Pop quiz: what do you think of when you think of Chianti?
This question was posed to a random group of wine enthusiasts and answers ranged from "Meh" to "why drink that wine when there are so many other great Italian options out there?"
More famous for its straw wrapping rather than the quality of the wine, Chianti was seen as an inferior wine choice to many of Italy's other famous varietals. Chianti winemakers have worked feverishly over the past few decades to rectify their reputation and present wines that are worthy of recognition. Through stricter regulations, more advanced vineyard management techniques as well as a passion to keep traditions alive, Chianti wines are trying to be seen as serious contenders on a wine list.
While Sangiovese is still the primary grape in Chianti, blends of native and international varietals lend unique characteristics to the wines. By allowing other grapes into the wine, unlike a Brunello, the winemaker is empowered to find a balance in technique, terroir and varietals.
At the Consorzio VIno Chianti Seminar, held in April in New York City, we tasted through a series of 2010 Riservas. I have to admit, I was skeptical about what I would find in the glass. I favor Barolos, Barbarescos and other Piedmont treasures and am somewhat biased in my Italian wine choices. So, how did Chianti measure up?
Wine number one, a blend of Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Trebbiano immediately showcased notes of violets and dark berries. A peppery spice also became apparent, along with the savory notes of tomato. On the palate, essences of white flower came through as well, most likely attributed to the trebbiano.
The international varietals used in wine number two - Sangiovese, Merlot and Syrah -brought to mind brighter fruits such as raspberry and overall there was a sharp contrast to the indigineous blend of wine number one. Herbaceous tones of rosemary came forth but again there was a distinctly floral essence to the wine. Overall, there was a freshness that seemed to be lacking in the first as well as a softness and roundness that was absent in the first.
Through the murmers heard throughout the audience, the third wine illicited the most positive response out of all the wines tasted. Again, it was comprised of native varietals - Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino. Sweeter baking spices, such as cinnamon and cumin jumped out immediately and the berries again were of the deeper blackberry profile. On the palate, cherry was the star player, with a bit of vanilla softness. The tannins were very noticeable and the finish resonated long after the wine left the mouth.
The fourth wine, with Colorino and Merlot supporting the Sangiovese, was aged for 24 months in Slovenian oak. This was one of the most floral Chiantis tasted but there was a slighlty persistent sour note, hard to identify, that permeated the wine. Soft tannnins gave this wine structure and a soft mouthfeel.
Wine number five, the only one in the lineup to solely use Sangiovese, showed obvious traits of having gone through malolactic fermentation. Bright berries, soft tannins, sweet vanilla all rolled together into a plush mouthfeel that was balanced by the high acidity common to Italian wines.
The last wine, with a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon in the mix, showcased a whole baking rack of herbaceous spices. Deep berries and ruby fruits were largely present on the palate along with balanced, structured tannins.
Overall, I was positively surprised by many of these wines. There was a complexity to several of these that belied their infamous reputation, as well as an obvious thoughtfulness to vinification of the grapes. Many of these can stand proud on any wine list and I'm hoping more winemakers will follow suit.