All chiantis are not created equal

By Celia Strong

Chianti is probably one of the best known and most consumed of Italian red wines. Ten years ago, I could probably have said of all Italian wines, but Pinot Grigio way overshadows it. But, today, we are on Chianti and we have a lots of fun things to talk about, so let’s get to it!

Chianti, in all its various levels, comes from the Italian wine region of Tuscany. The region is about 8,900 square acres and is located on the west coast of Italy, just north of Rome. Chianti is a province in Tuscany, first defined as a wine area in 1716.  There were three villages (Gaiole, Castellina and Radda) that became Provincia del Chianti. In 1932, the Chianti area was redrawn and divided into seven sub-zones (Classico, Colli Arentini, Colli Fiorentini, Colline Pisane, Colli Senesi, Montalbono, and Rùfina). Today, the majority of Chiantis are either Chianti DOCG or Chianti Classico DOCG. These two together are the largest volume produced of all Italian wines. Red or white. (We have talked about the legal levels of Italian wines, DOCG is the highest and regulates origins, grape varieties, some techniques of growing and wine making,  and more sometimes.)

The earliest record of Chianti wine goes back to the 13th century.  Actually, a record from 1398 mentions a white Chianti wine. In 1716, Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand  Duke of Tuscany, issued an edict defining the Chianti area. This delineation lasted until 1932, when the Italian government expanded it a bit and, then in 1967, another expansion that is still current.

By the 18th century, Chianti was widely known as a red wine. These wines, though, were different than the Chiantis we know today. Grape varieties were varied and not consistent. An Italian statesman, Bettino Ricasoli, developed the modern “recipe” for Chianti. This is when it became a Sangiovese based wine — 70 percent Sangiovese, 15 percent Canaiolo, 10 percent Malvasia, later to include Trebbiano also, and 5 percent other local red varieties. In 1967, the DOC laws that govern Italian wine used Ricasoli’s basic blend of Sangiovese with 10 to 30 percent Malvasia and Trebbiano. (Another red wine with white grapes in it.)

The late 19th century, for Tuscany and Italy in general, was a period of economic and political difficulties, and the time when phylloxera invaded their vineyards also. Talk about troubles. During the 1970’s, producers started to reduce the amount of white grapes that they used in Chianti, and, in 1995, it became legal to make Chianti with 100 percent Sangiovese.

More trouble came in the form of a popular consumer trend toward cheap, easy-drinking wines. It did help revive Chianti vineyards, but left the reputation of Chianti DOCG somewhat less than wonderful.  By the end of the 20th century, a large number of wine drinkers thought of Chianti as the light, basically mediocre red wine that came in short, fatter bottles, all covered with straw. (These bottles were rounded on the bottom, and  the straw was used to help them stand upright. Really, who wants a round-bottom bottle rolling around on the dinner table?  These bottles, with their straw covers, were called “fiascos.” But they made it possible for Chianti to be exported.)

Chiantis are sometimes called the “Bordeaux of Italy,” due in part to the flexibility of their “recipe.”  Lighter style Chianti wines have more white grapes in them, and heavier, richer ones have more red varieties, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon. Even though only 15 percent maximum of Cabernet is allowed, its flavors and textures tend to dominate the Chiantis it is in. Basic Chianti is characterized by medium acidity and medium tannins. This makes it very food friendly with Italian cuisine — red/tomato sauces and beef, lamb and game. It has juicy fruit notes with cherry, plum, and raspberries. These wines are best at 3 to 5 years old.  Chiantis that are aged 38 months can be labeled “riserva.”  (Regular aging is only four to seven months.)

Another fun and interesting part of the Chianti story is the black rooster (“gallo nero”) that appears on some bottles. This was chosen as a symbol, for early producers of Chianti Classico only, before all the wine laws were codified. Some bottles still have this rooster on them because these wineries have been around long enough to have been members of this consortium.  Really, though, the Italian DOC wine laws protect us from buying fake Chiantis.  All Chianti wines are DOCG level, the highest in Italy.  Not all are from a sub-zone and not all are “riserva.”  “Riserva” refers to the amount of time that the wine is aged, before being released for sale.

Our Chianti this week is described by its producer as a Chianti re-imagined. A modern interpretation of a classic. It is Melini Chianti Riserva.  Melini is a Tuscan winery founded in 1705 by Adolpho Labourel Melini.  It is one of Chianti’s oldest and most historic that owns more than 1,200 acres, both Chianti and Chianti Classico. Throughout its history, the winery has always embraced innovations to help improve the quality of their wines. Like when Adolpho started pasteurizing his wines 30 years before Louis Pasteur wrote about it. Really. Melini wines are considered to be the essence of Tuscany, an international, fruit-forward style. The grapes for our wine, 85 percent Sangiovese, 15 percent others, are sourced from select vineyards. Selected for their soil, climate and sun exposure. The soil is loose, gravelly, made up of schist and limestone. The vines are thickly planted.

After harvest, the grapes are cold macerated on their skins for three to four days, then fermented, cold, in stainless steel. (Cooler fermenting temperatures augment the fruit flavors in a wine.) The wines are aged in French oak casks for 18 months, and in their bottles for three to six months more. The current vintage is 2009. This wine is bright ruby colored with aromas of raspberry, blackberry and a touch of violets — often a subtlety in good Chiantis. The flavors are medium bodied with soft, jammy fruit flavors and a baking spice undertone. A mild acidity makes for a perfect finish on this wine.

Just so you know, this is the first, and only, Chianti Riserva I have ever seen or tasted. And, it’s so nice to have one finally because it’s really very good. And only $10.99. So I can have it often. And you too. Enjoy.

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