Sangiovese is not always thought of as a generous wine. In fact, many argue that this is one of the grape’s most appealing features: austere tannins, a generally light body and refreshing red fruits that Sangiovese brings to the table.
Much of the negative impression value priced Sangiovese still carries with it stems from wines produced years or even decades ago. Cheap Chianti was often a pretty awful wine, thin, astringent and ungenerous to the point of being painful to drink. Of course, these wines were sold as being true to type and very nearly destroyed Chianti’s reputation!
Today, the world is different. The greatest objection to modern Chianti might actually be that the wines are now too ripe, too opulent, too plump and simply not Chianti-like. Some of this argument stems from the revolution in wine making that has occurred in Tuscany over the past few years, a revolution that included huge advances in hygiene and clonal selection, as well as the introduction of modern influences like new French oak and blending grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in addition to the more traditional Canaiolo and Colorino. The broad results speak for themselves.
Never have we had such a broad range of Tuscan wines to choose from. What may have been thin and acidic just a few short years ago is now bright and fruity. There is a very happy medium to be found here. Chianti should be a wine that remains true to its soul: Sangiovese. Sangiovese’s great appeal is its generally red fruit character, bright acidity and slightly austere tannins, and that is what I look for in my Chianti. I’m happy to be able to find these lip-smacking wines that are ideal for washing down a plate of Pasta all’Amatriciana, but for many people those wines still seem rustic and ancient.
The fact that we now have richer Chianti, black-fruited Chianti and spicy oak-laced Chianti at very modest price points is a sign of the times, one that we should embrace as being indicative of the producers’ willingness to recognize that some but not all of the wines of yore had, shall we say, commercial challenges.
There are excesses in this embrace, and as one who drinks a lot of Chianti I feel comfortable saying that these wines well likely never find their way to my table, but they are opening up the world of Chianti to a broader range of consumers. I would have never thought about suggesting a Chianti to a Merlot lover in the past, but today there are possibilities.
To those of you who lament the passing of what we would all consider traditional Chianti, let me just suggest that we look at today not as a destination, but rather as a mere point on the path to better Chianti. Yes, there will be mistakes made and there are more than a modest number of wines produced today which I have a tough time calling Chianti, but I am not the arbiter of all things Chianti. I am simply the arbiter of my impression on Chianti. I can talk with my mouth, but also with my wallet.
If you find a wine is not to your liking don’t buy it, but please don’t begrudge the market its selection. Ultimately, the market will determine what is good wine and what is not. The laws have spoken to the specifics of what Chianti can be, and while we may not all agree with every element of the governing laws, the flexibility the laws leave producers will ultimately create a healthier market for these lovely wines. In the past, the requirement for producers to include Trebbiano in Chianti caused them to make lesser wines in the eyes of many people. Today, producers are allowed to augment their wines with more robust varieties like Merlot or Syrah. These additions may fundamentally change the character of Chianti, but I would be hard pressed to say that they aren’t improvements!