In the heart of Tuscany, just south of the city of Florence, lie the verdant, rolling hills of the Chianti wine region, where groves of olive and cypress trees flourish in the hot sun alongside fragrant fields of lavender and rosemary, and where, since Etruscan times, farmers have been cultivating the Sangiovese grape which produces the iconic red wines that bear the region’s name.
Chianti is an extensive wine zone, comprised of eight separate districts (subzones) of which, the best-known — and the one producing the best wine — is Classico. In these chalky marlstone and clay soils, the Sangiovese grape reigns supreme, growing as dark bluish-purple, thin-skinned berries that ripen slowly, producing dry, tannic, structured red wines, high in acid and layered with the flavors of red and black cherries, strawberries, blackberries, plums and violets intermingled with notes of herbs, earth, and spice.
Today, the Chianti region produces world-class wines, but unfortunately this wasn’t always the case. For the first part of the twentieth century, Chianti was of poor quality, adulterated with cheap whites and jammy reds and sold in bulbous, straw-covered bottles called fiaschi that Americans came to associate with pizza joints and red-and-white-checkered tablecloths. But since the 1970s, Tuscan winemakers have labored to change Chianti’s tarnished image. By reducing yields, eliminating the white grapes, and crafting bottles of 100 percent Sangiovese and oak-aged Bordeaux-style blends that incorporate non-traditional varietals like Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah (so-called "Super Tuscans"), they have significantly improved the quality of their wines.
Chianti Classico is rated by three quality standards: Annata (the basic annual vintage); Riserva (aged 24 months in French oak); and Gran Selezione (a single-vineyard wine aged 30 months in oak). Current law prescribes that Chianti Classico must contain a minimum of 80 percent Sangiovese.
Inherently food-friendly, Chianti Classico has a natural affinity for the tomatoes, onions, and garlic of the Italian table and pairs well with pasta, lighter meats such as chicken and pork, and Italian cheeses like Asiago and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
EXPERT WINE RECOMMENDATIONS
• Jeff sukowski, Famous Liquors in Lombard
- 2012 Oak Ridge OZV Zinfandel, $10, jammy and fruit-forward, with a nose of berries, spice, and oaky vanilla. The palate gushes with flavors of raspberries, strawberries, cherries, chocolate, and mocha.
- 2012 Bogle Essential Old Vines California Red, $8, a blend of Old Vine Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Sirah, this layered, complex red teems with aromas and flavors of dark fruit, raspberries, and blueberries with luscious notes of vanilla and spice.
• Mike Matonte, Vin Chicago in Naperville
- 2011 Vale do Bomfim Douro Red $9, a plush, medium-bodied, floral-scented blend of unique Portuguese grapes that abounds with ripe blackberries, blueberries, plums, backed up by fine acidity and hints of spice and pepper.
- 2010 Castello di Bossi Chainti Classico $17, elegantly structured and balanced, the nose brims with aromas of black- berries, plums, spice, coffee, spice, and nuances of chocolate, leading to a palate saturated with ripe, tart red cherries.