Chianti no longer a dirty word in wine world

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In my previous column, I began my annual, weeks-long rehashing of the fall season's portfolio tastings. The portfolio tastings are a chance for the distributors in the New York City area to invite their clients from both restaurants and retail stores to come and taste everything. Literally. It is an overwhelming offering, but the purpose is more for the opportunity to try things you may not usually be looking for. Sort of like the wine equivalent of a visit to the Strand.

I like to write, each year, about some of the trends and products that stand out. Last week I wrote about the continuing popular trend of California (specifically Napa Valley) Sauvignon Blanc. This week I'm heading to Europe to talk about the ubiquitous and often maligned Chianti.

There are Italian restaurants in New York City that do not serve Chianti. And I'm not talking about ultra-region specific Italian restaurants that only serve food and wine from, say, the Piemonte region or Puglia. I've spoken to the wine directors at some of these places, and their justification is that Chianti is too common and is not an interesting enough wine for their esoteric list.

I think that mindset is both unfortunate and idiotic. While there were a good handful of decades in the mid-to-late 20th century when Chianti went through a very sad decline, the region is back and firing on all cylinders. They are producing some of the most consistently excellent wines in Italy, overall, and some of the most affordable vino from Tuscany, specifically.

The trouble all started in the early '70s, when many producers of Chianti let the quality of their wines slip. They were able to do this because the name "Chianti" was so well recognized that they could make anything and the American market would buy it. Eventually, though, we Americans caught on and the name Chianti became synonymous with "cheap, crappy wine."

Ultimately, their laziness proved to be a good thing. It led many of the producers in Tuscany who really cared about wine to break tradition with the Italian wine laws and start making what are now known as Super Tuscans. And eventually, the Chianti producers stepped their own game back up and are now, again, one of the first-class growing regions of the world.

I had the pleasure of trying several Chiantis at the portfolio tastings recently and am happy to report that this year's offerings look very good. The Fattoria di Faltognano Chianti Montalbano 2008 ($12 at Yorkshire Wines and Spirits, 1646 1st Ave. at 85th St., 212-717-5100) is a great example of this. The hallmark scent of burning leaves is the main event on the nose in this wine, complimented by a slightly herbal backbone with hints of black licorice. The flavors are led by notes of tart black cherry and bitter herbs. The middle holds up with mild tannin and the finish is peppery and robust. Old world charm, all the way.

If you like your Chianti a little earthier, I would recommend the Tenuta di Lilliano Chianti Classico 2008 ($29.99 at 67 Wine and Spirits, 179 Columbus Ave. at 68th St., 212-724-6767). Right from the start, wafts of fresh Portobello mushroom and wet earth pour from the glass. There is a surprising amount of tart fruit on this wine, with brambleberry jam notes up front. The middle has excellent structure, with just enough tannin and acidity to balance out the fruit, and the finish returns to the earth with more mild mushroom notes.

One of my favorites was the Agricola San Felice Chianti Classico Riserva Poggio Rosso, 2004 ($42 at Beacon Wines and Spirits, 2120 Broadway at 74th St., 212-877-0028). This one was one of the classic, floral-style of Chiantis with the powerful scents of rose petals and cedar right out of the bottle. While this wine lacked the tannic structure that the others had, it made up for it in subtlety. Dried flower petals, orange rind and clove were the major flavors up front with a good acidity down the middle and a touch of mulberry and pepper on the finish.

Next week, I'll conclude my overview of the annual portfolio tastings. Stay tuned!

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