Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Chianti, a place for wine
Good Libations columnist Gordon Kendall
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Older readers probably remember those candlelit college dinners when a warm plate of spaghetti with a rich tomato sauce was accompanied by a bottle of Chianti. The bottle, called a fiasco, was wrapped in woven straw and made a charming candleholder for future romantic dinners.
Today, the best Chianti comes in tall, square-shouldered bottles.
Chianti is a place-named wine from Tuscany, in central Italy. The landscape has undulating hills peppered with cedar, oak and chestnut trees. The area's terroir -- meaning the special geographical characteristics that affect the wine -- is defined by warm summer days and stony clay. The primary grape has always been Sangiovese, which translates as "the blood of Jove," a Roman god.
Records show Chianti as a wine area as early as the 13th century. In 1716, the Grand Duke Cosimo III of the powerful Medici family defined the Chianti Classico district. Chianti Classico is the heart of the region and produces the best wines. Wines aged at least 27 months may be labeled "Riserva."
Sangiovese is notorious for inconsistent quality from one vintage to the next. In the mid-19th century, Baron Bettino Ricasoli, a political figure as well as a winemaker, experimented with different formulas for Chianti to overcome the shortcomings of pure Sangiovese. He developed a recipe that included red Canaiolo and white Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes.
In 1963, Italian Law No. 930 created the Denominazione di Origine Controllata, a classification for place-named wines. DOC regulations control the area, varieties of grapes and production techniques. A higher classification, DOCG, was created where the quality was "guaranteed." In 1967, DOC regulations adopted a general formula for Chianti based on Ricasoli's work.
Over time, large yields led to declining quality. In 1984, in a response to quality concerns, the DOC requirements were rewritten to restrict yields and reduce the amount of white grapes. Today, Chianti must contain a minimum of 75 percent Sangiovese, but it can be 100 percent. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes are now allowed.
Look for the black rooster, or gallo nero, on the pink stamp on the neck of the bottle where the DOCG designation is displayed. The Florence-based Consorzio del Gallo Nero is a trade group of quality-conscious Chianti Classico producers that requires a strict taste test before the symbol can be placed on the bottle.
Curiously, the consortium was sued by California's Gallo winery in 1990, and a judge ruled that the term "gallo nero" could not appear on Chianti bottles sold in the U.S. even though gallo merely means rooster in Italian.
Chianti's flavor profile shows lots of black cherry and earth and is often framed with firm tannins and bracing acidity that can seem astringent to folks accustomed to drinking fruity Aussie Shiraz.
The great thing about Chianti is its ability to match with food, particularly tomato-based dishes. Because tomato sauce is simultaneously sweet and acidic it is challenging to pair wine with it. Something about tangy, zesty Sangiovese marries famously with a piquant tomato sauce.
The next time you sit down to a plate of spaghetti or lasagna, try Chianti. Select something in a slender, square shouldered bottle and leave the straw-wrapped fiasco for the college kids.
Gordon's picks for Chianti
Available locally Prices may vary
Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Cetamura DOCG
This product of the Medici family displays a deep garnet color and aromas of cedar, cassis and red clay. The wine is a bit astringent immediately when opened, but after it breathes for a while there are some nice sour cherry notes and a lingering finish with firm tannins. Serve with a creamy pasta dish. $13
Cecchi Chianti Classico DOCG
Here is a deeply colored red wine that offers up earthy aromas reminiscent of rich compost. The palate displays black cherry flavors riding on a frame of firm tannins and bracing acidity. This wine would complement a plate of spaghetti with Bolognese sauce. $12
Davinci Chianti Classico DOCG
This wine is a deep, dark purplish red. Aromas of earth, berries and spice waft from the glass. It displays rich fruit flavors of cherries, plums and spice, and the tannins are moderate enough that it could be drunk on its own. Serve with shaved slices of Parmigiano Reggiano and thinly sliced prosciutto. $13
Gabbiano Chianti Classico DOCG
What we have here is an Old-World style wine with the emphasis on finesse and aroma. The color is a medium garnet and the wine displays aromas of earth, black cherries and tree bark. The palate has rich red fruit flavors with black pepper and lots of tannins on the finish. Serve with savory lasagna prepared with copious amounts of mozzarella. $15
Dievole Chianti Classico DOCG
This wine has a deep burgundy color and displays aromas of cedar, spice and red clay. Exotic flavors of cherry liqueur wash over the palate leading to a complex finish with firm tannins and lively acidity. A classic. Serve alongside roasted meats. $22
RIP, Michael Jackson
I became acquainted with Michael Jackson, the world's leading authority on beer, some years ago when I happened upon his television series, "The Beer Hunter." Jackson, who died Aug. 30, would visit classic breweries all over the world and explore the brewing methods that transformed malt and hops into fine beer.
I was so captivated that I bought his books and started seeking out the styles he was discussing. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I was brewing my own beer, trying to replicate these world-famous styles.
Jackson upgraded beer's status at the connoisseur's table and made people recognize that well-brewed ale could have the complexity and nuance of a fine wine.
To learn more, I recommend the following books:
>> "Michael Jackson's Beer Companion," Running Press, 2000, $18
>> "The Great Beers of Belgium," Running Press, 1998, $25
>> "Michael Jackson's New World Guide to Beer," Running Press, 1988, $25
>> "Scotland and Its Whiskies," Raincoast Books, 2001, $65 hardcover; $20 paperback
Gordon Kendall's wine and spirits column runs monthly in Extra. He welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.