Chianti Reconsidered

by Ha-Kyung Choi


Those easy-drinking bargains from Southern Italy seem to be the talk of the town, but don’t forget about hidden Tuscan treasures from Chianti. For many, the name Chianti still conjures up red-checker tablecloths and straw-wrapped bottles with candle wax dripping down the sides. But thanks to a variety of factors ranging from international competition, changes in Italy’s wine laws to the efforts of a growing group of dedicated, young winemakers, the region is producing clean, well-structured wines with plenty of finesse and personality.

With the significant overhaul of Italy’s wine laws in the early 1990s, the quality and style of Chianti has improved tremendously in the past decade. The law no longer requires winemakers to blend white grapes in their wines and now allows for blending of non-native varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, with the Sangiovese grape. A finicky and exacting grape, Sangiovese does not ripen easily or uniformly and can yield thin or unbalanced wines. Therefore, new techniques and increased attention to quality has broadened the availability of excellent Chiantis.

The Chianti region stretches from north of Florence down to the border of Umbria, and from as far west as Livorno and Pisa on the coast east of Arezzo. Situated in some of the most picturesque landscapes in the world, few places better bring together a trio of the best things in life: sun, food and wine.

More supple and less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon, Chianti has high acidity levels that give it a fresh liveliness ideal for food. The best match for Chianti wines is typical Tuscan fare, which for the most part is quite hearty and straightforward. A lighter, fruity Chianti is just the right partner for Pizza Margarita or grilled vegetables on crusty Tuscan bread. For an earthier wine with firmer tannins and higher acidity, heartier meat based tomato sauces or lasagna is just the ticket. Chianti also exhibits the right amount of fruit and acidity to stand up to creamy, cheesed-based pasta, risotto or generous blocks of Pecorino Toscano or Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Below are a few selections for a distinctly Italian feast. They will highlight how far these wines have come, as well as their food friendliness. While the much hyped 1997 vintage has pushed prices up for this region, lesser vintages offer both affordable and reliable food-loving wines.

Spalletti Chianti Rufina Riserva Poggio Reale 1995 ($9)
This wine is made from 90% Sangioveto, 5% Canaiolo, and 5% Trebbiano Toscano grapes. With a rich, charcoal and vaguely salty nose, this is a big red with subdued acidity. This lively wine goes well with food that can handle its body and huge flavors of leather and smoke. Leave this wine open while preparing a flavorful bowl of Roberto Donna’s risotto with fonduta.

Le Calvane Chianti Colli Fiorentini 2000 ($10)
Made from 95% Sangiovese and 5% Colorino grapes, this wine is effusive with bright fresh fruit. Evocative of a Tuscan countryside picnic, its pleasant notes of cherries and ripe plum can be enjoyed with John Ash’s Eggplant Sandwiches on Baby Greens with Tomato-Balsamic Vinaigrette.

Castellare Chianti Classico 2001 ($15)
Made from 95% Sangioveto and 5% Canaiolo grapes, the wine was harvested from estate vineyards in the heart of Chianti Classico district. The wine has a medium garnet and ruby color with notes of smoke and deep plum on the nose. Dry and medium-bodied, its layers of fruit and distinct flavors of earth and smoky tobacco complement Jody Adam’s Potato Gnocchi Gratin with Fricassée of Wild Mushrooms.

Selvapiana Chianti Rufina Riserva “Bucerchiale” 1998 ($22)
Made from 100% Sangiovese from the Bucerchiale vineyard, this wine has intense aromas of ripe fruit, wood and leather, with silky tannins and a long finish. One of the stars of Rufina, Selvapiana has developed a reputation for meticulous care in producing wines meant for long aging. It is an elegant partner for Bradley Ogden’s Grilled Pork Loin Roast.