I remember the first time I bought a Chianti: it was one of those classic round bottles in a straw basket, famous as the bohemian candle holder of the hippie era. I was a very young wine drinker at the time; my motivation for buying it was definitely based on the packaging—and the price. (It wouldn’t have been much more than $10.)
It was awful. I remember it tasting quite bad, even to my seriously limited palate—at the time, I thought Gato Negro was pretty good.
I wouldn’t fully realize it for a few more years, but I had unwittingly stumbled into the legacy of Chianti’s notorious dive in quality, which reached an all-time low in the 1970s.
Much of this was due to the “Chianti formula” or “Ricasoli formula,” so named after its originator: Bettino Ricasoli. Back in the mid-1800s, Ricasoli—who was head of the estate that boasts the honour of being Chianti’s oldest, dating to the 12th century—put forth the idea of adding a white grape (Malvasia) to Chianti’s red grape blend of Sangiovese and Canaiolo.
Adding white grapes to red wine isn’t unheard of; the most well-known example nowadays is probably the Australian penchant for adding a splash of Viognier to Shiraz to perk up the nose with floral aromatics. Ricasoli suggested using Malvasia to brighten up Chianti and render it more drinkable when young—Sangiovese can have some pretty crunchy tannins that need aging to mellow out. While justifiable and even beneficial at the time, as decades passed and Chianti became more and more popular internationally, producers began using neutral-tasting, cheap Trebbiano grapes instead of Malvasia, in ever-increasing quantities—up to 30 percent in some bottles.
After the Second World War, in the rush to replant vineyards spurred by the Italian government’s investment in the industry, much of Chianti was planted with inferior clones of Sangiovese; many new vineyards were also located in poorly chosen sites. Combined with the increasing white grape dilution and overproduction in general, Chianti plummeted in quality and esteem.
Seeking inspiration to return Chianti to its former glory, a few producers in the 1970s looked to the newly minted Super Tuscans. These wines used international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot instead of Sangiovese, and were aged in small, new French oak barriques instead of large, old Slavonian oak barrels. After the legal classification was revised in 1984, Chianti producers could begin including those international varieties (up to 15 percent of the blend) and skip the white grapes entirely.
Chianti has since recovered from its crash in quality—but not universally. It remains a region of significant variations in quality at both the upper and lower end. A poorly made bottle of Chianti is insipid and disappointing, just as it was a dozen years ago when I bought that last holdout of the old packaging. (Which, by the way, is still on the Alberta market—and still best avoided.)
That said, price is generally a decent indicator of quality, if only vaguely: you probably won’t find a very good Chianti under $25, and especially not under $20, except in remarkable vintages. Choosing a Chianti with the Classico designation offers a bit more insurance for a better bottle.
A good Chianti, tricky though they can be to find, is one of my favourite wines. A perfect marriage of low and highbrow, good Chianti is understated but elegant, with subtly complex flavours and a wonderful, mouth-watering backbone of acidity. It is one of the foremost food wines, especially for any dish including tomatoes—from its classic partners of pizza and pasta to more unusual pairings like lingcod in tomato broth. V
Ricasoli Rocca Guicciarda Chianti Classico Riserva
Fontodi Chianti Classico
Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva
Rodáno Chianti Classico
Barone Ricasoli Tasting Notes
2012 Ricasoli Rocca Guicciarda Chianti Classico Riserva: Blueberry, cherry, hints of forest floor, dusty wood, dry spice. 2012 was a poor vintage so Ricasoli didn’t make their higher tier wine; instead, those grapes ended up in this bottle—making it a great value for the price, even in this less-than-stellar year.
2011 Ricasoli Brolio Riserva: Intense fresh red fruit and cherry with salami and smoked meat characters, some hints of earth and herbs. The second vintage of this new label, this is off to a very good start.
2011 Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico: Sour cherry, blueberry, violets, a touch of vanilla spice and balsamic reduction. Made with the best parcel on the estate; became a Gran Selezione in 2010 with the advent of that new designation.
2011 Ricasoli Casalferro Castello-Brolio: Plummy fruit on the nose follow by fresh acidity on the palate. Understated but elegant and persistent; needs time to breathe.
Mel Priestley is a certified sommelier and wine writer who also blogs about wine, food and the arts at melpriestley.ca