As Riesling is to whites, Chianti is to reds ... a friend to share meals with. Italians, of course, have known that for years, but in typically insular American fashion, it's taken us a gazillion years to get the message. In our defense, I must say the better Chiantis didn't appear stateside until recently, when smaller, high-quality producers realized the cash-cow opportunities here. Now, after years of humiliating prison time in tacky straw baskets, this Tuscan red is finally getting respect, and we're getting some of the good stuff that will happily augment pizza, pasta and everything in between.
Winemaking in the Chianti region dates back to the early 1200s, when quality standards were established that are still practiced today. Probably the best-known wine from Italy, Chianti has a lot going for it -- full-frontal fruit, tart acidity and an earthy flavor that tends to meld well with food. Made predominantly from the soft-flavored Sangiovese grape -- a native of Italy -- it ranges from light 'n' fruity to rich 'n' intense, depending on the producer's taste.
The backbone acidity in the Sangiovese grape is the key to Chianti's way with food, and the reason why pizza and highly seasoned red sauces love this wine. But it goes both ways -- the salt in these tomato-based dishes, not to mention fatty meat dishes, helps balance the wine's acidity.
But how to choose which Chianti goes with your mushroom and pepperoni?
Getting comfortable with the names is important. As with many other European wines, "Chianti" refers to a region. Within that region in central Italy lie seven districts, or appellations. If all the grapes in a bottle were grown in one of these appellations, the label will reflect the name -- much like the California AVA Russian River. But if the grapes are a mix of appellations, the bottle will be labeled simply "Chianti." It is this tier that has increased in quality over the past years. Chianti Classico, a sub-appellation of Chianti, is not always worth the extra cost, but add the moniker "Riserva" -- which indicates the wine was aged at least two years in oak barrels -- and it's often worth the $5-$6 more you'll pay. If it's my money, though, I'll buy regular, ordinary Chianti and leave it at that.
On the super-affordable level, there's Sangiovese di Toscana, a Chianti wannabe, made with grapes grown outside the Chianti appellation in the generic Toscana zone. It's labeled with a lesser quality designation -- IGT (Indicazione di Geografica Tipica) rather than DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), but it drinks great all the same.
Cesani Ireos 2003 Chianti Colli Senesi. . $13. Friendly, approachable wine with bright cherry and oak on the nose and tongue. Smooth, juicy raspberry with a cherry Jolly Rancher ending. Amazing with food.
Da Vinci 2003 Chianti. . $11. Lighthearted, extremely fruity wine meant to be swigged, not swirled. Practically nonexistent tannins. Raspberry and red cherry candy aromas and flavors flirt while delivering a fantastic finish. Perfect intro to Chianti.
Monsanto 2000 Chianti Classico Riserva. . $19. The mother of Chiantis, with a bigger earthy bite than most. Dark cherry and lavender show up to the table, showing great acidity and personality.
Fattoria L'Ottavo 2001 Chianti Classico Riserva. . $14. Even, balanced acids and tannins, providing a peaceful sipping moment. Oozing with ripe, black cherries and plum.
Castello di Querceto 2003 Chianti. . $12. Fun wine with food, because of its interplay with other flavors. Has baked cherries, plums -- and a dash of tobacco, oddly enough.
Il Bastardo 2003 Sangiovese Rosso di Toscana. . $8. Red berries with an even finish and a dash of earth. Great stuff for the price.