel Melini came up with the bright idea of shipping wine in these flasks, Chianti has been the symbol of Tuscany, and for Italian wine throughout the world.
Unfortunately, those same straw flasks, which are remembered for decorating tacky Italian restaurants with red and white checkered tablecloths, came to symbolize Italy as a producer of cheap wine—an identity that has been tough to shake until fairly recently.
In the last 20—30 years, Italian wine producers have worked very hard to dispel this myth, and the effort started first and most aggressively in the Chianti district—the soul of Italian wine. Their quality wine revolution has been a great success, as the greatest wines of Italy rank among the best in the world. Indeed, some excellent wines from the Chianti region, and similar “Super Tuscans” are considered world-class.
To be sure we’re on the same page, let’s go over the basics of Chianti. First, Chianti is the name of a region in the heart of Tuscany, and the red wines produced there must contain at least 80-100% Sangiovese grapes to be labeled as Chianti. There are seven distinct subzones of Chianti; the most important you need to know about are Classico and Rufina—although the other five can produce good wines, these two districts are the most popular. Historically, Chianti Classico is where it all started, and today the general consensus is that the best wine of the region is made there. Almost all producers of Chianti Classico belong to a consortium that acts as a watchdog and ensures that high quality is preserved in the wine. Wines made by these high standards are identified by a black rooster on the neck of each bottle. (Why a rooster? That’s a whole ‘nuther story…) If you are interested in the rules and details of Chianti winemaking as set forth by the consortium, click here: Chianti Classico Wine Consortium Code.
For everyday drinking, your best bet is a bottle labeled simply “Chianti” that costs in the $6-10 range from a reliable producer such as Piccini, Fonterutoli, Badia Coltibuono, Castello D’ Ama, Carpineto, Fontodi, Ruffino, and Falchini. Simple Chianti is high in acidity and has a fruit flavor similar to cherries, making it a great match with everyday foods like pasta with marinara or other red sauce, chicken cutlets, salami sandwiches (a Tuscan staple), pizza, and any of many other foods. When purchasing simple Chianti, get it as young as possible—usually the vintage will be only two or three years old.
When you want a Chianti with a bit more “oomph”, such as for a nice veal cutlet, grilled chicken, pasta primavera, grilled eggplant, or similar dish, go with a Chianti Classico or Chianti Rufina in the $12-25 range. Often you can get a Riserva in this price range; this means the wine has been aged in oak for at least three years (usually longer). The oak adds a nice complexity to the wine and vanilla touches to the nose and palate. When you have a more serious game dish (venison, pheasant, lamb), or serving aged cheeses, you can go for the gusto and get a serious Chianti Classico Riserva from $20 to a ridiculous price such as Castello D Ama “Bellavista”—a wine which can cost in excess of $1000 per case!
When faced with a tough decision, settle on your price range and first look for producers you know . If you’re not familiar with too many, the list mentioned above is a reliable starting point. Following are a few pointers … stick with:
1. Chianti Classico;
2. Riserva bottlings;
3. “Single Vineyard” bottlings;
4. Strong vintages, such as 1988, 1990, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004.
From a snob’s point of view, there is a lot more to Chianti than what we’ve covered here. However, Italian wine, thankfully, is a non-snob’s dream. No matter what you choose, you get a wine built for food, and you don’t really have to think about which direction the vineyard is facing nor the soil components. Just pull the cork, pour the wine, and get drinking!
Did you know ?
The black rooster that appears on many Chianti Classico labels, signifies the peace between Florence and Siena—two Tuscan cities that had for centuries been arch rivals