Crazy for Chianti

When I began this whirligig obsession with wine a few years back, I snubbed Chianti. Much like the folks who snubbed Merlot after seeing Sideways, this wasn't based on knowledge or experience drinking it, just my perception of which wines were "fancy" or important. I had this image in my head of mass produced, characterless, flavorless wine. I thought of dusty, straw-covered bottles sitting as standard decoration at countless Italian restaurants and avoided Chianti.

How wrong I was.

I not only misjudged a lot of great wine out of ignorance, I deprived myself the pleasure of drinking it. Today, I always have a couple of bottles of Chianti on hand at the house. Like many Italian wines, it's perfect food wine, yet there are several age-worthy serious drinking examples available at pretty much any wine shop.

So when Banfi sent me a set of wines, I was pleased as punch and decided immediately to share the wealth and have a little dinner party. Just a couple of friends over for dinner, there were 6 in the group, my husband and I (already Chianti devotees), a couple of wine newbies, and a couple of wine lovers. Other than hubby and me, the other four were not Chianti drinkers, so I was very curious to see how they reacted to the three bottles.

Before I talk specifically about the wines we drank, a short primer on Chianti is in order. Chianti is a wine region in Tuscany in central Italy. Primarily made from the Sangiovese grape, when you are buying Chianti there are a few basics you've got to keep your eyes on. Anything labelled Chianti can come from anywhere in the region. Chianti Classico is actually a smaller subregion of Chianti (look for the famous black rooster seal on the label as well) and you can get Chiantis and Chianti Classicos that specify even smaller, more elite subregions, vineyards or parcels. As is typical for Old World wines, the more specific the region, the higher the price.

Next, there are DOC and DOCG wines to be considered. Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita  (DOCG) are legally controlled classifications, letting you know that a wine was made according to a set of standards (including geographic specifications as well as grapes and blends allowed)  and in the case of DOCG wines, tasted to be sure it adhered not only to those winemaking standards, but the regional style.

I could go on and on, but that gets you the basics. What Banfi sent me were three bottles, showing the three basic classifications of Chianti. We opened the bottles in this order and drank them throughout the night, by themselves while we talked, and alongside dinner, a meaty lasagna.

The first bottle was 2013 Bolla Chianti. This bottle is easily found for less than $10 and is widely available. Simple cherry flavor, light body, there was little complexity, but it was a tasty, fun bottle. 

When you are opening multiple bottles, it's always safer to start with the lightest bodied wine and build up to this bigger wines with more alcohol and tannin. This bottle was great for starting off the night and easily paired with numerous snacks and appetizers. A good wine to serve at a party, it was the favorite of the wine newbies. Very approachable and easy drinking, not to mention affordable. 

From here we moved to the 2012 Banfi Chianti Classico. This bottle falls into the $15 range and is closer to what I look for in a daily drinking Chianti. This bottle had the classic cherry flavors but a bit more body and structure. Another easy drinking bottle, very easy to pair, pasta with red sauce yes, but also roasted chicken or a simple pork dish.

I was still missing complexity though, so I was eager to open the third bottle.

The third bottle, 2010 Chianti Classico Riserva was also a DOCG, but being a Riserva means it had to be aged at least 2 years. The influence of oak gave this wine more tannin and body, and with it, more complexity. At a retail price around $20, this is the real deal when you are looking for Chianti Classico. It's a good wine for the price with a little earth, dark cherries, plums, and sweet spices.

This still paired well with food, but for me was the only wine of the night that stood up for drinking without food. My guests rather enjoyed all three bottles and it was fun to hear the conversations about the wine move as the night progressed. All three bottles were Chianti, all three were made from primarily the Sangiovese grape, yet the differences between the wines was apparent and having them side-by-side was great way to enjoy the evening.

Lastly, a disclaimer. Banfi is a pretty huge winery. The big guys get a lot of criticism from serious wine drinkers, haters gonna hate, and all that. The big fear that many people, myself included, have with the big guys is the that mass production and commercialization is going to weaken the final product. Let's face it, Chianti has a reputation for a reason, there is some pretty boring stuff in the marketplace. But I have a lot of respect for Banfi wines. They make a solid product at many price points and while the three bottles I'm writing about today were provided to me for free, I enjoy and purchase wines from both large and small producers alike. A glass of wine and all is fine.

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