The Pleasures of Chianti
On Wednesday in Chicago, I had the pleasure of moderating a seminar on the wines of Chianti with Steven Alexander, wine director of Spiaggia Ristorante. This seminar for the Simply Italian event was a focus on the wines of the seven Chianti districts (such as Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Colli Senesi, et al) that have joined forces to be the Chianti Consorzio. Thus there were no wines from the Chianti Classico district.
I was interested to see what these seven districts were offering, as these zones don’t get the same attention as Chianti Classico, which is no surprise given the money in the Classico area. But money isn’t everything, especially in Italian wine; the 15 wines offered in this seminar were focused on varietal purity and balance, offering the typical acidity of Sangiovese and keeping wood influence to a minimum. While a few of these wines were Riserva bottlings that could be enjoyed for another 3-5 years, most were immediately drinkable and were in a word, charming. How nice to see a group of wines from producers that were more interested in typicity rather than high scores from a wine publication!
Included in the tasting were examples of straight Chiantis, made from grapes grown anywhere in the seven districts; wines from the sub-districts (Chianti Rufina, Chianti Montalbano, etc) as well as Riserva bottlings (aged for a longer time before release) and examples of Chianti Superiore, which must have a slightly higher minimum degree of alcohol (11.5%) than the other types. All of these wines must contain at least 70% Sangiovese, though producers can bottle exclusively with that variety. As much as 15% of international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are permitted in the blend, while 30% of the blend can be traditional Tuscan red varieties such as Canaiolo and Colorino; white varieties, such as Trebbiano and Malvasia are still allowed (as much as 10%), although few producers use these grapes for their Chianti.
While I’m certain that many consumers think of regular Chianti as simple, that’s not always the case; the 2009 Badia a Morrona 2009 is a delightful wine with tart cherry fruit, lively acidity and a touch of brown spice in the finish; drink this over the next 1-2 years. Even better was the 2008 Chianti from Fattoria di Uccelliera, which contained 10% Canaiolo; this variety added some exotic perfumes of lavender and crushed plum. Other very pleasing examples of basic Chianti that were poured at a walk-around tasting after the seminar included the 2008 Castelvecchio “Santa Caterina” and the 2009 San Fabiano. Clearly basic Chianti can be something special!
Another impressive wine was the 2007 Chianti Classico Fiorentini “Villa Marcialla” from Fattorie Gianozzi. The wine has 10% Merlot accompanying the 90% Sangiovese, which is not the most traditional blend. However the wine was aged solely in large oak (grandi botti), which preserves the varietal purity and local terroir. There is good concentration, tart acidity and beautiful balance; enjoy this wine over the next 2-3 years.
Of course, the Riserva bottlings offer more depth of fruit and capability for aging; there were several offered during the seminar and tasting. For me, the most impressive was the 2007 Riserva from La Cignozza (several other people I spoke to after the seminar agreed with me on this). This is a wine you don’t see much, a wine labeled as Chianti Riserva, as most Riserva bottlings are from a sub-district. A blend of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Canaiolo, the wine has excellent depth of fruit and beautiful ripeness, due both to the warm vintage and to the fact that the vineyards are located south of Siena, in a warm zone. Aged in both mid-size and large oak, casks, the wood notes are kept to a minimum, the finish has good length and there is excellent complexity. I’d expect this wine to drink well for at least 5-7 years and perhaps longer.
Many of the represented producers also make a Vin Santo, the lovely dessert wine made by naturally drying Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes (and sometimes red grapes such as Canaiolo or Sangiovese) before fermentation (these wines are under the Colli Etruria Centrale DOC). Two impressive offerings here included the 2006 releases from Castelvechio and Badia a Morrona, both displaying beautiful complexity and richness, with the latter offering more of the classic dried almond and sherry notes.
Impressive wines from start to finish and perhaps most welcome is the pricing of these wines, as many basic Chianti as well as the sub-district wines can be purchased on American retail shelves for prices between $12-16. Terroir-driven wines, made in a style that emphasizes balance and drinkability – we need more of these wines! Compliments to the producers of the Chianti Consorzio!