365 Chianti 2011, Italy
What: With Whole Foods opening in Augusta last week I thought I’d check out their wine offerings. I was impressed.
There are plenty of high end wines for special dinners, but they also have many good wines at the low end of the price scale, including some at $2.99. This 365 Chianti is proof you don’t have to spend a fortune for a decent dinner wine.
It’s bright, lively, with plenty of crisp acid to balance the fresh fruit. It reminds me of the Chianti I used to buy 40 years ago, the kind that came with a straw basket around the bottle. After you finished the wine it became a romantic candle holder. The bottle probably was as much a selling point as the wine.
For the 365, the bottle and label are modern, but the wine is the same or better: refreshing and great with food. It is a nice purple in the glass with aromas of black cherries, dark fruit and a hint of spice. Black fruit flavors and soft tannins work well with all kinds of food.
The label is “365 Everyday Value,” Whole Foods’ store brand generic label. The wine is grown and bottled in Italy, and it must contain at least 75 percent Sangiovese because it carries the DOCG mark, Italy’s highest indicator of regional quality for its wines.
The Sangiovese grape is especially versatile. It seems to have been created for food. It is less tannic and softer than the Cabernet Sauvignon we Americans love so much.
It is elegant, and its rich acidity brings out the best in food. Sangiovese can be difficult to grow and bring to maturity, so many growers are blending in small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon. The law allows up to 15 percent Cab.
The label says the wine is bottled for Di Flora, which probably is a bulk producer of wine. Those producers generally buy excess grapes from top growers in a region and make fine, everyday wine. This is not a wine with a lot of distinguishing characteristics, nor is it one you would cellar looking for it to improve with age.
But for $8 it is an incredible bargain. It is lighter and fruitier than many Chiantis, and at 12.5 percent alcohol, you can drink a lot of it.
When you talk about Italian wine, most Americans over 40 probably think “Chianti.” (Younger folks probably think of Prosecco, the light sparking wine that has been a sensation in recent years.) For years Chianti was synonymous with Italian wine. Everyone drank it; it was the essential “spaghetti wine.”
Most folks also kept the straw basket bottle and stuck a candle in it. In the 1960s that was supposed to show a certain kind of sophistication. Even the dogs in Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” ate their spaghetti with a Chianti-bottle candle holder.
The early success of the 1950s and 1960s led to over production, planting new vines in the wrong places and too much blending of white grapes with the traditional Sangiovese. The result was a watered-down, acidic mess that saw Chianti sales drop.
Planting in the wrong places was especially disastrous because the Chianti and Chianti Classico regions, like much of Tuscany, are a riotous blend of microclimates. Rolling hills, changing weather patterns with Mediterranean breezes and different soil types create a confusing matrix for figuring out which grapes belong where.
I just returned from a trip to Tuscany, and it amazed me how each little area was so different from the nearby areas. There are quick changes in elevation, sun exposure, soil types and wind direction. There doesn’t seem to be a straight line in the region, and flat land is almost non-existent.
The landscape is a beautiful patchwork of vineyards, orchards and forests, a land of romance and enchantment sprinkled with dramatic medieval hilltop towns surrounded by stone walls. The Chianti region is primarily in the middle of Tuscany, from Florence to Siena.
The Sangiovese grape is particularly sensitive to these microclimates, reflecting where it is grown better than many other grapes. Some clones do well in certain areas, others do well elsewhere. So there had to be a period of experimentation with the grapes.
But some producers figured it out. Some used all Sangiovese, some added more Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Merlot. Most realized they needed to concentrate on quality instead of quantity.
The Italian DOC laws were enacted in 1963, promoting the traditional practices in each region. In the 1970s some winemakers broke with tradition and started making wines with non-traditional grapes or methods. This eventually led to the unofficial Super Tuscan designation, a trend that continues today.
In 1980 Italy enacted the DOCG designation for wines of exceptional quality. These regulations were even stricter than DOC. By 1999 there were 21 DOCGs, including Chianti and Chianti Classico, compared to more than 300 DOCs.
The Italian wine laws helped, but they aren’t the only answer. The top status is DOCG, followed by DOC and then IGT. The DOCG status doesn’t guarantee that a wine will be great, but it does mean the wine conforms to certain standards and the taste will be typical of the wines of that region. It regulates grapes used, yields in the vineyards and standards for aging.
To guarantee quality you need to look for certain producers you trust. This one certainly delivers a robust everyday wine at a fair price.
Goes with: Like most Chianti this is perfect with pizza or pasta with tomato sauce, but it also would pair well with burgers, pork chops or steak on the grill, or hearty cheeses.
We had it with Whole Foods marinara sauce over tortellini, those nice little Italian dumplings filled with cheese. It couldn’t have been a better pairing.
The light acidity of the Chianti brought out the rich tomato flavors in the sauce, and the cheese from the tortellini highlighted the creamy fruit flavors. We had a feast for about $17 for two of us, and we still had a lot of tortellini and sauce for leftovers.
365 Chianti 2011, Italy