Why cheap Chianti is often better than the expensive stuff.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Jan. 8 2010 11:30 AM

Drink Like a Tuscan

Cheap Chianti is often better than the expensive stuff.

Chianti. Click image to expand.

Chianti is Italy's most famous wine, and—given its operatic recent history—it is arguably the most Italian of Italian wines. Back in the 1960s and '70s, Chianti was synonymous with plonk; it was the cheap, insipid Tuscan wine that came in straw flasks (fiascos, as they were aptly known) and was typically found, on these shores, in pizza joints with checkered tablecloths and jukeboxes. This lowly image is completely outdated, but it persists in the minds of many consumers. Even more damaging for Chianti has been its long-standing identity crisis; the rules defining what constitutes an authentic Chianti have been in flux for decades. The encouraging news is that despite all these tribulations, there are some good Chiantis on the market, some of which offer excellent value. Chiantis have the added virtue of being superb food wines and are especially well-suited to the flavors of winter.

The constant wrangling over Chianti has been part of a broader debate in Tuscany concerning the role of sangiovese, the region's signature grape. sangiovese, which means "blood of Jove" and is indigenous to Tuscany, was traditionally regarded as too coarse and tannic to stand on its own and was believed to perform well only when blended with other grapes. Beginning in the mid-1800s, the accepted formula for Chianti was to mix sangiovese with a hefty percentage of canaiolo and two white wine grapes, trebbiano and malvasia. This recipe was enshrined in 1967, when the Italian authorities ruled that Chianti had to be an amalgam of these four varieties and that the white grapes had to account for 10 percent to 30 percent of the final blend. But there actually wasn't much synergy between the white grapes and sangiovese, and this unhappy marriage, coupled with excessive crop yields, inferior vines, and poor winemaking, produced a lot of rotgut.

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Starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, some renegade vintners began experimenting in earnest with other grape varieties, notably cabernet sauvignon, and replaced the big Slovakian casks customarily used for aging Chianti with smaller barrels of new French oak. The wines they produced couldn't be labeled Chiantis; in fact, they were saddled with the lowest classification in Italian viticulture, vino da tavola. However, wines like Sassicaia, Tignanello, and Ornellaia were vastly superior to most Chiantis at the time, and by the 1990s, these and other so-called Super Tuscans had become among the most acclaimed and coveted wines on the market. Many were composed partly or mainly of sangiovese. Others, however, did without it entirely. For instance, Sassicaia, the original and most celebrated Super Tuscan (its first commercial vintage was 1968), combined cabernet sauvignon and cabernet Franc.

The revolutionary spirit also inspired a few producers in the subzone known as Chianti Classico, long recognized as the source of the finest Chiantis, to see whether sangiovese on its own could make outstanding wines. Paolo di Marchi of Isole e Olena and Sergio Manetti of Montevertine began turning out bottlings that were 100 percent sangiovese. Di Marchi made a straight sangiovese called Cepparello, while Manetti called his Le Pergole Torte. Both were made with the same rigor (meticulous farming, lower yields) being applied to wines such as Sassicaia and Tignanello, and because straight sangiovese wasn't permitted in Chianti, either, both were also relegated to the vino da tavola category and thus joined the ranks of the Super Tuscans.

With so many winemakers flouting the rules and crafting better, more popular wines, it eventually dawned on the Italian authorities that the rules needed fixing. In 1984, the Chianti laws were amended to allow "international" grape varieties—cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah—to account for as much as 10 percent of the final blend. The mandatory percentage of white grapes was also reduced. In 1996, Chianti Classico was officially recognized as a distinct and autonomous area within the Chianti region. New regulations permitted wines from Chianti Classico to be composed entirely of sangiovese and decreed that white grapes were no longer mandatory and would be prohibited after 2005. The maximum percentage of international grapes jumped to 15 percent, and was then raised to 20 percent just four years later, in 2000. So as things now stand, a Chianti Classico must contain 80 percent to 100 percent sangiovese and can include up to 20 percent Cabernet, Merlot, or Syrah, or native varietals such as canaiolo and colorino.

What blend of grapes, and in what ratio, makes the best Chianti Classico depends, ultimately, on how you feel about sangiovese. I happen to adore it. With scents of cherries, violets, earth, tobacco, and herbs, I think that sangiovese is one of the most aromatically sensual grapes around. It also exudes a powerful sense of place—one whiff and I am like Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, exuberantly spouting gibberish Italian. (Sadly, it doesn't have the same effect on my wife that it had on Jamie Lee Curtis.) The problem with mixing in a darker, heftier grape like Cabernet is that it can often overwhelm the sangiovese component, and the injudicious use of new oak can do the same. For me, sangiovese is the authentic flavor of Tuscany, and I prefer Chiantis that express that sentiment. But the question of how much spotlight should be ceded to sangiovese will undoubtedly continue to animate (and occasionally scandalize) Tuscan winemaking long into the future.

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