Chianti’s grown up

Ruffino, Chianti, Vernaiolo, Chianti; Gabbiano, Chianti; Ruffino, Chianti Classico.

Photograph by Pat McGrath

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember that chianti used to be sold in bulb-shaped bottles nestled in a straw basket.

The bottom of the bottle was round, and the basket enabled it to stand upright. Once you had consumed the wine (generally inexpensive, a little thin, and quite acidic — at least, that’s what I remember from my student days) the bottle made a great candle-holder. It was even better if you burned different coloured candles in succession, so that the bottle and straw were covered in richly textured and multi-hued wax.

Thankfully, we — chianti and I — have bothed moved on since then. I’ve abandoned that sort of decor, and the chianti producers (with only a couple of exceptions) have abandoned the straw wrapping (which is called a “fiasco” in Italian). Most chianti is now sold in regular bottles and there’s been a big improvement in quality over the last 30 or 40 years.

It’s a wine I turn to often, as good examples deliver plenty of flavour complexity combined with a refreshing dose of acidity.

Although there are references to wine from Chianti as early as 1398, the “recipe” for modern chianti was written in the mid-1800s by Baron Ricasoli, a Tuscan noble and vineyard-owner. He toured several French wine regions in 1851, and decided that wines from Tuscany (where Chianti is located) could reach even higher quality than those of Burgundy and the Rhône Valley if producers paid more attention to viticulture, blending and winemaking.

The range of permitted varieties has changed over time, but the main grape has always been sangiovese. Wine laws set the minimum percentage of sangiovese that chianti has to contain: 75 per cent for chianti, but 80 per cent for chianti classico (more on this later).

As for the rest, winemakers can blend in a couple of local varieties, as well as others like cabernet sauvignon and merlot. There’s nothing to stop a producer from making chianti entirely from sangiovese, but it’s rare.

There are a couple of distinctions within chianti that are worth bearing in mind. All chianti has to come from the Chianti region, but there are sub-regions within it. Perhaps the most important is Chianti Classico, which refers to the original Chianti region. That region was gradually added to, and although wine made within the wider region can be called “chianti,” only wine made from grapes growing in the Classico region can carry that name.

Then there’s “Riserva,” or “Reserve.” While that’s a marketing term in many parts of the world, it means something on a bottle of chianti: it must be aged at least two years in barrel and three years in bottle before being sold. That’s why the Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva reviewed today is from the 2007 vintage.

Chianti is well worth exploring, if it’s not on your regular list. Try a couple of today’s wines, and look for the common features as well as the variations.

Email Rod Phillips at rod@rodphillipsonwine.com. Join him online Thursdays, 2 to 3 p.m. at ottawacitizen.com/winechat, and follow him on Twitter at @rodphillipswine

Gabbiano Chianti 2011

This is a lovely, very dry chianti that shows rich and focused flavours with quite impressive complexity. The acidity translates as juiciness in the texture, and Gabbiano is a great choice for tomato-based pastas and stews with a tomato base. 13-per-cent alcohol; $14.05 (78006)

Ruffino “Riserva Ducale Oro” Chianti Classico Riserva 2007

Dry, and a bit more than medium-bodied, this delicious chianti delivers a lot of flavour and style. The fruit is nicely layered, the acidity is fresh and vibrant, and the tannins easy-going. Drink it with red meats or poultry in a zesty tomato-based sauce. 13.5-per-cent alcohol; $24.95 (45195)

Rocca della Macìe “Vernaiolo” Chianti 2010

Dry and moderately tannic, this attractive chianti is full of fresh fruit, has a good level of complexity, and shows the right amount of acidity to provide freshness for food. It’s a natural for many pasta dishes, and also drinks well with roast poultry. 13-per-cent alcohol; $13.95 (269589)

Ruffino Chianti 2010

Medium bodied and very dry, this is a good choice for many pastas, gourmet pizzas, and meat in spicy tomato sauces. There’s plenty of fruit action in the wine, which shows good fruit-acid balance, a tangy, fresh texture and moderate tannins. 12.5-per-cent alcohol; $14.95 (1743)

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