As one of the first Italian wines brought into the US, Chianti has become a household name and few have not tried it. Chianti has changed a lot over the years, evolving from an easy drinking table wine, to a symbol of Tuscany and Italy. Although man-made, Chianti reminds us of Italy’s natural beauty; of rolling hills covered in vineyards and roads lined with cypress trees. It carries forth tradition and pairs with any Italian meal. But what exactly does a Chianti taste like? It is the most famous of Italian reds, but few really know what it tastes like. On April 28th at the Standard in NYC, the Consorzio di Chianti invited us to taste a variety of Chianti to show us just how different these wines can be and just how Cool Chianti has become. #ChiantiCool
In the past, Chianti, although a good wine, was an easy drinking red, found in a straw flask. As the popularity of Chianti grew, the cheapest were imported and the quality dropped. A bottle of the stuff could be found on any red and white checkered table cloth in any Italian restaurant or pizzeria. As Americans started to learn more about wine, these ‘cheap’ Chiantis began to lose their appeal and the American public stopped drinking it. The Italians, who are proud of their food, wine, customs and culture, knew that something was wrong. They worked together to bring back the quality of Chianti and created laws guaranteeing so. The Chianti DOC is the first regulated wine in Italy and the verification today consists of grape selection, testing for chemical and physical properties and aging.
For a Chianti to be considered a Chianti, it must be made from at least 85% Sangiovese grapes. Traditionally, for the other 15%, grapes like Colorino, Canaiolo and even whites like Trebbiano were used. In years past, farmers planted what grapes were available, and when a vine died, they would have to replace it, often mixing the grape types. Recently, the idea of using the ‘old grapes’ has come back into style, creating a lighter bodied, interesting fusion of tastes unlike the more modern blends of Chianti. Today, we can find more international grapes like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot mixed into the Chianti wines. Here, the tastes are bolder, sometimes spicier and can often be aged longer in wood or bottle. With any grape chosen for the mixture of Chianti, they must also be grown within the demarcated provinces of Arezzo, Florence, Pisa, Pistoia, Prato or Siena. These hills create the perfect atmosphere for growing grapes and offer sub-zones with specific geographical qualities that make each wine different and characteristic to that area.
Whats great about Chianti, and one of things I learned in this seminar, is the variety of this wine. Some Chianti are best consumed young and others only get better with age. Some absorb nicely the flavors of the oak barrels they are aged in, like that of Fattoria Poggio Capponi in Montespertoli. Their ‘Petriccio’ Chianti DOCG is leathery and full of dark fruit flavors. Another vineyard, Az. Agr. Pietraserena-Arrigoni, located in the famous city of San Gimignano, has two Chianti that stand out. ‘Poggio al Vento’ which is sweet and spicy with hints of raspberry and cinnamon is made from 100% Sangiovese grape. The other, ‘Caulio,’ has a more earthy, metallic and mineral quality, made with 10% syrah. This proves that even within the same vineyard, a slight change of grape and different exposure to sun, rain and terrain can create a completely different wine.
The variety of this wine means that it can pair with just about any kind of food. But, if you really want to feel like an Italian, it’s best had with other traditional Tuscan treats. Besides the famous extra virgin olive oil, whose olives grow alongside the vines, the ‘Fiorentina,’ Florence’s hefty version of the T-bone, reigns supreme. The light tannins of the wine dry our palate to prepare us for the next bite, while the sweet fruit flavors like cherry and prune bring out the best of this juicy steak. Salami, pecorino cheese, artichokes, wild boar and my favorite truffles, can all be found in the Chianti region and a glass of this wonderful red will always be offered exalting the food’s flavors.
So what is it that makes Chianti cool? Maybe it’s the vision of Italy it puts in our head. Maybe it’s the passion of the winemaker and his work that shines through in the wine. The relaxed sensation we get sitting with friends, sharing a bottle and chatting about life. Whatever your mood may be, Chianti can make it even better. Whether light and crisp or strong and tannic, with food or all alone, this wine’s greatness has come along way to becoming the quality bottle we look forward to drinking.