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BERGER: The many lives of Chianti


I love Chianti, especially with garlicky, tomato-y pasta dishes, so when I ordered that at a caf?the other day, I also ordered a bottle of Chianti.

There was nothing technically wrong with it except that it didn't taste like Chianti.

That reminded me of how many lives Italy's most famous wine has been through in the four decades. Buffeted from here to there since the 1970s, Chianti has a more checkered history than the tablecloths on which it often sits.

And in its latest new suit of clothes, some Chiantis feel and act like something they should not be: soft, plush, silky, with less acid and more tannin. It more resembles the doorman at a Park Avenue high-rise; it once looked like the door of a family caf?

Those who can't recall what real Chianti was all about, back in the 1970s and earlier, may not know it once was a tough dude, with callouses and a grim grin. It was a rustic, pale red wine with a brick color and aroma overtones, and was swarthy enough to do battle with the heartiest meals.

The Chianti "formula" that was then the ruling word had been passed down from decades earlier. The original definition of Chianti was written in 1874 by statesman and political leader Barone Bettino Ricasoli, owner of the Tuscan house of Brolio. His formula said Chianti had to be 80 percent indigenous red grapes Sangiovese and Canaiolo, and 20 percent white grapes including the pale, light Trebbiano.

Clearly this made a lighter red wine, one that wouldn't age as long as a wine made entirely of red grapes. But it was written into law as the Chianti formula. What didn't become part of that formula was Ricasoli's added text: If a producer wished to make a longer-lived wine, white grapes could be excluded.

Since that language was never codified, Chianti still had to be made partly with white grapes. Those wishing to make a deeper, longer-lived red wine left out the white grapes, but could not call the wine Chianti. Making a darker wine meant calling it the d?lass?Vino de Tavola -- then a sign of poor quality wine.

The first to challenge tradition was the quality leader of Tuscany, Piero Antinori, who put out a wine that was a Vino de Tavola, a wine called Tignanello from the fine 1971 vintage. He charged a lot for it, an unheard-of idea, and it got raves reviews.

That began a series of efforts to rewrite Italian law to better define what represented a quality Chianti.

Italy's Chianti regulations had been written in 1963, establishing a class of wines called DOC, the government's seal of quality, Denominazione di Origine Controllata. (Later Italy re-wrote the laws to add a G to the DOC for Garantita, making it DOCG, a higher class of wines.)

Rules defining Tuscan wines then changed in 1984, again in 1990, and again in 1997. Eventually the requirement to use white grapes was eliminated, allowing Cabernet and other grapes to be used in Chianti.

What has resulted, in addition to the so-called Super Tuscans that have far fewer restrictions, are wines that are called Chianti, but which smell and taste more like Cabernet.

And such wines get even more complicated by the use of new French oak barrels for aging, a tactic never seen in Chianti until fairly recently. The taste of oak in Chianti is a shock to purists.

A binding thread in all these wines is Sangiovese, a superb and tart grape that gives Chianti its lean, tough taste when the wine is young. But many Chiantis today are deeper, more complex wines than they were 40 years ago. And some are most un-Chianti-like.

And the average consumer can't tell from looking at the label what style of wine is inside.

It remains to be seen if another set of wine laws will bring more sanity to the Chianti scene.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes "Vintage Experiences," a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.