Fifteen Minutes: The Chianti Wars

A short while ago, a horrifyingly gauche society known as The Cambridge Center for Adult Education provided their culturally and

A short while ago, a horrifyingly gauche society known as The Cambridge Center for Adult Education provided their culturally and aesthetically degenerate “townies” with the opportunity to indulge in their senses. The wine tasting event (clearly appealing to an arriviste set) was pompously entitled “The Chianti Wars.” In retrospect, it was very Christian and noble of them: an attempt to stem the inevitable tide of a decaying Western Civilization, as evinced by Dan, the transvestite who sat to the left of our fearless author. Perhaps I was overcome by a certain nostalgie de la bou. Perhaps, in my infinite naiveté, I thought I might actually resolve, once and for all, the eternal conundrum in the realm of Chianti vinification beliefs: to governo or not to governo. Perhaps I hoped that our leader, Diane Henault-Tosi (donning the dubious title of “wine consultant”), might actually help me understand the rage behind the clumsy “New Age” producers of “designer” wines from the various sub-regions. Alas, I was quite foolish. But all was not lost. This faux pas is a lesson for every Harvard man: woe to he who deigns to venture outside the delightful Yard cloister that shields him from the unseemly. Notwithstanding my minor indiscretion, it was a chance to, eyes shut, luxuriate in the Tuscan bliss that each glass invariably affords. One can only be so happy as to have Chianti pursue the more remote and nebulous regions of the palate.

Chianti (key-AHN-teeh), for all you philistines, comes from the Chianti district of Central Italy. Chianti derives its name from the Latin word clangor meaning “sound of a trumpet”—quite appropriate given the fanfare this fine wine deserves. The Sangiovese grape (red) is the sine qua non of Chianti. It is used alone or with the Canaiolo Nero (red) and/or other white grape varieties such as the Trebbiano Toscano and the Malvasia del Chianti. Chianti is a dry, crisp, acidic example of a light to medium-bodied red wine. The tannin, though somewhat pronounced, is moderate on the whole.

The characteristically nuanced Sangiovese is undoubtedly best articulated after emerging from the sophisticated terra cotta of Tuscany. The Italians have had 600 years to engineer and fashion Il Magnifico Chianti into what one might call a powerful expression of grace. Wine producers in California and Washington try in vain to emulate Chianti’s complex personality of dusty oak with subtle, sweet hints of cherry and violet. They rarely measure up.

1997 Signano Chianti Colli Sesnesi DOCG (San Gimignano)

This vintage, made up almost entirely of the Sangiovese, boasts a conspicuous ruby color. It is a naive, domestic Chianti, yet amusing in its presumptuousness. Its ample aromatic nose of red fruit produces strong, ripe expressions of cherry. It nestles softly in the mouth, with a warm Gem¸tlichkeit to it. The finish is pleasing and long. The gritty tannin from the acid pits in the grapes skillfully holds it together. Yet my tongue tells me that this inchoate wine would be best consumed in a year or two. While ’97 was positively the vintage of the century, its tannin, in most cases, needs time to mature, open up and thaw.

1997 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico DOCG (Val d’elsa)

Paolo De Marchi, the producer of Isole e Olena, places among the top winegrowers in Italy. His echt classico is a wine of fine breeding: the unimposing structure yields uncommon class and elegance. The outspoken Tuscan character imposingly projects the overall gestalt. Its pièce de resistance is clearly the bouquet of red berries, dark cherries, black currants and vanilla. It has a varietal twang and an agreeable consistency of flavor and aroma.

1996 Tenuta Cappezzana Chianti Montalbano DOCG (Carmignano)

Less than enthralling. I am not a captious man, but this wine’s heavy nose was so striking, the experience was almost enervating. The bouquet possesses an unsteady, if protean structure: alternating undertones of honey and pencil lead emanate. Though not excessively rustic per se, I sense a sour, dense, deep tannin with a persistent, yet subtle, inner, unpalatably concentrated fruitiness. It leaves an unpleasant emptiness. In a sense, the finish is a bit jejune.

1994 Querciavalle Chianti Classico DOCG “Governo” (Castelnuovo di Berardenga)

This Querciavalle ’94 is a profound and complex classico. Dry, crisp, harmonious. Smooth. Deep. Chest-beatingly masculine. It is a bona fide example of the governo. In the governo method, batches of grapes are left to out to dry up and shrivel in order to be pressed and added later to an already fermented wine, thus creating a second round of fermentation. This process is universally believed to enhance the flavors that embrace Chianti, softening the tannins, giving a richer, fruitier wine. The routine is considered de rigueur among some Chianti producers. Here, the mildly vegetal notes of tobacco are pitted against a soupçon of leather. The dense, complex and velvety tannins emerge with fustian clarity. Its lambent, ruby hue compliments its well-articulated aromas that, in turn, suggest a dusty, earthy scent blended in with a light touch of toasty oak. My favorite of the evening.

1995 Villa di Vetrice Chianti Ruffina Riserva (Pontassieve)

The ’95 Ruffina Riserva of Villa di Vetrice is a true triumph. Both vinous and simple, the mouth is attacked, though not overbearingly, by the sturm und drang of the astringent, caustic tannins. The bold, endearing fruity aromas combine gracefully with the accents of menthol and spice. The finish is pleasantly unassertive. A tour de force.

1993 Castello di Bossi Corbaia Supertuscan (Castelnuovo di Berardenga)

The economic downturn of the Chianti region in the ’70s is, thank heavens, a bygone era. Not so the deluge of so called supertuscans that resulted from the fiasco. Obiter dictum, the word “fiasco” alludes to another bygone era of Italy. One in which an opera singer’s wretched performance was greeted by a barrage of wine flasks or “fiasci” at the offending artist. Hence the fiasco. But I digress. The supertuscan promiscuously blends a veritable smorgasbord of internationally known grape varieties. The veneer of its glamor has faded as Chianti producers have since rebounded. The supertuscan’s meretricious colors are shining through. Happily, a cordon sanitaire has been placed around these charlatans. It is not Chianti. I refuse to dignify it. Nolle prosequi.