By Steve Siciliano
Sometimes I can’t remember where I put my car keys, but when it comes to a few select experiences from my distant past involving wine, I have wonderful recall. After thirty years I can still remember exactly where I was when I first tasted a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s been ten years since Barb and I had a wonderful dinner at Hattie’s Restaurant in Suttons Bay (now closed), yet I distinctly recollect the flavors and aromas of the velvety smooth Beaulieu Vineyards pinot noir that we drank with grilled pork chops smothered in a cherry barbecue sauce.
I can also vividly recall my first experience with Chianti. It was in the mid 1970s in a quaint Italian restaurant in the Bronx. Pictures of the Coliseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Michelangelo’s David were on the walls, Dean Martin was crooning on a cassette player and there were red and white checkered tablecloths. In the middle of our table sat an empty, straw-covered wine bottle holding a candle. I asked the old, broken-English-speaking waiter to bring out a full one. While the restaurant’s veal parmesan was magnificent, the wine that came in that whicker basket bottle was atrocious. Twenty years later in an Italian restaurant on Rush Street in Chicago, another old waiter persuaded me to give Chianti another try. I remember being surprised that the bottle he brought to the table wasn’t one of those whicker fiascos. The gnocchi in that restaurant rivaled my grandmother’s, and that bottle of Ruffino Chianti Classico Reserva Ducale, with its flavors of dried orange, earth and dark chocolate, was so good that I ordered another.
For a wine to be legally called Chianti it must be produced in one of seven demarcated regions in Tuscany and consist of a blend that strictly adheres to Italian wine laws. The blend was once comprised solely of grapes indigenous to the Tuscan region—sangiovese and canailo for the reds, malvasi and/or trebianno for the whites. As Chianti became more popular after World War II, vineyards were planted in areas that produced inferior fruit and winemakers began using the maximum percentage allowed of the less expensive white grapes in the blend. As a result, the quality of Chianti gradually declined. By the late 1960s, it had become thin, unbalanced and acidic, and was probably purchased more for the quaint fiasco than for the wine inside.
Faced with tarnished reputations and declining sales, Tuscan winemakers began taking steps in the mid 1970s to improve the quality of Chianti—less white wine was used in the blend and inferior vineyards were torn up. A few of the more innovative makers even began experimenting with non-indigenous varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc with impressive results. But since these new wines didn’t follow the traditional Chianti formula, they couldn’t legally be called Chianti. Wine writers nicknamed them the Super Tuscans, a moniker that is still used today. Prompted by the international success of the Super Tuscans, the Italian government revised the traditional formula and winemakers are now allowed to use non-indigenous grapes to produce Chianti.
Today Chianti has reclaimed its position as one of Italy’s most important wines. While it will probably always be associated with quaint Italian restaurants and traditional Italian cuisine, thankfully those once ubiquitous, straw-covered bottles, and the inferior wine they contained, no longer are producing unpleasant memories.