Washington wineries help restore Chianti's image
Chianti's once-tarnished image as watery pap has been erased as winemakers in both Tuscany and Washington state began reaching back to its classic roots. Since the 1990s, the wines built on the Sangiovese grape have been a light delight with their perfume of violets, cherries, mushrooms and dried leaves; their tart acids, modest levels of alcohol and avoidance of new oak.
Special to the Seattle Times
Pick of the week
Pacific Rim Autumnus Red; $13
This is half Sangiovese, half a mix of barbera, primitivo and pinot nero; light and delicate, a melding of Beaujolais and Chianti if you will. Perfect, light (12.5 percent alcohol) and ready for fall fare. (Youngs-Columbia distributes)
AS WE TRANSITION from summer to fall, our weather, foods and wines change. It's a cycle I always welcome because it keeps the table fresh, the air bracing and the wines red. For me, autumn has always favored Chianti, the iconic wine of central Tuscany.
As with so many European classics, Chianti has a tattered past. Packed in cheesy, straw-wrapped bottles called fiascos, what arrived on these shores labeled Chianti was so watery as to be generic. Spaghetti wine at best.
A push to improve quality began in the 1980s, when some centuries-old Tuscan estates began renovating the image of their native grape, Sangiovese, the backbone of Chianti classico.
Several sub-regions in Tuscany are allowed to designate their wines Chianti, but only one makes Chianti classico. I love these wines: their perfume of violets, cherries, mushrooms and dried leaves; their tart acids, modest levels of alcohol and avoidance of new oak. I've collected Chianti classico since the great 1990 vintage was released, and a few weeks ago had the pleasure of pulling a 1999 Badia a Coltibuono Chianti classico from my cellar. Reading the back label, I was surprised to see this:
"Produced from Sangiovese and canaiolo grapes grown in our own vineyards, aged 8 months in oak casks, this wine is ready to drink when released and can age in bottle 4-5 years."
Despite the warning, this 10-year-old wine drank beautifully. Elegant, with structure and grip, length and detail, it was in no danger of falling apart in the next decade. Experience has shown that Chianti classico from any of the great recent vintages — 1990, 1995, 1997 through 2001, and (I expect) 2005 — can age well. The best bottles, from producers such as Barone Ricasoli (Castello di Brolio), Castell'in Villa, Castellari di Castellina, Fonterutoli, Fattoria di Felsina, Fontodi, Frescobaldi and Querciabella, especially those marked riserva, belong with the finest red wines of the world.
There's been a recent flurry of interest in Italian varietals, especially Sangiovese, here in Washington also. The law requires that any Washington wine labeled as such must be at least three quarters Sangiovese. Other than that, anything goes. I've listed my favorites from current releases. Some are simply blended wines that include a fair portion of Sangiovese; these are modeled along the lines of Super Tuscan blends. This is an effort, begun in Italy in the 1970s, to pump up the Chiantis by blending in French varietals, usually merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah.
I very much like the way Washington vintners are making Sangiovese, though they differ significantly from the classic Chiantis of Tuscany. That is to be expected. Washington does not have the same climate and topography, nor do we grow most of the obscure indigenous grapes that are often included in a Chianti blend. Recommended Washington Sangioveses:
Leonetti Cellar 2006 Sangiovese ($60). One of the first, and still the best. This is also the least expensive, most underrated wine from Leonetti.
Saggi 2006 Red Wine ($45). From Long Shadows, this is a Super Tuscan blend (sangio, cabernet and syrah) made in collaboration with Tuscany's Folonari family.
Nicholas Cole 2006 Juliet Red ($34). Another blend, half Sangiovese, with lush black fruits, toasted nuts, butter, caramel and chocolate flavors.
Walter Dacon 2006 Sangiovese ($31). Red Mountain grapes, ripe, powerful and oaky.
Helix by Reininger 2005 Sangiovese ($30). High acid, tart berry fruit, excellent color and extraction.
Trio Vintners 2006 Morrison Lane Vineyard Sangiovese Riserva ($26). Very fine effort from this new winery.
Walla Walla Vintners 2006 Sangiovese ($24). A personal favorite, tart, spicy, with cranberry and strawberry fruit flavors.
Mannina Cellars 2007 Seven Hills Vineyard Sangiovese ($22). Pretty strawberry fruit flavors, with suggestions of tobacco leaf and plenty of acid.
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
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