Chianti Classico, Beyond the Straw-Covered Bottle

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Chianti Classico wines are better than they have ever been.

The best examples are remarkably distinctive, wonderfully satisfying and, in some ways, the essence of Italian red wines. Still many people seem unaware of what they are missing.

At a dinner party recently, I brought a few bottles of wine including one of my favorite Chianti Classico, 2016 from Monteraponi. When the bottle was poured, the other guests loved it but seemed shocked at learning its identity.

“Chianti?” one said. “Really? I don’t think I’ve had Chianti since it used to come in those straw-covered bottles.”

Now, these people were not wine experts. But I had long convinced myself that differentiating today’s Chianti from those bottles of old was as unnecessary as reminding people that Chablis comes from Burgundy, not California.

Younger consumers nowadays may have no idea that 40 years ago Americans often referred generically to California white wine as “Chablis.” Nor are they likely to know that college students in the 1970s bought Chianti, not for the wine but to use the empty fiasco, as the straw-covered bottle is called in Italian, as a candleholder.

The last time I thought about Chianti in fiaschi was a few years ago when Monte Bernardi, a very good producer, began selling Chianti in the straw-covered bottles as a sort of playful retro statement.

As good as Chianti Classico is these days, it rarely seems to be an object of anybody’s desire. With the exception of some excellent Italian restaurants, few wine lists put it in the spotlight. It seldom features on any sommelier’s Instagram feed.

Yet a good Chianti Classico is one of the most soulful wines I know. The best have a pure, deep red-cherry flavor, sometimes deliciously tart or bittersweet, along with pronounced floral aromas and flavors, and an earthy minerality. The acidity is fresh and lively; tannins should be discernible, though not overly chewy — often with what I think of as a dusty quality, focusing the wine and readying the mouth for another sip.

I love Chianti with cooked tomato sauces and pizza. It is also a natural partner with sausages, all sorts of beef dishes and stews. And if you wonder why I’m thinking about a red wine as summer is about to envelop us with heat, I wonder if you ever plan to eat burgers or steaks off the grill. If so, you might consider a Chianti Classico.

How is it that Chianti Classico is generally well known and so often ignored? There are several reasons beyond its checkered-tablecloth past.

First, Chianti is an expression of the Sangiovese grape, and Sangiovese is very much undervalued, except in the case of Chianti’s Tuscan sibling, Brunello di Montalcino. Chianti is the historic name of the hilly Tuscan wine region between Florence and Siena. Here, the Monteraponi winery, in Radda in Chianti.

Chianti is the historic name of the hilly Tuscan wine region between Florence and Siena. As Chianti became well known in the early 20th century, Italian wine authorities took advantage of its fame by expanding the zone in which wine could legally be called Chianti. Not surprisingly, one result of this expansion was to dilute the quality of the wine.

It wasn’t until the 1980s and ’90s that the greater Chianti region was officially divided into a series of subzones, of which Chianti Classico represents the historic heartland.

Geography was only one issue. While what constituted Chianti centuries ago is difficult to reconstruct as few records exist, most authorities date modern Chianti back to 1872, when Baron Bettino Ricasoli, a leading Tuscan statesman and agricultural expert, set out what came to be considered the formula for Chianti.

The wine should be mostly Sangiovese, he said, recommending the addition of canaiolo grapes to soften Sangiovese’s pronounced acidity. For those who wanted lighter, fresher wines to drink young, the baron advised adding a portion of white grapes, like Malvasia. Monte Bernardi Chiantis are fresh, earthy, mineral wines.

By the 1960s, this suggested formula had hardened into rules, reified by bureaucrats who encouraged quantity over quality. Chianti was required to be a blended wine, and 10 to 30 percent of the blend had to be white grapes.

Some quality-minded producers rebelled. Montevertine, for one, left the Chianti Classico appellation in 1981 because it wanted to make wines that were 100 percent Sangiovese, or nearly so.

The laws have long since been changed — sangiovese since 1996 must be 80 percent to 100 percent of the blend. But Montevertine has never returned to the appellation. So this producer, which in my mind is one of the best in the region, calls its wines Toscana Rosso even though they could qualify as Chianti Classico.

White grapes are no longer part of the Chianti formula, but producers are permitted to use many different red grapes in the 20 percent of the blend not required to be sangiovese. That includes traditional local grapes like the fragrant canaiolo and colorino (which deepens sangiovese’s pale ruby color) as well as international grapes like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah.

While I love 100 percent Sangiovese Chiantis, I also believe that the local grapes blend seamlessly with Sangiovese, often enhancing it. The international varieties, however, often dominate, intruding on and changing Chianti’s character.

In the 1990s it became common to see Chiantis that made full use of the 20 percent with these international grapes. This was an era of insecurity in many historic European wine regions, but especially in Italy. Indigenous grapes, even great ones like nebbiolo and sangiovese, vinified with traditional techniques, produced wines that were often judged in need of improvement.

When compared with wines embraced by international critics, particularly Bordeaux, these Italian wines were thought to be too pale, too acidic, too rustic. The solution was to adopt methods used in these more exalted regions, like small barrels made of new French oak, rather than the traditional large vats of old, neutral oak. Or to add what some have called “amelioration grapes,” like cabernet, syrah or merlot.

While Chianti was struggling to get itself on track, Brunello di Montalcino in the 1980s and ’90s had become a darling of American wine critics, particularly those Brunellos that had taken their own steps toward improvement. The Monte Bernardi vineyard, in Panzano in Chianti.

Brunello by law must be 100 percent Sangiovese, but by the 1990s, some producers seeking darker, softer wines were sneaking in foreign grapes. This came to a head with the Brunello scandal of 2008, when more than a million bottles were impounded.

Since then, Brunello producers have reaffirmed their commitment to wines made only of sangiovese. And, as has happened all over Europe, regions like Chianti have seemingly overcome insecurities about their own traditions and are making wines that are confidently distinctive, without resorting to the international crutches of old.

Yes, I still run into Chianti Classicos that are rich and oaky, tasting more of the chocolate of merlot than the cherry of Sangiovese. In general, though, the state of Chianti Classico is strong.

Chianti Classicos come in three tiers. The first, labeled simply Chianti Classico, must be aged one year before it is released. Chianti Classico Riserva must be aged two years, while the third, Gran Selezione, established in 2010, must be aged 30 months, made entirely of estate grapes and approved by a tasting panel.

I don’t have much experience with the Gran Seleziones, I confess. I am already challenged in general by riservas, which tend to be denser, richer and potentially more complex than the plain Chianti Classicos. They can be wonderful, but I think require considerable aging, 10 years or so, for their intensity to mellow.

In general, I am happiest with ordinary Chianti Classicos, which run roughly $15 to $30 compared with $40 to $100 for the riservas.

Far more interesting to me are the emerging subzones within Chianti Classico centered around nine communes, stretching from, in the north, Greve in Chianti and San Casciano in Val di Pesa to Castelnuovo Berardenga to the south.

I would have to spend a lot of time in Chianti getting to know the complexities of the soils and microclimates before speaking confidently about the characteristics of each commune.

I can say, though, that wines from Castelnuovo Berardenga, like those from Fèlsina, will often taste riper and rounder than those from, say, Radda in Chianti in the midsection, like Montevertine’s, which seem sleeker and more elegant. If you want to dive deeper into the terroirs of Chianti Classico, I recommend a book from Ian D’Agata, “Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs,” to be published this summer by University of California Press.

What of the wines from the greater Chianti region, those areas that are not in the Chianti Classico zone? They can be called, simply, Chianti, or, if they come from seven subzones, they are permitted to append a local designation. They include Chianti Rùfina, Chianti Colline Pisane, Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Colli Aretini, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Montespertoli and Chianti Montalbano.

By Eric Asimov

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