With winter's chill in the air and hearty meals like beef stews and pasta Bolognese on the menu, it's a good time to be drinking Chianti.
Tuscan winemakers have resurrected this great red wine, made from Sangiovese grapes, since post-World War II days of lazy vineyard management and overproduction cheapened the product. Remember the straw-basket, watered-down Chianti of the 1960s? The Italian word "fiasco" -- meaning "failure" or complete breakdown -- is believed derived from Chianti's demise.
Over the past 20 years, however, Chianti and Chianti Classico -- two distinct growing zones in central Tuscany -- have made a remarkable renaissance. Traditionalists, using cement vats for fermentation, and modernists, using steel, have brought new viticultural techniques and passion to bear on producing outstanding wines. They have succeeded.
Why is Chianti so important to Italian wine history? It's because the Sangiovese grape is the cornerstone of the greatest Italian wines, including Brunello di Montalcino and the "Super Tuscan" blends (Sassicaia, Tignanello), which have led to so much enjoyment (some would say expensive enjoyment!).
While the tiny Chianti Classico zone produces some of the best variations of the wine, it doesn't mean the Chianti zone is any less stringent in quality or results.
Here's the key: Basic Chianti can contain between 75 percent to 100 percent Sangiovese, with at least 10 percent Canaiolo. Chianti Classico requires at least 80 percent Sangiovese and up to 20 percent Canaiolo, colorino, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The latter winds up with a richer, weighter taste, for the most part.
That said, here are several inexpensive Chiantis I have enjoyed recently that serve as a splendid introduction to this wonderful Italian wine.
Poggio Agentale Chianti, $9.99: Here's a small operation in the Vinci hills of central Tuscany. The Chianti offers mild cherry notes, has a nice midweight mouthfeel and exhibits warm cherry, dried earth and wild herb flavors. I handed this out at Christmas to friends, and served it as the antipasti warmup to the holiday meal. It's available at the Wine ConneXtion in North Andover.
Palladio Chianti, $13: Another good value from a recognized producer. It's aged in both cement and steel vats, and exhibits firm minerality with dark cherry, blueberry and peppery flavors. Smooth on the palate and fresh, it's distributed by The Winebow Group and plentiful in Greater Boston outlets.
Fattoria Selvapiana Chianti Rufina Vendemmia, $17: This is the entry level Chianti for a producer who excels at every tier. The 2014 vintage, available at Ricardo's Trattoria in Lowell, boasts a dark-cherry color and flavors, tending toward an overall sweetness. It's got a bit of depth and complexity, with tobacco and licorice mixing with dried cherry. Nice finish.
Fattoria Selvapiana Chianti Rufina Vigento Bucerchiale, $35: The "Bucerchiale" is only produced in the very best vintages and the 2013 features a 100 percent Sangiovese of intense ruby color, cherry and plum flavors and beautiful components of anise, licorice and mushrooms. You can savor the long finish for a good half minute. It's a delight and shows how the richer terroir can affect the wine.