Chianti for Every Day

It's time to revisit this wine lover's staple

Often overlooked, and suffering still from its days in straw covered fiasci, chianti continues to offer great value to the savvy shopper. A large region of Tuscany is devoted to the production of chianti of all sorts and stripes, and while the wines may not be the rock bottom values of the past, they are also not the thin, shrill wines they once were. Increasingly, and with a modicum of outside influence, the wines of Chianti are finding their way; continuing to express the red fruits, herbs and leather that makes sangiovese so appealing, while at the same time finding the balance and elegance the sangiovese can offer in the right hands.

Tuscany, like much of the world, has passed through a rather harrowing time for traditional wines. Here the subtlety of sangiovese was under assault from all sides. The adoption of new French oak gave the wines their all too familiar wrappings of sweet vanilla and toasty spices while the introduction of international varieties obscured hose hints of herbs, red fruits, and flowers that lovers of traditional chianti adore.

That palate profile (not sweet or dense but rather bright, juicy, savory and fruity with zesty acidity and palate-cleansing austerity from modest tannins) are the traits that have made chianti such a food-friendly wine. Good chianti compliments a meal; it doesn’t take away for the main course but rather adds to it. It’s like popcorn at the movies, or good lighting in an art gallery — there but not there, and that is sometimes a good thing.

We tend to obsess over the wines we drink, and sometimes forget to simply enjoy the wines we drink. Great wine requires great attention to reveal its glory. Great chianti simply needs a meal, and maybe some friends. It’s a wine that you need not analyze. It’s a wine you simply need to enjoy. The marketplace is seeing renewed interest in chianti, and along with it, a flood of labels that even I am unfamiliar with. I recently tried a baker’s dozen, including one that should be quite familiar to many, to see how this new crop of producers stacks up.

Overall the results were excellent, even if the vintages were not. Most of the wines fit my model of what chianti should be like. One showed too little sangiovese character for my palate, while another, while well made, was more a testament to oak rather than any vineyard. The rest, to one extent or another, represented their red fruits and savory elements, fine austere tannins and that rapier-like acidity that is food’s best friend.

I tasted wines from two recent vintages for this article, neither of which particularly stand out. 2010 is the far better of the two, getting off to a quick start, then on the dry side but with moderately warm temperatures through the summer. The season was promising heading into September, but then temperatures fell, setting vine progress back. The remainder of the season turned out to be warm and dry and generally produced wines with a fine combination of richness and freshness to their fruit, all supported by finely balanced acidity, though there are some wines with green tannins.

2011, on the other hand, was plagued by a heat wave and water stress on the vines. The harvest was early, with decent quality to the fruit, but the acidities tended to be lower than average and the fruit in some instances has a cooked, candied character to it. To a certain extent, this can be an advantage for simple chianti wines that are produced in less favorable sites. the added heat and richness of fruit can make for wines that are easily enjoyed out of the gate, and the softer acidity can be quite appealing if one is not used to or in the mood for something as zesty as a typical chianti.

There were plenty of surprises among the wines I tasted. A couple are not yet in distribution here in the States, but the majority of wines should be out there, waiting for someone to pick them and take them home. Talk to them a little bit, but not too much, and just have a good time. Just the way I like them.

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— Gregory Dal Piaz, Snooth