Navigating Chianti With the Houston Press Tasting Panel

Just say the word Chianti and you evoke winding roads lined with cypress trees and old limestone farmhouses in what is perhaps Italy's most photographed and photogenic region, Tuscany.

Whether it's mentions in pop culture (who can forget Hannibal Lecter's infamous pairing?) or the straw-flasked bottles that once hung from the mom-and-pop Italian joints that we all loved as kids, Chianti is arguably one of the world's most recognizable wines. No matter the level of wine appreciation, enthusiasm or connoisseurship, nearly everyone has tasted a Chianti at some point in his or her adult life.

Chianti is produced in a number of Tuscan appellations or DOCs (which stands for denominazione d'origine controllata or designation of controlled origin, a classification system created in the 1960s and based on the French AOC or appellation d'origine contrôlée). These include Chianti dei Colli Fiorentini (in Florence province), Chianti dei Colli Senesi (Siena province) and Chianti Rufina, named after the village, one of the highest-elevation townships in Chianti, where it is made.

The most famous, of course, is Chianti Classico, so named because it covers the original townships or communes where Chianti has been produced since the 18th century, when Tuscany's ruling family, the Medici, began to regulate wine production there.

The primary grape in this typically blended wine is Sangiovese, Italy's workhorse red grape and most widely planted variety. But the blend can include a seemingly limitless number of native and international grape varieties, including Colorino and Canaiolo (indigenous to Tuscany, held to be the traditional blending grapes in the appellation) and Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, among others (international grapes that tend to dominate the more delicate Sangiovese).

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The newly formed Houston Press Tasting Panel gathered recently to taste five expressions of Chianti. Loosely based on New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov's tasting series, the panel (on this occasion) was comprised of managing editor James Brock, Houston-based journalist Angela Shah, 60 Degrees Mastercrafted wine director Vanessa Treviño-Boyd and Dolce Vita Pizzeria & Enoteca wine director Nathan Smith, who hosted the gathering in the restaurant's private dining room and wine cellar.

The wines were not tasted blind, and the panel made a point of pairing them with dishes from Dolce Vita's kitchen in order to evaluate them in terms of how they worked with (or against) the food.

All of the wines cost less than $30 and all of them are available in the Houston market (Spec's had the widest selection of Chianti while the Houston Wine Merchant had a more focused and higher-end offering).

The panel's most expert taster, Treviño-Boyd, noted that Chianti is a "gateway" wine, a category that often inspires budding wine enthusiasts to delve deeper in Italy. Echoing her observation, Smith talked about how Chianti has always been an integral part of his list at Dolce Vita, "a great value for the money" and "always a favorite" of guests.

The panel's number one wine was the Villa di Vetrice 2009 Chianti Rufina Riserva, which weighs in at less than $15 at Spec's. Even though Treviño-Boyd found it to be "disjointed," with the "acidity trumping the fruit," the panel's cumulative scores (based on a 1-10 scale) put it on top.

Villa di Vetrice 2009 Chianti Rufina Riserva (under $15; BEST VALUE)

Bright in the glass and on the palate, this acidity-driven wine showed bright cherry and berry fruit flavors. This was arguably the most traditional-style Chianti in the flight, and its Sangiovese character was prominent. (Rufina, pronounced ROO-fee-nah, is a village in the northern part of Chiantishire and lies outside of the Chianti Classico zone.)

Fèlsina 2011 Chianti Classico Berardenga (under $30)

This wine, made from 100 percent Sangiovese grapes, also scored high with the panel. "Texture is particularly pleasing," wrote Treviño-Boyd, "a touch of grit that provides overall complete mouthfeel. Complex fruit."

Monsanto 2010 Chianti Classico Riserva (around $25)

This iconic wine also scored high, and everyone on the panel remarked about how its beautiful label makes it a "great gift idea." Brock was particularly taken with the wine's "funkiness," calling it "a good thing." The wine had good balance between fruit and body, he noted, and "paired well with the salami."

Ruffino 2010 Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale (around $25)

Ruffino (the winery name, pronounced roof-FEE-noh), with its distinctive gold label, is perhaps the most easy-to-find and recognizable of all the wines the panel tasted. The panel wasn't particularly impressed by this bottling. "Pretty green with intense oak tannin," wrote Smith, who works almost exclusively with Italian wine and travels each year to the Italian wine trade fairs. "I don't see this one coming together," he noted.

Querciabella 2010 Chianti Classico (under $25)

The Querciabella was the least favorite among panelists, with Shah noting that it was "light in body" and had an unappealing "sweetness." Treviño-Boyd also gave it a lower score, noting that it was "closed aromatically. Very nice upfront concentration, but missing a mid-palate presence as well as a finish."

The panel was impressed with the Molino di Grace 2010 Chianti Classico, which Smith pours by the glass at Dolce Vita, although it's not currently available for retail sale in our market. It was classic in style, with wonderful Sangiovese character and notes of plum and ripe red fruit.

Stay tuned for more Houston Press Tasting Panel posts.

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