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Classic Chianti – The Rodney Dangerfield Of Italian Wine

on 26/10/14 at 1:32 pm


images“So why is Chianti so unappreciated? Including my (Nick Passmore) pick of the ten best Chiantis.

A few years ago I was talking to the sommelier of a high-end Italian restaurant in New York, and he complained that the hardest wine on his list to sell was Chianti.

But why?

He had no real explanation, and neither do I. Today there are hundreds of good, well made wines, authentic, and super value. What’s wrong?

Sure, Chianti used to be pretty ropey stuff, served at red sauce Italian restaurants with red and white checkered table cloths, and then forgotten.

It was poured from straw-covered bottles, fiasci, that were more notable for their second life as dorm room lamps than the quality of the wine they contained.

And nobody was buying the stuff, or not many people. It wasn’t that it had seen a falloff in quality – it was the same old peasant vino it had always been. The problem was there weren’t any peasants anymore, and the world wanted better quality wine.

Tuscany was in a deep slump, with tractors replacing laborers who all decamped to the cities, leaving whole villages abandoned.

Many growers and winemakers were getting out of the business entirely.

But one decided there were opportunities amidst all this gloom – enter Piero, Marchese Antinori.

Forty years ago, inspired by his friend Robert Mondavi in California, he set out to make quality wine in Chianti, even if that meant ignoring centuries-old practices. To say that this upset the powers that be is putting it mildly, and he was widely ridiculed, and worse.

But his first wine, the now iconic Tignanello, was such a critical and commercial success that the critics were quickly silenced, and lured by the obvious profits, soon began to emulate him. The Chianti world was on a path of viniferous redemption.

There an interesting coda to this story. At the time of Tignanello’s first release it didn’t conform to the rules set down by the Consorzio, Chianti Classico’s governing body, so Antinori was forced to release it under the humble Vino da Tavola, table wine, designation. Eventually, under pressure from the commercial success of this and multiple other modern Classicos, the Consorzio was forced to update the rules, so now Tignanello could be classified as a Chianti Classico. But Antinori, as a badge of pride, releases this famous wine under the simple Toscana IGT designation.

The consequences of all this is that Chianti has changed out of all recognition in the past 30 years, and is now producing some super wines at remarkably reasonable prices.


A Word on Vintages, and Age

Like many red wines, Chianti is released far too young. They have pronounced acidity and aggressive tannins. This doesn’t mean they are bad wines, just a little immature, like an unruly 16 year old.

This is not entirely the producers fault — thought they are, of course, happy to get the cash coming in as soon as possible — because many American consumers are fixated on the idea that new is better. So, when you see two Chianti Classico Passmore, a 2009 and 2008, sitting on the shelf, grab the 2008.  Unlike the latest car model year, when it comes quality red wine, newer is rarely better.