If you had to pick a wine to represent the entire country of Italy, a single wine out of hundreds of bottlings drawn from thousands of indigenous varieties, that wine would have to be Chianti. Of all the imported wines that are culturally significant in the American market, none, outside of perhaps Champagne, carries more symbolism.
Chianti’s hold on our collective imagination has less to do with how it tastes than what it signifies, where it’s drunk and when, and even the vessel it comes in. Because if you’re a certain age, Italian meals were simply incomplete without it. These were the sorts of meals involving heaping plates of pasta and red sauce in a restaurant festooned with clichés: murals of gondolas, peasants and putti, a soundtrack heavy with accordion and kitsch. Oceans of Chianti, poured from fiasci — those bulbous, bottom-heavy bottles sheathed in straw — were part of the pastiche.
And yet who among you remembers what those Chiantis tasted like? Allow me to remind you: They were generic, thin, grippy and cheap, short on fruit and long on tannin, all but unpalatable without a mouthful of spaghetti to offset the astringency.
But in the heyday of the American Italian restaurant, demand for Chianti superseded any need for it to be good. By the time consumers finally began exploring the rest of Italy’s vinous offerings, most were more than willing to leave Chianti behind.
In the ensuing years, producers from the region have rendered their wines more approachable, more charming and certainly more versatile with any meal, Italian or otherwise.
The wines of Chianti Classico will never be powerhouses. The region’s cooler temperatures and relatively high elevations inevitably yield a subtler, chewier, more red-fruited wine — one whose varietal character renders a wine that’s taut, firm and somewhat grippy. But in the last decade a great many producers — including the traditional houses such as Badia a Coltibuono, Felsina, Antinori and San Giusto a Rentenanno — have changed up their winemaking practices and are making wines that are approachable, tender and charming.
Partly this stems from an improvement in vineyard practices. (Badia a Coltibuono, for example, a thousand-year-old winery, converted to organic viticulture in 2003.) Partly it’s better tannin management for this notoriously high-tannin, high-acid grape. Some producers may have climate change to thank. But few wine regions have seen a uniform improvement in quality.
The result is that Chianti Classico category where for $25 you can get a wine as authentic and “classic” as any in Italy. Maybe that accounts for why the fiasco is making a modest comeback. The Montebernardi is currently being made by an American, Michael Schmelzer, Chianti resident and grower since 2003, who seems more than happy to flirt with Italian American clichés — and, literally, put new wine in old bottles.
From the LA Times.
Plus, here's a link to a fun article by Grammarphobia detailing the etymology of the word fiasco. An etymological fiasco.