Chianti has so many interpretations that it’s easy for the consumer to be confused. Back in the old days, it was a lot simpler: you took mostly sangiovese, added some local grapes, including a white variety and you ended up with the classic traditional old school chianti.
But the world changed around 1980; winemakers experimented with different grapes and proportions, including eliminating any white grapes. Around 1995, the DOCG even allowed winemakers to use 100% sangiovese and still call it chianti.
It was also the era of the birth of Super Tuscans which grew out of winemaker frustration with the obligation to use prescribed grape varieties. They could use cabernet or merlot in any proportion; they just did not- and could not- call it chianti.
But by 2014 the situation has turned full circle and the good old days seem pretty good. I
was fortunate to be able to attend recently a seminar in New York called “Capturing the Essence of Chianti,” sponsored by the Consortium of Chianti Producers (Consorzio Vino Chianti).
We tasted 6 different chianti riservas from the 2010 vintage which covered the entire spectrum of chianti styles available in the market. The first was the most traditional ‘classic’ style with 80% sangiovese, 10% canaiolo and 10% trebbiano, the infamous white grape.
None of the other wines presented had any white grapes. The predominant grape of course was the sangiovese. Wine #2 had 80% with 15% merlot and 5% syrah; #3- 90% with 5% each of canaiolo and colorino; #4 -90% with 5% each of colorino and merlot; #5 had 100% sangiovese and #6- 90% with 10% cabernet sauvignon.
They were delicious wines but all 3 of the panelists: Joe Campenale, Anthony Giglio and Costas Monzouras- each agreed that #1 was the perfect example of the classic chianti style: redolent of red berries, especially cherries, with soft tannins, leather and a peppery spiciness.
I thought the most insightful and cogent statement of the seminar came from the youngest member, Joe Campenale. He observed that sangiovese is at its best when blended with the local varieties; when blended with international varieties it is like a ‘submissive cocker spaniel’ and becomes dominated by flavors from the other grapes, especially syrah, merlot and cabernet.
I can honestly say that I enjoyed the chiantis that were blended with local grapes and I particularly liked the old school blend with a small percentage of white grapes. The grape composition information may not be on the label but a helpful wine merchant should be able to find out.