Tasting Wine: Me and my Chianti

Ever since spending a week in Chianti Classico region 10 years ago, I’ve been a champion of this vinicultural underdog. While the Super Tuscans and Brunello di Montalcinos surged in the 1970s and 1980s, much of Chianti Classico watched and did not do anything to improve the reputation of this important historical area. Others, such as Felsina, Castello di Fonterutoli and Castello di Rampolla, heard the wake-up call loud and clear. It was time for Chianti Classico to change or it would continue to be considered inferior.

Chianti has a long and rich history that is marred by politics and economics. The area that is considered Chianti Classico was created in 1932 as a response to a dispute between the traditional Chianti zone producers and those in the surrounding areas. During the phylloxera outbreak in France of the late 1800s, the demand for Chianti increased and bordering appellations labeled their wines as Chianti without much of a problem.

However, once France’s vineyards revived, the demand slowed down and the producers in the original zone were not too happy with others calling their wines Chianti. As a compromise, the historical Chianti zone was knighted Chianti Classico, while the other areas were still allowed to use the term Chianti but not the term classico.

Historically, white grapes were used throughout all of the Chianti areas in conjunction with sangiovese and canaiolo. The wine could not be composed entirely of sangiovese or contain any nonindigenous grapes. These restrictive and archaic regulations helped give birth to the Super Tuscan, which, as “vino di tavola,” had much more flexibility.

A handful of producers did not entirely follow the rules anyway and (wink, wink, nod, nod) added a little cabernet sauvignon and other grapes to their Chianti Classico. Finally, in 1996, the rules changed, allowing for Chianti Classico to be composed entirely of sangiovese and contain up to 20 percent of nonindigenous grapes. As of the 2006 vintage, white grapes are no longer permitted.

Since the mid-1990s, there has been a vast improvement in Chianti Classico. I think some of the most interesting wines made in Tuscany wear the signature rooster neck label. Here are three.

Villa di Geggiano Chianti Classico, 2004 — The Bianchi Bandinelli family has been on this property since 1527 but only started making wine commercially a few years ago. With mushroomlike, tree-bark earthy aromas and austere cherry-tinged chocolate fruit, this is a very good, layered wine at a great price. Suggested retail: $20

Terrabianca Chianti Classico “Scassino,” 2005 — Terrabianca makes some Indicazione Geografica Tipica wines as well as a riserva called Croce, but if you’re looking for juicy, yet terroir-driven Chianti Classico, look no further. With dried flowers, tobacco, currants, plums, black cherries and moderate tannins, this is a great wine to drink with pizza but will also stand up to complex meat and pasta dishes. Suggested retail: $24

Castello della Paneretta Chianti Classico Riserva, Vigneto Torre a Destra, 2003 — This is a single-vineyard wine made entirely from sangiovese. Absolutely world-class in quality, it has slightly leathery, licorice aromas, sweet red currants, cherries, strawberries and a dusty minerality with a terrific, long finish. Suggested retail: $42

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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