Chianti update

In Tuscany last year I was fortunate to taste many tank and barrel samples of wonderful 1990 Chiantis. Next to the lighter 1989’s they were deep, fragrant, and voluptuously fruity.

Chianti Classicos were richer and fuller in flavour again, as were Chiantis from the hills of Florence and Siena, the only other delimited areas we had time to visit. The first of the basic 1990 Chiantis reached Australia late last year and tasted almost as good here as in Tuscany.

Chianti can be a profoundly good wine…one to decant, sniff, savour and discuss with a grand meal, but most falls into the category of simple good quaffing, especially with food.

Delightful as Chianti is with food, it seldom makes its way onto restaurant wine lists, unless the establishment happens to describe itself as Italian. Even most of these offer second-rate Italian wine and distinctly un-Italian food. They’d have us believe all Italians eat is pasta smothered in creamy sauces or mean, thin, dried out veal wallowing in tomato paste.

In Tuscany you’re more likely to be served a fabulously rich, week-old stew of wild boar or a big, juicy slab of ‘bistecca alla Fiorentini’ (Florentine T-bone…you must try one if you thought only Australia and Texas knew about steak) with your Chianti.

Canberra, however, is poverty-stricken in regard to Italian restaurants and wine lists. So, to enjoy the delights of Chianti it’s down to the local bottle shop and back home to cook. Unless, like me, you stumble into Roberto’s Trattoria at Manuka.

I won’t be taking any Italian visitors to eat there, the food’s just alright. But they’ve a wine list with prices close to what you’d pay in a retail store. And included in the selection is a one litre Chianti Colli Senesi 1990, from the maker Chigi Saracini, for just $14.95. Three of us made short work of a litre flask with delicious char-grilled quail. I think it was the best value-for-money wine I’ve ever had in a restaurant.

That Chigi Saracini wine demonstrates just how much better Chianti is now than it was ten years ago and what a wonderful vintage 1990 was for the region.

The Consorzio del Gallo Nero, a producer consortium enforcing quality control in the Chianti Classico area, wrote in the November edition of Decanter magazine, “1990 is not simply a good vintage but one of the best vintages in the last twenty years.”

In those twenty years the vineyards and wines of the Chianti Classico zone (the heart of Chianti country between Florence and Siena) have undergone massive changes for the better.

In 1972 the zone’s 11,840 hectares of vines produced 17.8 million litres of Chianti Classico. Of those plantings, 3914 hectares were specialised, freestanding vineyards. The remaining 7,926 hectares were in cultura promiscua or promiscuous culture…a leftover of the feudal, labor-intensive land occupancy system where olive trees, vines, and other seasonal crops were all thrown in together.

Although vineyard figures are not available, wine production reached an impossible 45.9 million litres just seven years later in 1979. Little wonder Chianti Classico won a reputation for feebleness which it is still shaking off.

Government regulation under Italy’s denomination of origin (DOC) and, later, DOC and guarantee (DOCG) laws, combined with vigorous work by the Gallo Nero consortium saw the region transformed. By 1988 the area of vines under promiscuous culture had fallen to only 480 hectares with specialised plantings at 6,358 hectares. That total of 6,838 hectares produced 30.1 million litres of Chianti Classico in 1988.

Of course, there’s more to Chianti than Chianti Classico. The classico zone covers the central production area and what many regard as the only true Chianti. Surrounding the Classico zone, large areas may make Chianti, which is generally lighter and simpler than Classico.

And pretty well completely surrounding the Classico zone the law defines six sub regions which may append their names to Chianti. These have strong historical claims to making wines distinctive to their areas.

The regions are Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Colline Pisane, Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Colli Aretini, Chianti Montalbano, and Chianti Rufina.

Chianti is in a state of flux, and I’ll explore the major issues in a later column. In the meantime, watch for the 1990 Chiantis. And stand by for the phenomenally good 1990 Classicos when they hit retail shelves late this year. And next year we can look forward to the even better ‘Riservas”.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007