This is exciting. Being a part of a new Internet adventure and being asked to write about my favorite wines, wines from Italy. In some ways this is an easy task as I really love these wines and they make up such a vast component of my cellar. In other ways, this is quite difficult. Perhaps no region in the world has more diversity than Italy. From internationally appreciated wines that belong in every connoisseur’s wine cellar to some of the most obscure grapes on the planet, Italy produces a cornucopia of wines. In the coming months I hope to expose you to new regions and old regions producing wines that provide lots of drinking pleasure at a reasonable cost.
I also hope to discuss with you the heights of wines that Italy can produce which are on par with anything the Napa Valley, Bordeaux or Burgundy can produce. Finally I look forward to delving into the side discussions of Italian wine: producers, regions, foods, laws, and history all make Italy and Italian wines so fascinating.
The history of wine and the history of food are indelibly intertwined with the history of Italy. Wine has been made in Italy since before the rise of the Roman Empire. The Greeks brought vines there before the birth of Christ. Today, there are at least 800 different grape varieties in Italy that are used for producing wine. The most planted of all of these grape varietals is called Sangiovese (San-Gee-Oh Vase). Sangiovese accounts for over 10% of all of Italy’s wine grape production. And perhaps the most famous of all of the wines made from this grape is Chianti. It seems appropriate, therefore, to begin my first column with a chat about Chianti.
Most people are aware of Chianti. Even non-wine drinkers are familiar with the squat round bottles wrapped in straw. For many of us, we always had an empty bottle with a candle melted into it in our first apartment or college dorm room. I knew of some people who bought the bottle, spilled out the wine, and used it as a candleholder. Truth be told, these wines, especially in the past, were often so insipid, this was probably the best use for the wine. By the way, want to impress you friends with some trivia? The name of the straw wrapped bottle is a “fiasco”.
Chianti hails from Tuscany, it is a geographic region with a long history for wine. Wine has been linked to this region since at least the late 1300’s. As trade intensified in the 1600’s, the name Chianti grew in importance. It was a respected name for wine. An association known as the League of Chianti was created that promoted and enforced rules about the qualities of these wines. In the early 1800’s Baron Bettino Ricasoli, a member of the Accademia del Georgofili, developed and standardized the “recipe” for modern Chianti. Ricasoli advocated a blending of grapes using Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Trebbiano and Malvasia. Yes, that’s right, the last two grapes are white wine grapes.
In the 20th century, however, Chianti’s reputation took a turn for the worse. The original geographic area for production was greatly increased. This allowed for much greater production but from areas that did not produce the same high quality of wines. Italy’s system for classifying and safeguarding wines is known as the Denominazione di Origine Controllata ("Controlled Denomination of Origin") or DOC. This system will be explained in more depth in future articles. In 1967, Chianti was listed officially as a DOC. This restricted the type of grapes that could legally be used in a wine sold as Chianti. The laws basically followed the Ricasoli blend and allowed up to 30% of the white grapes to be utilized. This resulted in weaker, less age worthy wines, while also allowing larger production. Finally, like much of Italy after the war, the people headed for the cities and the conglomerates took over the farms. Soon Chianti was mass produced, thin and insipid.
But all was not lost. In the 1980’s both Chianti Classico, the original area of Chianti (which I like to call downtown Chianti) and Chianti were upgraded to DOCG (the G stands for Garantita or Guaranteed) status. This is an exclusive status reserved for the best wines from Italy. More importantly, the amount of white grapes allowed was reduced to 2%. Later, the requirement that any white grapes be used was eliminated all together. In addition, 15% of other red grapes (cabernet, merlot, etc.) are now permitted. Many winemakers took advantage of these changes and started vinifying newer more modern and higher quality Chiantis.
While some Chianti is still sold in the straw baskets, more of it today is being produced in Bordeaux styled bottles. Much of it is built to age and will improve in a well-cellared bottle for ten or twenty years. Chianti is made in eight different zones in Italy. The “best” versions come from Chianti Classico and Chianti Ruffina. There are still good wines being made for a fair price labeled as simply Chianti. How do you know? Buy a couple of bottles and pop them open.
Two easy to find very nice wines are the Chianti Classicos from Fontodi or Felsina. Ruffino also make a nice one. Antinori and Banfi make mass produced wines available almost anywhere but at a good quality to price ratio. Good Chianti should be ruby red in color with some purple hues to it. It should be shimmering bright and transparent. The nose will have aromas of cherries and maybe some leather or maybe even black tea. They should be easy to drink wines with lots of fresh cherry flavors. Some also contain a bit of earthiness or possibly even some anise flavorings. There is a nice bite of acidity present. These are Italian wines and that most often means they need food. They are made stylistically to be a bit more acidic than Californian wines. Why? In Italy (as much of the world), wine is for the table. Wine, food and people sitting around a big leisurely meal is one of the joys of life. Italians drink their Chianti with food. So should you.
What food? Well, in Italy it is easy to know. They have spent hundreds of years figuring it out. Match the wine of the region to the food of the region. For Chianti, that means Tuscany. Some sample ideas: Tuscan white Bean Soup with Foccaccia Bread, Rissotto, or for that matter even Pizza works well. Chianti is a simple wine that calls for simple food. That does not mean fast food, not does it mean poor quality. I hope you all go out and try a bottle or two and let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.