Chianti comes from the region of Italy called Tuscany, an area so picturesque that makers of romantic films set in Italy are pretty much required to shoot there. Tuscany is full of hills, cypress trees, and villas. They’ve been making wine there since the Etruscans—a cultivated civilization that ended up conquered and absorbed by the Romans in their pre-imperial days.
Chianti used to be iconic, in the wrong way. To people of my generation, the name calls up images of strawcovered flasks filled with cheap red wine, served (often ice-cold), in neighborhood lasagna-and-pizza parlors. The empty bottles were then used as candleholders. Italy, a nation that takes its wine very seriously, got fed up with all that sometime in the 1970s. They took a hard look at Chianti and figured that the problem was in the recipe.
Chianti had long been made from a blend of grapes, both red and white. In the mid-1800s, an aristocratic winemaker, Baron Bettino Ricasoli, came up with a formula blending the sangiovese grape (red) with malvasia (white). It worked out well, but with time, another white grape (trebbiano) was added. Then more grapes—clones of sangiovese—were added, and the wine’s quality deteriorated.
Finally, someone got the idea to go back to the basic sangiovese, blending it with cabernet sauvignon and merlot (both red grapes), and reducing the white grapes to 10 percent or less. It worked. They tightened up the winemaking laws, and Chianti regained its reputation.
All wines called Chianti are red. Chianti is a general zone, divided into eight subzones: Colli Fiorentini, Montespertoli, Ruffina, Colli Aretini, Colli Senesi, Colline Pisane, Montalbano, and Chianti Classico. There are other red wines from Tuscany that do not have the name Chianti on their labels, many of them highly coveted (they’re nicknamed “Super Tuscans”). Their quality helped the Chianti-makers up their game, and everyone has benefitted.
Sangiovese is the predominant grape in Chianti, and wines can be anywhere from 75 to 100 percent Sangiovese (Classico has to be at least 80 percent). The other grapes permitted are canaiolo, colorino, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
For this article, I tried three Chiantis— one “basic,” one Chianti Classico, and a Chianti Classico Riserva, “gran selezione.” I purchased all of them locally. All are rated “DOCG,” which stands for “denominazione di origine controllata e garantita,” basically a certification that the wine in the bottle is guaranteed to be from the region named and made according to regulations. Chianti Classico wine bottles bear the image of a black rooster.
I started with Gabbiano Chianti “Il Cavaliere” 2016 ($7.99) (12.5 percent ABV). This wine is commonly available, and the mounted knight on the label (you can read the legend on the back) makes it easy to spot. The wine was not aged in wood, but in steel tanks, and is 90 percent Sangiovese and 10 percent “red berry native wines.”
I drank this with pasta, red sauce and Italian sausage. On the nose it’s very fruity, cherry-like. The taste followed suit, tart berries and sour cherries, with a very light body. Not a long finish. It paired well with the richness of the meat, and the tangy, herb-seasoned sauce, parmesan and olive oil. Chianti has an affinity for olive oil, for which Tuscany is equally famous.
Next was Barone Ricasoli Brolio Chianti Classico 2013 ($23.99) (13 percent ABV). This is 80 percent Sangiovese, with Cabernet and Merlot rounding it out. The winery website says it’s the “oldest winery in Italy.” This wine is aged in wood barrels for 9 months. The color is purplish red. The nose starts with cherry and vanilla, then moves on to flowers (lavender or violets?), then back to vanilla, currants and unsweetened cranberries. The taste is red raspberry, cherry pie filling, a hint of almond, with a lengthy finish and a velvety body, richer than the Gabbiano.
The third was Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2012 ($31.99) (14.5 percent ABV). This is 80 percent Sangiovese, 20 percent Cabernet and Merlot, aged in oak, stainless steel and concrete vats for 36 months, with additional time in the bottle. This wine is reportedly only made in “outstanding” vintage years. It’s higher in alcohol, and you can feel it. Dark purplish red color. Nose is cherry, tart plum, red summer fruit peels, floral and vanilla. The taste is tannic, which softens. There’s a puckery, fresh-picked berry taste, green fruit, and Christmas spices as it airs.
I drank this one with pork loin chops and oil-roasted, caramelized root vegetables. God bless us, every one.