Classic Chianti

BY ROBERT CALVERT

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Thomas Mann had things about right. “Deep is the well of the past,” he wrote. “Should one not call it bottomless?”

Chianti is like that.

In order to be labeled Chianti today, this delicious beverage must be grown in the official Chianti region between Florence and Siena, and made mostly or entirely of the Sangiovese grape, generally augmented with small quantities of other red grapes. It was Baron Bettino Ricasoli who in 1872 established what gradually became the standard blend—principally Sangiovese, due to its aroma and vigor in flavor, abetted by Canaiolo, for its sweetness and aroma, and Malvasia, to make the blend “lighter and more readily suited for daily consumption.” The baron suggested that Chiantis destined for aging might omit the Malvasia.

Ricasoli was by no means the first to opine on Chianti issues. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, Cosimo Villifranchi suggested around 1773 that the wine should be principally Canaiolo, blended with Sangiovese, Mammolo and Marzemino. Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, established the official borders of the Chianti region in 1716. References to Chianti wine in literature and business records date back to the 14th century.

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Then there are the Etruscans. They were growing grapes in the Chianti region in the eighth century BC. Remnants of amphorae show that they shipped wine to Gaul as early as the seventh century BC.

The well of wine is deep indeed.

Chianti has evolved in the years since Ricasoli offered his recommendations. White grapes—Malvasia and Trebbiano—have been banished from the blend, as the baron anticipated. Some producers make their Chiantis entirely of Sangiovese today.

Others now grow foreign varietals—Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot—to use in place of traditional Tuscan red blending grapes such as Canaiolo, Colorino, Ciliegiolo, and Mammolo. Aging of fine Chianti now generally is done in small oak barrels rather than in the much larger botti used in the past. This imparts more oak flavor to the finished wine.

The new cosmopolitan Chiantis with their Cabernet and Merlot are wonderful. Still, there was romance in the classic wines, and those of us who have consumed them enthusiastically over the years continue to lust after them. Fortunately, quite a few wineries still produce traditional blends, which, with advancing technology, may be even better now than they were in days of yore.

Taste Tests

We had to do a little research to identify wines made only from the traditional red varietals; winemakers don’t always specify a wine’s blend on the label. Fortunately, in the age of the Internet, it often is possible to find detailed information on winery websites. Our investigations turned up some really wonderful wines.

Fèlsina Rancia Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2008 ($52) is 100 percent Sangiovese from Fèlsina’s Rancia estate, which once was a Benedictine monastery. Aged 16–18 months in new and one-year-old 225-liter oak barrels, it is a dense ruby color, with a bouquet of violets and dark berries. On first sip one savors a core of rich fruit—tart black cherries, principally. As time passes the dusky fruit is illuminated by a luscious halo of sour cherries, strawberries, blueberries, vanilla and leather.

Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2009 ($25) grew in vineyards that, according to Monsanto, produce wines suitable for aging. The blend includes 90 percent Sangiovese with a 10 percent mix of Canaiolo and Colorino. The very dark color and intense bouquet of tart cherries, oak and cedar reflect this wine’s 18 months of aging in small wooden barrels. Its flavor is round and focused, offering lush black cherries, a dash of pepper and cinnamon, a hint of orange rind and a kiss of bashful oak.

Monsanto Il Poggio Chianti Classico DOCG 2007 ($55) is a single-vineyard wine from Monsanto’s Poggio vineyard. A blend of 90 percent Sangiovese with 7 percent Canaiolo and 3 percent Colorino, it was aged for 20 months in barriques of French oak. Its sojourn in the barrel has imparted to this wonderful beverage a burnished burgundy color and a bouquet of violets and roses that presages flavors of ripe cherries and figs, raspberries, and even some juicy peaches—with a touch of orange rind and a smidgen of charcoal to boot. This is a complex and interesting wine. One tastes something new and intriguing in every sip. Truth be told, it is an uplifting and highly inspirational liquid.

You will recognize the Piccini Chianti DOCG 2011 ($9) by its distinctive orange label. In addition to 95 percent Sangiovese, the blend includes 5 percent Ciliegiolo, a grape thought to evoke cherries. (Ciliegia is Italian for “cherry.”) Notwithstanding the bottle’s bright orange label, the wine itself is dark in color, with a cherry bouquet enhanced by a sense of minerals. Cherries predominate in the flavor—Bing cherries with a hint of pepper. This is an amicable, welcoming wine that cannot fail to please.

The Villa Cerna Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2010 ($24) is a blend of 95 percent Sangiovese with 5 percent Colorino Toscano. The Colorino adds color to this lovely ruby-red wine. Its bouquet of tart fruit and violets is as appetizing as its hue. The flavor is austere, complex and elegant—black cherries and crunchy red apples with a dash of pepper and evanescent elements of cinnamon, tea and oak. (It spends 14 months in barriques before bottling.) Wine writer Tom Hyland puts it this way: “This is a wine that is all about simply being a representative, well-made, beautifully balanced bottle of Chianti Classico that just happens to be delicious!”

Volpaia Coltassala Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2009 ($65) is a blend of 95 percent Sangiovese with 5 percent Mammolo. Aged for 18 months in barriques of French oak, it is a dark ruby color and has an intense bouquet of dark fruit cradled in toasty oak. After enjoying its immediately mouthwatering flavors of black cherries, one recognizes additional subtle raisin and chocolate elements. There is a hint of violets that probably comes from the Mammolo grapes. (Mammola is Italian for “violet.”) The wine is fruity and melodious, with rich oak and firm tannins.

Summing Up

Galileo Galilei, a native of Pisa who passed the final years of his life near Florence, no doubt had Chianti in mind when he wrote, “Wine is like the blood of the earth, sunlight captured and transformed… made of water and light, through whose power talent is exalted, the soul expands, comfort and the joys of the spirit are multiplied.”

We’ll drink to that.

Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Chicago. Questions or comments? E-mail Robert: RBCalvert@att.net.