Bill’s Best Bets – October
by Bill Zacharkiw
The mere mention of Chianti evokes images of bottles in straw baskets which were later made into lamps, red-checkered table cloths and a big bowl of spaghetti. But few regions are as synonymous with wine as is Chianti. Located in the centre of Tuscany, it is the most prolific region in all of Italy, exporting over 900 million litres of wine per year.
But how many of you drink the stuff?
I do. The best examples are solidly built wines that have exceptional cellaring capability. It ’s a wine that combines aromatic complexity with elegance, and is one of the world’s most versatile wines. But many examples can be, well, rather banal. So what is the real Chianti and why is there such a difference in quality between bottles?
The fiasco: A short history
First, let’s deal with the straw basket, ironically called a “fiasco” in Italian. The English translation of the word might be a better descriptor of the modern history of Chianti. The first significant event in the region took place in 1713, when it became one of the first wine-producing area in the world to define the laws governing wine production. But while the decree touched on production methods, more importantly it was the first of many expansions of the geographic boundaries of what is considered Chianti.
Chianti’s modern history began in 1932 with a massive expansion that increased the size of the appellation to more than 22,000 hectares, twice the size of modern-day Bordeaux. Chianti was divided into seven sub-regions, the most notable called “Classico,” which included the original Chianti-producing area from the 1713 decree. However, after the expansion, this original area made up only 40 per cent of this new “Classico” appellation and only 10 per cent of the total Chianti region.
With such a large growing area, it became increasingly difficult to identify a Chianti style. In 1967, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) was enacted. This was another opportunity for producers to jump on the bandwagon, so the area was further expanded by another 10 per cent.
While 1967 DOC law further concretized the importance of sangiovese, the stringent laws left little room for experimentation. One of Chianti’s most famous families, the Antinoris, had long experimented with Bordeaux varietals cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, dating to as early as 1900, when Piero Antinori purchased the now famous Tignanello vineyard. This culminated in 1971, when his grandson Piero decided to market a sangiovese-based wine from this vineyard that also contained both cabernets. Although the Tignanello vineyard was in the heart of Chianti, because the wine included cabernet but did not have white grapes, it could not be called Chianti. Instead, it was labelled as a simple “Vino da Tavolo.”
But it was a resounding success. In response, a new denomination called Denominazione di Origine Controllatae Garantita (DOCG) was created in 1984 to allow for more experimentation. Yields were lowered to increase quality and, while the percentage of sangiovese as a part of the blend was maintained, winemakers could now use up to 20 per cent of other grapes in the blend, including international varieties like the cabernets, merlot and syrah.
Despite the change of rules, Antinori never labelled its Tignanello a Chianti. Who could blame him? So many poor quality Chiantis had cheapened the name of the appellation. Chianti at that moment was not synonymous with “fine wine.” And while it seems that every major winery now has its own “super Tuscan,” their fame and success have also inspired a number of more traditional winemakers to make a better Chianti.
In the 1990s, the Riserva classification was created for wines aged a minimum of 24 months in oak, and at least three months in bottle prior to being put on the market. And in 2005, a decree raised the minimum percentage of sangiovese to 80 per cent of the final blend with the possibility of using 100-per-cent sangiovese.
The increased role of the sangiovese grape is important in a world dominated by international varietals. For me, it is distinctly Italian. Sangiovese’s signature flavour profile is a blend of cherry and plum flavours combined with leather and other earthier notes. Its relatively high acidity and good tannins make it an ideal wine for long cellaring when yields are low. And when made into less expensive wines, providing attention is paid to bringing in ripe grapes, the wines can show great acidity combined with vibrant fruits and floral notes, making it one of the more versatile wines on the shelves.
If you are looking for Chiantis that can age exceptionally well, look no further than the fantastic 2010 vintage wines of Il Grigio , Castello di Volpaia and Gabbiano. All three will reward you with a minimum of 3-5 years of patience, and can hold much longer.
For a more modern approach to Chianti, which still shows everything that is good about the region, try the 2011 Riserva from Le Miccine or the 2012 from Isole e Olena. Both wines have the accent on the fruit and while they can hold for longer, can be enjoyed right now.
If you are looking Chianti to drink right away, the 2010 Villa Antinori shows great complexity with traditional styling. Equally interesting is Banfi’s 2011 Riserva. Again, a more modern touch but just rocks with spaghetti and meat sauce.
And finally, while they don’t come in a straw basket, you can still find quality Chianti for under $20. Try the 2010 Azienda Uggiano, one of my favourites I have tasted recently.
“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial
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