Chianti, anyone?

Italian Chianti in Tucson

Long before there was a mainstream wine culture in the United States, there was chianti.

Synonymous with Italian food and often one of the largest sections in grocery-store wine sections, this Tuscan red was recognized everywhere for its bulb-shaped bottle straw basket. Today there are dozens of varieties of Italian wine available on the bustling imported wine market in America, with everything from Sangiovese to Lambrusco on hand in most store and restaurant selections. Still, Chianti is the top choice for many old-fashioned Italian-American meals–at restaurants and dinner parties alike.

What is so special about the tried-and-true Chianti that keeps us coming back for more? Here are five facts about this wine that you need to know.

1. It is a red blend based on sangiovese grapes.

The chianti we know today can be described for its flavor in terms of red fruits, bitter herbs, balsamic vinegar, smoke, and wild game. It carries notes of sour cherries, oregano, dry salami, espresso, and tobacco–bursting with strong layers like these, it is not a dull wine. Modern chianti is a blend of sangiovese, canaiolo, and trebbiano grapes. There is some variation, as cabernet sauvignon, colorino, malvasia, or merlot grapes may also be used–but the blend is always majority sangiovese. Sangiovese grapes have a thin skin and create bright red wines that are not at all cloudy. Sometimes sangiovese-based wines may also have a dark orange hue to them that is similar to the burnt orange tint of a port wine.

2. It used to be a white wine.

When chianti was first mentioned in written records in the late 1300s, it was classified as a white wine. We don’t know what recipe was used to make the white chianti, but it gradually came to be known as a red wine by the 1700s. Over time, more red grapes were used to make the wine. It wasn’t until the 1970s that wine makers actively began reducing the amount of white grapes that went into making the red blend.

3. It has a DOCG protection.

In order for a wine to bear the label “chianti,” it must contain at least 80 percent sangiovese grapes. There are variations allowed for the other two kinds of grapes that make up the blend–and the wine can even be 100 percent sangiovese in makeup. The minimum requirement for sangiovese grapes is part of the wine’s DOCG protection, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (denomination of guaranteed controlled origin). This is a special label applied by the Italian government to protect the wine industry. In order for a wine to receive this label, it must meet the government’s requirements for ingredients, production methods, and place of growing and protection. When you get a wine with the DOCG label, you know it is a real chianti.

4. It inspired the “Super Tuscans.”

The “Super Tuscans” are a group of wines that were made in the 1970s because a group of Italian winemakers felt the rules for DOCG chianti protection were too strict. Some wanted to use more white grapes than the rules allowed, for example, and others wanted to use unconventional grape varietals to create their blends. While some Super Tuscans use sangiovese, many of them contain no sangiovese grapes and instead base the blend around merlot grapes. Today these wines carry the IGT label, or Indicazione Geografica Tipica (Indication of Typical Location). This is another label applied by the Italian government, showing where the wine comes from. Before the wine growers behind these wines had the ability to apply the IGT label to their bottles, they came up with the title “Super Tuscan” so that consumers would know their wines weren’t just imposter chiantis or cheap table wine.

5. The basket is called a fiasco.

The little straw basket that typically adorns bottles of chianti is called a fiasco, which actually means “flask” in Italian. In the past, the straw was used to protect the bottles’ thin glass from breaking. As technology improved and stronger bottles became available, the straw was no longer necessary. It has just become such a part of chianti’s image that the straw remains on most bottles.

Next time you are out to dinner and somebody wants to order the chianti, impress them with your newfound knowledge. Or suggest one of the lesser known Italian varieties instead (Malvasia, anyone?) and give your palate a new thrill!

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