Chianti used to be so simple. It was the pizza wine you bought in a green bottle in a straw (later plastic) basket amusingly called a fiasco. Even if the wine wasn’t all that good, you could always use the bottle afterwards as a candleholder.
It was the drink on the table of every movie scene set in an Italian restaurant, even the romantic dogs’ dinner in “Lady and the Tramp.” A “nice Kee-ann-tee” was the preferred tipple for Hannibal the Cannibal with his dinner of liver and fava beans in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
That plonky image has been outdated for quite some time. Starting in the 1970s, well-heeled, market-savvy innovators such as aristocrats Marchese Piero Antinori of Antinori and Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta of Sassicaia within the Chianti Classico region upgraded their own image and that of all Chiantis in Tuscany. This helped the entire region obtain the D.O.C.G. appellation from the Italian government that guarantees high quality among wines along with strict standards that go into making them.
If a vintage proves inferior, Chianti Classico can be labeled only as a lowly vino da tavola (“table wine”), a demotion that has never actually happened. In 1996, the Classico zone received a separate D.O.C.G. appellation to distinguish it from the rest in Tuscany. The Classico regional consortium was founded in 1924 with 33 members and has more than 600 producers.
Chianti Classico must now be made with a minimum of 80 percent sangiovese grapes, based on modern, healthier clones. As much as 20 percent of canaiolo, colorino, cabernet sauvignon or other grapes are allowed. Beginning in 2006, the long tradition of blending in white trebbiano and malvasia grapes was no longer permitted. Also, the old “governo” process, by which unfermented grape juice is added to young wines to restart fermentation and make the wines marketable at an earlier date, is rarely done.
This leads to the question of just how different Chianti is today from what it was when the name was first protected in 1716.
It was a legitimate query that came up at a media luncheon at New York’s Morrell Wine Bar & Cafe held by the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico. One wine writer complained that he missed the lighter style and taste of the old Chianti. He preferred more traditional examples from less prestigious regions like Colli Aretini, Montalbano, Colli Senesi, and Rufina to the fuller-bodied Classicos.
While I understood his nostalgic sentiment, I believe that Chianti Classico is a much finer wine than it ever was, with more complexity and body, even if the alcohol levels are creeping up.
The food, by chef Jake Klein, was chosen to go with the wines, rather than vice versa, to show off stylistic differences. With herb-smoked buffalo mozzarella, fried porcini and candied artichokes, a big, still very tannic 2007 Castello di Monsanto Riserva ($20) showed those bold black cherry flavors I associate with the sangiovese grape.
Terrabianca Scassino 2007 ($19) had a minty edge and went very well with a chestnut puree with sweet spices and green onion. Roasted duck breast with rosemary pound cake and tart cherry needed a drier, less fruity wine than the 14 percent alcohol Fontodi 2008 ($30) that showed an overly lush style that reminded me of some California sangiovese experiments.
Castello La Leccia 2009 ($16) showed its fruit and acid in a youthful balance, with pleasing, loose tannins. A 2007 San Fabiano Calcinaia Cellole Riserva ($27) proved the intensity of a riserva style -- riservas must spend 24 months aging, three in the bottle. It had delicious black pepper and mint giving it a power that, while impressive, seemed a real divergence from the traditional subtleties I associate with fine Chianti Classico.
All the savory dishes that day had sweet elements that Chianti Classico bonds to very well. Still, the serving of a Querciabella 2008 ($26), light in body and more in the old familiar style, didn’t click with a dessert of floating island, hot chocolate and Graham cracker. I would have matched it with an aged Tuscan caprino cheese.
Overall, I thought the wines showed well, with the distinctive flavors of the sangiovese grape preserved within the many stylizations of a wine that’s moved out of the pizzeria into the ristorante. Then again, pizza has now become fashionable, so maybe the two can still make for an honorable marriage. But finding one of those Chiantis in a fiasco isn’t so easy anymore.
(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)