“The baron is standing right over my left shoulder,” enthuses the man offering me a glass of wine, nodding his head in that direction. “I’m not kidding. A real baron.”
So I look. I have to. I am drinking the man’s homegrown Chianti and am curious what a real baron looks like. Suave and impeccably attired, he’s smiling ear-to-ear. Who wouldn’t in his shoes?
Baron Francesco Ricasoli is thirty-second in a long line of barons overseeing Ricasoli estate in Tuscany, the essential birthplace of Chianti where his forebearer Baron Bettino Ricasoli developed the first modern Sangiovese-based Chianti recipe in the 1800s. (I’m not sure if this happened before or after Bettino became Italy’s second prime minister, but do know his governmental office shows just how seriously Italians take their wine).
I met the present-day Baron Francesco Ricasoli at the Canadian unveiling of Chianti Classico Gran Selezione on June 16 at The Carlu and planned to take this wine tasting as seriously as a wine-drinking journalist can. I was up for the slow amble… table to luxurious table, tasting endless glasses of voluptuous Italian red wines. I took notes. I asked questions. And I leaned into the shiny, silver spittoons with grace and feigned expertise, all the while knowing I’d rely heavily on a certain wine guy once back in front of my computer, writing this piece.
In my books, nobody knows wine better than Randy Hodge. He will tell you the contrary, but that’s just part of his charm. Randy is all about enjoying wine and accepting personal preferences.
Randy and I both knew I had a grudge against Chianti. Turns out the first glass I met didn’t appeal and I’d never given another one a chance – until The Carlu wine tasting where every single drop went down like pure elixir.
It didn’t hurt that I was sampling Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, which in wine-speak means top-rung. Most of the bottles I tasted retailed for no less that $50. But honestly, after my second or third sampling, I couldn’t articulate a single, sober tasting note or fact.
For Chianti is more than just an intoxicating drink. It’s a confusing and complicated puzzle, unless Randy is leading the tour.
He says the first thing to understand is the terroir of this wine. All Chianti hails from Tuscany and is sanctioned as a DOC — Denominazione di Origine Controllata (controlled designation of origin). In other words, wine makers can’t put “Chianti” on the label unless it comes from the designated area (parceled into seven sub-regions, of course). Strictly defined, regular Chianti must contain no less than 75% Sangiovese (a red) but can contain white grapes in the remaining 25%.
The specs don’t end there. Up one notch from regular, old Chianti is Chianti Classico, with its black rooster logo and yet another award: it gets a “G” on the end of its DOC making for a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) pointing to a smaller, higher quality regional area. The Chianti Classico consortium currently rules, I mean, stipulates that Chianti Classico must contain no less than 80% Sangiovese grape (and rules out white in the mix, calling for red grapes only in the other 20 %) which explains those “bright red cherry flavours” Randy says dominate this medium-bodied wine.
Chianti Riserva, he says, is another story. The best comes from Classico and Rufina sub-regions and is often aged in oak barrels from an estate’s best grapes. These tend to be fuller in body and richer in flavour. Think black cherry.
And if all these notes, regions and classifications aren’t enough to make non-wine-geeks quit their wine education, Randy jokes that the “Chianti Mafia” have upped the ante with Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, which goes another step, aging up to 30 months, versus the Riserva’s measly 24.
Forget the rules and regs. Have a glass and taste this newcomer for yourself! I can heartily recommend the pricey Ricasoli Colledilà Chianti Classico 2010 Sangiovese the baron was pouring. As I savoured its nuance, the baron’s sidekick giddily pointed at the drawing on the label, bragging “That’s his house, no joking!”
But when I go Chianti shopping on my dime, I’ll stick to Randy’s guidelines. He says reliable producers of Chianti Classico are Fontodi, Fonterutoli, Castello di Ama, Badia a Coltibuono, Castello di Querceto and Volpaia. Look for these at Vintages and expect pricing to range from $20-$25. For the economical among us, there are even under $20 bottle such as Rocca di Castagnoli, Valiano, Cennatoio and Lornano.
But beyond the right bottle is the right food pairing. Rich, meat infused tomato sauces makes a great match for Chianti’s relative lightness and bright fruitiness. Shut your eyes tightly and travel to Tuscany on your palate. If visions of wild boar, Pecorino cheese, grilled lamb and forest mushrooms dance before your food-obsessed imagination, nab them. All will make fine companions for this age-old wine that funnily enough, made its first crude debut in a fiasco, or flat bottom carafe woven in straw. Yet nothing about Chianti is a ludicrous failure, especially when a perfect bottle graces your lips and turns a fine meal into an aria.