It is a pleasure to share with you a brief history of the Chianti region in Tuscany Italy. Let’s navigate the important “Sub-Zones” of Chianti, offering how a wine from one zone to another may differ in body & taste… then offer some of my favorite wines from Chianti with some simple food pairings.
A Brief History of Chianti:
The earliest recognition of a Chianti wine was documented in the late 13th century. This was white wine that was produced from the area now known as Colli Fiorentini a sub-zone located in the hills of the city of Florence. The area of Chianti was delineated as a wine producing region in that area by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’ Medici in 1716. By the 18th century the wines of Chianti evolved from white to red wines. The grape varietals planted & harvested during this era were subjective to the end result of what was a Chianti Wine. In 1872 Baron Bettino Ricasoli changed that by offering a permanent blend of grapes that would be the “recipe of Chianti”, 70 percent Sangiovese, 15 percent Canaiolo, 10 percent Malvasia. The Italian government decided that this would be the definitive blend that would distinguish Chianti and established laws pertaining to this particular recipe in 1966. However, this recipe was a dogma and the farmers & winemakers established a rebellion of their own by launching what was later marketed as a “Super Tuscan”! This was a blend of Sangiovese ,along with Merlot , Cabernet Sauvignon, & Syrah. That formula involving those grape varietals has been an integral part of the evolution of the wines of Chianti! These wines could not be classified as Chianti due to the fact that they did not follow the “recipe”. The “Super Tuscan” wines were far superior to those classified as Chianti.
Fearful of the Chianti designation becoming irreverent , the Chianti Classico Consortium along with the help of the Italian government, turned to science to develop a successful group of Sangiovese clones that would measure up to the “invited” grapes of Merlot, Syrah, & Cabernet Sauvignon. By 1995, the Chianti Classico 2000 clones had been developed & approved by the Italian Government. The government also changed the percentage of the grape varietals allowed for Chianti classification to Sangiovese up to 100 percent, Canaiolo Nero up to 10 percent, other red grape varietals up to 15 percent whether indigenous to Chianti (for example mammolo), or invited (cabernet sauvignon). Today, most of the top Chianti Classico wines are 100 percent Sangiovese.
Within the Chianti Classico region, there are seven subzones. In general order from north to south they are Rufina , Montalbano, Colli Aretini ( the hills surrounding Arezzo), Colline Pisano, (within the hills of Pisa), Montespertoli, Colli Fiorentini (the hills of Florence), & Colli Senesi ( the hills of Siena).
The wines from the northern areas of Chianti (Rufina, Montalbano Colli Aretini, & parts of Colli Fiorentini) tend to offer concentrated fruit flavors due to richer soils & cooler climates.
The southern Chianti wines are somewhat complex; ripe fruit, pronounced tannin(acidity), & minerality imparted by stonier soils & warmer temperatures.
Chianti Wines & Food Pairing:
In general the wines of Chianti are medium bodied , offering floral & cherry notes on the nose, leading to light cherry balanced by firm, pronounced tannin, finishing dry. Chianti Classico Riservas will have an oakier nuance due to the fact that these wines are aged in oak for an extended length of time, usually up to one year.
The characteristics of Chianti make it one of the most versatile red wines to pair with food (it's even a great red wine for fish!). It is light enough to pair with firm texture seafood (salmon, swordfish), yet full enough without overpowering beef, bison, veal, game, or fowl, however -- always avoid pairing salt cured meats with Chianti.
As a sommelier at a chophouse in Suffolk, Virginia the concept would suggest meat & game as a staple to our menu. For diversity we do offer fresh seafood fare as well. Recently, a couple that dined in our establishment ordered our Salmon, which is topped with a smoked tomato relish, and Bison with sautéed Shitake Mushrooms. The couple asked me to suggest a Pinot Noir to pair with dinner. Pinot Noir would have been wonderful with the Bison & Mushrooms, along with the Salmon sans the tomato. The addition of the smoked tomato relish and the natural smoky flavor of the Shitake Mushrooms needed a wine with a higher degree of tannin than the Pinot Noir could support. I suggested a Castello Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva 2004. The acidity from the tomato relish on the Salmon, along with the oily texture of the fish cut through the tannin in the wine & showcased the elegant floral and cherry notes of the wine. The texture of the Bison along with the earthy, smoky notes of the Shitake mushrooms was enhanced by the tannin present in the wine. It was the first time the couple had enjoyed a Chianti wine, and later commented that it was one of the best meals they had ever had. All of this while celebrating a one year anniversary of marriage. Ah, the romance & joy of Chianti.
Other Food pairings with Chianti:
Roasted whole chicken stuffed with garlic, peppers, and portabella mushrooms.
Traditional Veal Marsala with mushrooms
Braised Short Ribs which are offered with a stew of carrots, turnips, garlic, & applewood smoked tomato concasse.
River Stone Chop House