If you look hard, you can still find them: those once-ubiquitous straw-covered bottles of Chianti. I spotted one recently, lurking on a bottom shelf in Central Market’s wine department. Precursors of recycling, they often lived second lives as readymade candelabra. Both the container and the contained have come a long way since those carefree days. And the change has, mostly, been for the better.
A brief history:
In 1872, Barone Ricasoli decreed the original formula for wines made in this ancient viticultural district between Florence and Siena, mandating the dominance of sangiovese grapes and the inclusion of white varieties such as trebbiano. The recipe may have controlled quality for a time, but unregulated expansion coupled with the usual profit motive led to the fiasco that was “the fiasco,” as the straw-covered flask was called. By the ’50s, Chianti as marketed in the U.S. was little more than a spaghetti wine served in red-carpeted Italian restaurants. With dripping candles puddling on red-checked tablecloths, of course.
Finally, in 1967, the Italian government stepped in and established a Denominazione di Origine Controllata, regulating geographic boundaries and codifying the original formula. Serious winemakers rebelled — not at the idea of defining and protecting Chianti Classico and other sub-regions such as Chianti Rùfina and Chianti Colli Senesi, but at the old recipe. Thus were born the Super Tuscan wines, some made from 100-percent sangiovese, others augmented with varieties such as merlot and cabernet.
The success of these high-toned (and priced) vini di tavola on the world market caused the regulators to reconsider, and today DOC compliance requires a minimum of 75-percent sangiovese outside of the Classico region and 80-percent within. Wines with 100-percent sangiovese are now permitted, as are blends with non-indigenous grapes such as merlot. Aging and alcohol-level standards have been applied. Though the consumer should be happy, he or she is also likely to be confused. Enter Omniboire.
The location for our investigation of the new-and-improved Chianti was an equally new Il Sogno, Andrew Weissman’s already wildly successful foray into the foods of Italy. Il Sogno’s savvy sommelier, Mark Brenton Smith, was another logical choice for the tasting panel, which also included well-known and respected retailer Don White (now at the Seazar’s on North New Braunfels), Ryan Butler, on-premise sales representative for Republic National Distributing Company (Butler supplied some of the wines, but as we taste blind, he had no idea where they would appear in the lineup), and yours truly — as confused as the rest of you, by the way.
We tasted 10 wines, ultimately substituting reserve bottles for two corked contenders. Two of them didn’t make the 13 out of 20 points necessary to warrant inclusion in the ratings; the eighth-ranked wine barely squeaked in — and not without some additional disagreement. Omniboire retasted the leftovers two days later, at this writing, and most benefitted from the extra time.
Classico Riserva, $32
Newer style with cedar and tar on nose, bright yet deep cherry fruit
Not only the oldest vintage tasted, but at $32 retail, the most expensive. White found it both “plush” and “nice in the newer, bright style.” Smith suggested that, despite its age, it might not be fully ready to drink yet. “It’s got that depth,” he said, and found “tar with dark cherry” among other notes.
2005 I Bastioni Chianti Classico, $22
Sophisticated and balanced with lively strawberry and cherry components
Calling it “silky and sophisticated,” Omniboire actually liked the number-two wine slightly better (though only by half a point), and especially appreciated its $22 price tag. Butler tasted strawberries, and called it “bright and round with the best acidity.” White, the panel’s defender of tradition, initially called it “muddy” in flavor, but later admitted to liking it as an example of “crossover style.” Smith, the panel’s poet, dubbed it “whimsical” and faulted a short finish while praising its
2005 Nipozzano Chianti Rúfina Riserva, $25
“I’m a fan,” said White, despite finding it a “touch woody.” Smith went on at length about its “dust and depth” as well as its tobacco, tar, clove and a “mouth-pleasing palate.” Butler called it voluptuous and “tops in intensity.” Omniboire was the odd man out in this instance, finding it woody, tight, and tart at first, but by the later, rump tasting, it had developed great body and nice, plummy fruit.
2006 Barone Ricasoli
Brolio Chianti Classico, $22
“Terroir-driven” and slightly rustic but with good richness, weight, and balance
2006 is said to be a classic year in Chianti, but you couldn’t prove it by us. From perhaps the classic producer, the 2006 Barone Ricasoli (he of the famous formula) Brolio Chianti Classico, was pronounced “middle of the road” by Butler, a “little rustic and barnyardy,” by Smith — who allowed that it “smoothed out” with time and had “an amazing palate” with more pomegranate than cherry. White called the wine another example of a “crossover style” that mated old-world structure with new-world fruit. “They are the hot wines in the business,” he said. “They give you some fruit but don’t want you to be sucking on wood.”
2005 Dievole La Vendemmia Chianti Classico, $20-$25
Elegant and balanced with violets, dust, and bright cherry
Butler and White found it tight and closed to start, and Butler suggests decanting it before dinner. (After two days it was plummy, spicy, and leathery.) “I enjoyed this one,” said White, calling it “elegant and balanced.” He suggested pairing it with grilled and cured meats, as well as carpaccio. “It’s a red-sauce wine,” countered Smith, with “leather, violets” and some “Chianti dust” that, translated to Texas, evoked caliche roads.
2006 Maretima Chianti DOCG, $14
Lighter style, fresh and fruity, with mint and eucalyptus
Produced in a commune outside of Florence (and hence not within Classico boundaries) the Maretima pleased most tasters — except for Butler, who found it “on lockdown” due to its youth. “All components come together,” Smith said, with mint and eucalyptus emerging. “Restrained, but a good example of type,” pronounced White — “especially if sold at around $12.” (It’s close, at about $14.) This was one of the few wines we tasted that did not improve with time in the refrigerator, however, showing “gas-station” qualities in the words of one taster.
2005 Ruffino Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico, $25
Smoky and rich on nose, less rewarding on palate
Scores for this wine ranged from one taster’s second-highest to another’s lowest. Smith found the Ruffino smoky and rich on the nose, evoking burning forests, but disappointing on the palate. White called it “plodding and neutral,” but Butler felt “everything `was` in place” and loved it. Insert comment about horse races here.
2007 Palagetto Chianti Colli Senesi, $16
Woody nose with some petroleum, dusty cherry (pit) on palate
Omniboire found hints of diesel on the nose while Smith detected cedar. White deemed the wine “heavy on the wood, and resiny and bitter on the palate,” but Smith praised its “balance and finesse … and bright dusty cherry.” Both of these guys have formidable palates, so here’s a suggestion: The wine is only $16; find a bottle, decant it, and see for yourself. •
Most wines can be found at Central
Market, Saglimbeni Fine Wines and
other specialty wine shops