Let’s talk Chianti shall we? And no I’m not talking about the wicker basket looking Chianti bottle you may have had sitting in your college apartment used as a candle holder (please tell me I’m not the only one).
No. I’m talking the real deal.
Arguably Italy’s most famous wine, Chianti has come a long way from its once reputation as cheap and mass-produced wines (aka the wicker basket), shifting to one of quality as well as value. Chianti wines run the gamut from inexpensive, simple, light and fruity, very tasty and easy drinking wines, to fuller-bodied, complex, and elegant wines of top quality.
Now, without going into a full-blown lesson on Chianti, the grapes it’s made from, the sub-regions, and so forth (there’s an excellent primer on the subject over on Wine Folly that you can check out), I’d rather focus on four different examples I tried this week during a virtual tasting with winemaker Gabriele Tacconi of Ruffino. Wines that will help you understand the versatility and quality of the region.
Ruffino is one of the largest and most recognizable producers in the region with a long history dating back to 1877. The company is also associated with changing their wine packaging in 1975 from those traditional straw-covered bottles (called “fiasco”) formerly associated with the wine, to the more elegant looking Bordeaux-style bottles we see today. Not as much fun to put a candle in, but represents this shift to quality for the region.
And these wines here represent an exploration into the different styles of Chianti, including the value they represent.
- Ruffino Chianti DOCG 2013 ($10)
- Ruffino Aziano Chianti Classico DOCG 2012 ($14)
- Ruffino Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2011 ($23)
- Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Gran Selezione DOCG 2010 ($33)
For me, these wines went in order of lightest and freshest, to boldest, richest, and most complex and age-worthy.
The basic $10 Chianti represented the youngest with lots of bright cherry, some floral aromas. This is a light, fresh and fruity, and easy to drink wine, not to mention a great value (found quite often for less than $10). It’s an everyday wine for pizza night, simple Italian fare, or even just summertime sipping. The lighter weight and freshness of the wine makes it perfect for those warm days (they are coming, I promise!).
The Ruffino Aziano Chianti Classico 2012 had darker red berry aromas and a touch of spice. Chianti Classico are wines that come from the heart of the Chianti region and arguably the best sub-region for Chianti. Aged entirely in stainless steel it had dark cherry on the mouth, and certainly more texture and depth than the first. Medium bodied, fresh, and food friendly. I have to mention we tried this one the next day with this brisket grilled cheese and smoked tomato soup and it was a killer pairing! The wine was smooth; yet light enough with bright acidity to cut through the richness of the buttery sandwich and creamy bisque.
We then moved onto the Ruffino Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico Riserva 2011. Riserva (or “reserve”) are those aged much longer than the basic Classico wines (at least 27 months before release). This one presented a much darker color and spicy and perfumed nose, with a little dusty cocoa in there too. I swooned over this one with the prosciutto topped wood fired pizza we pared it with on day one. (Shoutout to Pizzeria Otto in my NE Portland neighborhood for making spot on Neapolitan style pizzas.)
We finished with the Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2010. Gran Selezione is a new classification of Chianti Classico region, meant to represent the very best of a winery’s estate vineyard selections. This top tier designation comprises of less than 10% of the wines of the region, has strict standards, and must be aged at least 30 months before release. This is a much darker and richer wine, yet very smooth, with great acidity! I found some juicy cherry notes with some structure tannins and a savory stewed character. Definitely the most complex of the bunch with long-term aging potential. I’m thinking a roast or slow cooked meat dish is what this wine craves. Winemaker Gabriele Tacconi said he loves to pair this one with wild boar. I may have to try that.
Food Pairings for Chianti
The wines of this region are almost always referred to as good “food wines.” What makes them so great with food is their high acidity, fruity aromas of tart cherry, and dry body with low tannins.
These wines are often associated with pizza and pasta with red sauce. And while that is certainly true (the high acidity found in the Sangiovese grapes make it stand up well to the acidic tomatoes found in lots of Italian-American dishes), there’s such a wide array of foods you can enjoy Chianti with.
Italian food aside, don’t forget things like burgers, meatballs, meatloaf, tomato based soups, stews, roasts, chili, and so much more. The lighter-based basic Chianti is also a good summer wine, sipping sans food. I recommend chilling your wine a bit to make this red a refreshing option for summer sipping.
Simply speaking, these wines are versatile.
So next time you have the itch to explore a new region, maybe pick up a few bottles of Chianti, one of each style or sub-region, and taste the versatility. They may surprise you. Worst case, you’ve got a great wine for pizza, but it won’t make for a great candle holder… not anymore.