When is a Chianti Not a Chianti?

February 3, 2011

by Tony Ventura
“The Wine Guy”

It’s the early 1960’s. You are on one of your first real dinner dates at a local Italian restaurant. (The reader will have to adjust the dates accordingly, and hopefully not spend too much time estimating the author’s age) You order a nice Chianti in a straw-covered bottle (fiaschi) to help enhance the atmosphere.

Before the wine revolution in Chianti’s home of Tuscany, you could count on most of the Chianti that you ever drank to have very similar characteristics. That was because almost all of the Chianti was made with a blend of four grapes: Sangiovese (the most important), Canaiolo, Trebbiano, and Malvasia. It is surprising to many that the latter two grapes are actually white grapes. Because of this fact, Chianti was considered to be a cheap, light red wine. Consumers bought the wine more for its fashionable fiaschi, which they used for candleholders, than its quality at the dinner table.

Piero Antinori decided to change that in the late 1960’s. He did not believe that white grapes belonged in a blend for Chianti. He wanted to experiment with using another red grape (Cabernet Sauvignon from France) in addition to the traditional Sangiovese in the blend. By the 1970’s, his new wine was ready. It was called Tignanello; he could not use the name Chianti on the label since the wine’s composition did not adhere to Italy’s appellation laws. The wine met with tremendous success. The new age of Tuscan red wine had begun.

As a result of Antinori’s experimentation, the quality of Tuscan red wines in general and Chianti in particular has greatly improved. However, there is no longer a typical style of Chianti. Consumers can learn the various styles, and then choose the style that they enjoy best. It is important to note for the consumer that one style is not better than the next; it is only different.

Wines labeled as Chianti are generally light- to medium-bodied. They should have a bright, ruby color. They are best when consumed young. Prices range from $6-$10.

Chianti Classico is a designation for wines made in the heartland of the Chianti region. They tend to be richer and darker. The riserva of this type tends to approach its peak at around 4-10 years. A great way to experience a wonderful Chianti Classico would be to grab a 1997 from your local wine shop. Many people consider this vintage to be one of the best in Chianti in many years. Prices range from $11-$25.

Antinori’s Tignanello mentioned previously belongs to the last category. You will not see the name Chianti on the label. Some refer to these wines as the Super Tuscans. Some other wines to look for in this category are Solaia (also made by Antinori; the Wine Spectator chose the 1997 vintage of this wine as its Wine of the Year in 2000) and Montevertine’s Le Pergola Torte. The wines in this category can range in price from $50-$150.

It may also be helpful for you to learn some of the larger, reliable producers of Chianti/Tuscan wine like Antinori, Frescobaldi, Badia a Coltibuono, and Geografico to help you discover what Chianti you would best enjoy with your next meal.

Let’s follow the example of all our students this fall who have gone back to school. Make your local wine stores and restaurants your classroom. Learn and taste something new from Tuscany this October. Make sure to let me know if you find something that I shouldn’t miss!

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