Rich In Taste: Picking The Right Chianti

Say 'Chianti' and generally, you can rely upon someone to make a 'liver and fava beans' joke, the wine having been immortalized by a throwaway line in The Silence of the Lambs. But Hannibal Lecter aside, the Chianti is an excellent medium red wine, and has been undergoing a re-branding process so that it can stand on its own, rather than in the shadows of the Super Tuscans from the same region.

3 Pairing Chianti With Food

You can drink a Chianti by itself (but considering the high alcohol content of the Chianti Classicos and Riservas, it's probably better not to), with a smooth spiciness to it and a delicious tannic note at the end. But perhaps more importantly than how well it stands by itself is how well it pairs with food. In fact, the Chianti can be paired with almost anything, the only exceptions being shellfish and spicy food, since their strong flavors overwhelm, rather than complement the wine's. The wine's versatility makes it a great pairing choice, and a safe one for when you offer to bring the wine for dinner.

Chianti originated in the Tuscany region of Italy, and it's Tuscany that sets the rules for what constitutes a Chianti today. The wine must be comprised of at least eighty percent San Giovese grapes, a variety that has been popular in Tuscany for over two thousand years. Despite it's spice and strawberry notes, San Giovese grapes are often felt to be too acidic to comprise the whole bottle, with Canaiolo grapes often making up the difference.  However, any other approved grape can be used, and even the occasional white grape makes it into Chiantis. This is a benefit of the San Giovese grape, which easily blends with and takes on other flavors, especially from the barrels it is aged in. After pressing, the wine is barreled for seven to nine months before being served, and varies in color from dark and nearly opaque, to a rich, translucent red.

The basic Chianti is an excellent pair-all, and has in the past several decades been the subject of a re-branding campaign that places that ease of pairing front and center as a boon, rather than a sign of simplicity, or worse, cheapness. If you simply want a Chianti, and not one of the more stringently qualified ones, your best option is to purchase Italian, from strong vintage years, like 1988, 1990, 1995-2001 and 2004.

2 Finding The Right One

If you want something a little fancier, there are the Chianti Classicos and Chianti Riservas. These are variations of Chianti that are held to more stringent qualification rules, with the Riservas having the strictest qualifiers. The grapes used in Classicos and Riservas must all originate from a two hundred and fifty odd square kilometer (about 155 square miles) area between Florence and Sienna, in the very heart of the Tuscany district. The tannins in these varieties are generally more pronounced in the wine's flavor, and often have a higher acidity.

The Chianti Classico must have a minimum of twelve percent alcohol content, and white grapes cannot be used in the non-San Giovese portion of the wine's makeup. The barrel for Classicos must be oak, and aged for at least nine months. The Chianti Classico Riserva, is a cut above even the Classico. Riserva's must have an alcohol content of at least twelve point five percent, and have an even longer standard aging time, a full twenty-four months compared to the nine months the Classico and the seven for the Chianti. Furthermore, Chianti Classico Riservas must complete their aging in barrels of French Oak, allowing the wine to take on their particular flavor. The Classico vintages of 1995, 1997, 1999 and 2001 were very well received, though the 2002 and 2005 vintages underperformed in comparison, due to unfavorable weather conditions, namely harsh winters.

1 The Re-Branding Of Chianti

Picking a Chianti Classico or Riserva is, in some ways, simpler than picking a regular Chianti, thanks to the rules regarding its production. The easiest way to identify a Chianti Classico is by its seal. A genuine Chianti Classico from the Tuscany region of Italy will have either on the label or the bottle itself, a seal depicting a black rooster on a gold  or white background, encircled by a red band with 'Chianti Classico' written on it in black. This is the mark of the Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico, a union for winemakers in the region containing about six-hundred registered members, or about ninety five percent of the Chianti winemakers in the region. In the eighties, this group started making a concerted effort to draw the image of Chianti away from the traditional straw-wrapped bottles and towards a more modern, balanced look at the wine.

These re-branding attempts were necessary in the face of the Chianti's history. The grape ingredients of the Chianti did not become solidified until the 1800s. Prior to that, wines primarily using Canaiolo and Malvasia grapes could both be called Chianti's, and it wasn't until 1967 that it was regulated by the DOC (the quality assurance label for food and wine in Italy), so the wine did not have a solid image until then.  The wine's image was further compromised after World War Two,  when the general demand was for cheap and easy-to-drink, leading to overproduction and the use of knockoff San Giovese grapes, like the Sangiovese di Romagna strain.

This desire for quantity over quality damaged the wine's reputation, relegating it to the squat, straw wrapped bottles of stereotype. Those that wanted to move beyond it, also tended to want to work outside the DOC regulations, which were felt to be highly restrictive. Experimentation in this area lead to the development of the 'Super Tuscan' wines.

By attaching a literal seal of approval to the highest quality of Chiantis, the Consorzio was making a promise: that the wine in that bottle was a cut above the norm. This practice was  only part of the Consorzio's work in promoting interest in this particular wine. They implemented the 'Chianti Classico 2000' project in 1988, with the support of the Italian Ministry for Agricultural and Forestry Policies. This project saw clonal research as well as research into the region's wine making tradition and the effects of vine-training methods on grape and wine quality, and ended in 2004. By the project's end, a large portion of the vineyards in the Chianti sub-region were replanted with improved San Giovese vines, using modern vineyard techniques,which allowed for better yields and healthier grapes.

The best reviewed Chiantis of the last few years are the 2008 Rocca delle Macie, a Chianti Classico Riserva that received a 90.1 rating, with a well-balanced tannic taste that mellows further with food.  The 2010 Castello de Volpaia is a Chianti Classico that averaged out to an 89 points,  with a spicy start and a mellow, fresh finish.  For something more aged, the 2006 Fontodi is a Classico Riserva, coming in at 90.7, that goes very well with food, though it requires at least an hour of airing for its flavor to reach its full potential.

While the Chianti is not a new type of wine, and has in the recent past often been overshadowed by Super Tuscans, wines produced outside the DOC regulations for the Tuscany Regions, its merits cannot be denied. Not only is it a delicious wine, but its pairing versatility makes it a safe wine for casual imbibers and oenophiles alike. Thanks to this, it is an excellent gift wine, especially as the Chianti Classico ages very well: it peaks early, holds its flavor for years and declines slowly.

More in Food