Wine of the Week: Your Grandfather's Chianti But I Like It

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Italian wine is our thing. And when I say that, I don't mean that we don't like and drink French, Spanish, and Californian wine. But when it comes to the wine that my wife and I serve and drink in our home, that we drink most often when we go out, and what we stash away in our wine cellar, Italian wine is our thing.

And if you ever came over to our house for dinner, you'd find a lot of off-the-beaten-track bottles: Lees-aged unfiltered Prosecco; spontaneous-fermentation Nerello Mascalese; sparkling Piedirosso; biodynamic Sangiovese; and Nebbiolo, Nebbiolo, and more Nebbiolo.

When a top-flight San Francisco-based public relations firm emailed me the other day asking if I'd like to taste with the national sales rep for one of the most famous and recognizable labels from Italy, Ruffino Chianti Classico, I couldn't help but wonder: Do these guys even read my blog? Don't they know that I go for the funky stuff and that the commercial stuff is a huge turn-off for me?

But then it occurred to me: Under $25? Check. Readily available in the Houston market? Check. So why not? I thought.

The distinctive Ruffino label is one of the icons that we all grew up with (including our parents). We've seen it in restaurants. We've seen it in super markets and wine stores. We've even seen it -- quite a bit, actually -- on television. It's one of those wines that you think you're not supposed to like because it's too ubiquitous to be cool.

But, people, I'm here to tell you that I genuinely enjoyed the wine, especially the entry-tier classic Chianti Classico, which you can easily find in Houston for less than $25 (and even closer to $20 in some stores).

Made primarily with Sangiovese, with smaller amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (international grape varieties) and Canaiolo and Colorino (native, traditional grapes in Chianti), I was surprised how the alpha grape Cabernet Sauvignon did not overwhelm the classic red stone fruit flavor of the Sangiovese. The wine had acidity, balanced alcohol (at around 13 percent), and its fruit was balanced by the earthiness that I consider a hallmark of Chianti (and especially Chianti Classico). With the popularity of this wine, these guys could put whatever they want in it and no one would care (but me). Instead, they have continued to make real wine from Chianti Classico.

The "tan label" riserva (pictured above) is another story. The blend is roughly the same, although the estate's top fruit is used for the reserve. The difference is that the entry-tier is aged in traditional large Slavonian oak casks while the tan label "Riserva Ducale" is aged (partially) in small, brand-new French barriques (small casks).

Back in the 1990s, as the U.S. market for wine began to explode, many classic producers like Ruffino started to change the style of their wine to appeal to the "modern" American palate: heavy new oak aging, more concentration, and higher alcohol content.

However much people may like it, I can't honestly say that the gold label was good. What I can say is that it is a well made wine that will appeal to fans of "Napa Valley Cab" and "oaky Merlot." And to its credit, it wasn't overly alcoholic and it still retained its Sangiovese character.

It's just not my thing.

Thanks, everyone, for the comments on last week's post on a really bad wine service experience that I had in a top Houston restaurant. I'm currently in Italy attending the Italian wine trade fairs, but I'm working on a follow-up post with thoughts and comments from some of the top sommeliers in Texas. Stay tuned!

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