Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Tasting Tuscany: a bit on Chianti.

Tuscany is, as one friend of mine once said, "tons of different names for the same grape."  All of the traditional-varietal wines that Tuscany is famous for are from... Sangiovese.  True, it's called different things (Brunello, Morellino and Prugnilo Gentile are but 3 of Sangiovese's other names), but the famous red wines of Tuscany are almost all Sangiovese.

Tuscany has 29 different Denominazioni di origine controllata (DOC) and 7 Denominazioni di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) regions, but I'll concern myself with just the ones that you tend to find in wine stores here in the US, the DOCG's of Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, Vernaccia di San Giminiano, and the DOC's of Morelleno di Scansano, Rosso di Montalcino and Rosso di Montepulciano.  Trust me, there's enough wine there for quite some time!

What's the "DOC" and "DOCG," I can hear you asking.  Basically, a DOC is a region where the Italian government has set rules about what the winemaking process can be like -- what grapes can go into the final blend, how high the alcohol level must be, how long the wine must be aged, that sort of thing.  It's a guarantee of quality level, indicated by a blueish band around the neck of the bottle, or over the capsule .  DOCG's are almost exactly the same, but with the difference that the rules are stricter, and the wine is subject to tasting by a panel of experts to insure that the wine "meets regional characteristics and quality levels."  It's denoted by a pinkish band around the neck of the wine.

As an interesting note, in Tuscany, the word "reserve," or "riserva" has a legal meaning.  Unlike in the US (where you can slap "reserve," on any plonk you want, as it's considered an advertising term, although many producers hold to the spirit of the word), each of the regions of Tuscany require certain conditions to be met before a wine may be called a reserve; generally, the rule is longer barrelling and bottle-aging.  Due to the aging requirements, producers will generally only use their best blocks of grapes to produce reserve wines; it's expensive to hold wine for a long time (a bottle in the cellar is a bottle that's not made any money by being sold yet, and it's taking up the space that two bottles of non-reserve could be aging in while it's in the cellar), so it makes economic sense to limit reserve productions.

Most people's introduction to Tuscan wine tends to come from Chianti; it's the most commonly available Tuscan wine, found literally in all locations from gas stations to restaurant wine lists all over the US.  It's actually a collection of several different DOCG's -- basically, what you can think of Chianti is that it's a region with a basic sort of wine, with specific towns that make slightly better (to most people's minds, anyhow -- most of them are just a bit different, either higher acidity, or a bit more spicy) wines.  Chianti, as a region, is quite large, covering about a quarter of central and north-central Tuscany.

The best-known sub-appellation of Chianti is Chianti Classico; it's the "original" Chianti, as the name implies, containing the original region of Chianti as laid out in 1716 through 1932.  "Look for the black rooster," as many people say, "and you'll  find good Chianti."  Which is true enough -- although the black rooster on the DOCG seal for Chianti Classico is really just a membership symbol in a producer's association for Chianti Classico, so there are Classicos without the rooster.  The rules of the DOCG include 12% alcohol and 10 months minimum aging.  Yields for vines in the region are also required to be slightly lower than in neighboring DOCG's, at only 3 Kg of grapes per vine, as opposed to 4 in most of the rest of Chianti.  The wines of this region tend to be a bit more tannic and have a more pronounced cedary note to the midpalate, I find.  However, due to the common wisdom of "look for the rooster," Classicos are more saught-after, and demand drives price.

Then, there's the other towns of Chianti, which produce as good of a wine as Classico, but don't have conventional wisdom driving customers to them; you'll often see Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, and Chianti Montalbano (although there are 3 other regions, Colli Aretini, Colline Pisane, and Montespertoli).  "Colli" just means "from the hills around," so "Chianti Colli Senesi" is "Chianti from the hills around Siena."  Each of these regions yields high-quality wines worth looking for; they do have some different regional characteristics, though -- Montalbano tends to be a touch lighter, as it's aged for only 3 months and has a minimum alcohol of 11.5%.  Senesi tends to show a bit more acidity, even though the aging and alcohol levels are the same as Montalbano.  Rufina is a bit more complex, weightier wine, with 9 months' aging and 12% alcohol.  

Finally, there's general "Chianti," which is wine made from a blend of the different regions, or wine that just didn't quite fit the regional requirements; it's generally a bit simpler, more straightforward.  Note that this still means imported Chianti -- not the stuff from California labeled as such (generally, it'll be in a different section of the wine shop; the California "Chianti" will be with the jug wines).  There's some legal reasons why some producers in California can use the appellation on their wines, and fewer do now than in the past, but the wine from Chianti has nothing to do with the ones from California, either in style and flavor, or quality!

Expect to pay about $8-$30 a bottle, depending on the sub-appellation of Chianti.

Monday:  Brunello and Vino Nobile; the "big boys" of traditional Tuscan wines.

Map from winecountry.it.

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