Magnifico! Mary Dowey on Tuscan Wines

Elegant, distinctive, seductive … MARY DOWEY falls for a timeless Tuscan treat …

Tasting hundreds of examples of Chianti and Chianti Classico in Florence earlier this year was like rediscovering an old friend in whose civilised company you’d happily spend the rest of your life.

Or maybe I should say two old friends, both charming but one more captivating than the other. The four-day Anteprime di Toscana event was a powerful reminder that, while the large area of Chianti produces some perfectly nice wines, it is Chianti Classico that sparks the real excitement. This core region between Florence and Siena had its borders determined by Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, back in 1716, its wines having tickled the tastebuds of popes and grandees since the 1400s.

Chianti Classico incorporates the best vineyard land and applies slightly stricter regulations than Chianti does – advantages that promote more concentrated flavours – so the distinction between the two areas is important. Thankfully there’s a handy way to tell which wines are which. Classico bottles carry the trademark of the Black Rooster, a proud-looking fowl whose image was borrowed from a medieval painted ceiling in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.

Three levels of wine are now made by Chianti Classico’s 500-plus producers. The first, Chianti Classico, requires a minimum of twelve months of ageing before the wines are released whereas for the second level, Chianti Classico Riserva, the ageing period is at least 24 months. Since the 2013 vintage, a new top tier, Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, has been introduced, enshrining a single vineyard or a selection of an estate’s best grapes with minimum ageing of 30 months.

Whether or not this is A Good Thing or merely an unwelcome complication remains to be seen. In Florence I found quite a few Gran Selezione wines overripe, overextracted or overoaked – trying too hard, in other words. As with all attempts at wine categorisation, the reputation of the producer means far more, in quality terms, than the fact that various technical boxes have been ticked.

One requirement shared by all three levels is that Chianti Classico wines must be 80 per cent Sangiovese (whereas the Chianti minimum is 70 per cent). In practice many are pure Sangiovese. This is significant because Tuscany’s main grape imbues the wines with their distinctive character, mingling perfumed charm with a palate-cleansing acidity that makes you want to keep sipping, as well as an impressive ability to age. The news on recent vintages is positive: 2015 and 2016 are excellent.

I am drawn to Classicos all the more because they shine with food. While grilled or roast meat and game make memorable matches, these aren’t the only eligible partners. Youngish wines go well with hearty vegetable dishes, especially those involving tomatoes. Older vintages taste magnificent with mushrooms or truffles. Cheeses, Parmesan especially, enhance bottles of all ages. Enjoy with a simple supper. There could be no more glorious autumn feast.

Three wines to try

Castello di Ama Chianti Classico 2015. From a property on an elevated site with a fine reputation, this exudes Italian flair. Juicy, harmonious and refreshing; notes of red cherries, herbs and spice waft from the glass. Alcohol: 13%. From Karwig Wines, Carrigaline, Co Cork & www.karwigwines.ie; also Terroirs, Dublin 4, about €30.

Sole e Olena Chianti Classico 2015. Classicos are rarely classier than Paolo de Marchi’s suave, savoury version from his meticulously managed estate. Alcohol: 13.5%. From Fallon & Byrne, Dublin 2; Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3; Terroirs, Dublin 4; Green Man; Dublin 6W; Grapevine, Dalkey; Red Nose, Clonmel; www.wineonline.ie, €30-35.

Marchesi Antinori Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2013. Antinori, one of Tuscany’s most venerable producers, reaches a crescendo of excellence with this silky stunner. Layers of flavour unfold and linger. Give it meat. Alcohol: 13.5%. From Corkscrew, Dublin 2; Redmonds, Dublin 6; Searsons, Monkstown & www.searsons.com, about €45.

@MaryDowey

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