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FOOD FOR THOUGHT - June 30, 2004
Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel


    “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti,” asserts Dr. Hanibal Lechter in “Silence of the Lambs.”  Bizarre as his gastronomic choices may be, he at least knows his wine and food pairings.  Well, I certainly can’t speak for human liver, but as for liver in general, yeah, Chianti would work.  Too bad this wonderful wine will be associated with lurid madness for many years to come.  Let’s see if we can undo that.

     Chianti is named for the Chianti region of Tuscany in Italy.  It is made primarily from the Sangiovese grape, although a variety of others are often incorporated.  In fact, many “Super Tuscans” are blends of Sangiovese and other grapes but that’s another story. Like all wines, quality depends on geographic location.  Some vineyards and microclimates produce better wines than others. 

     The Chianti region includes seven subzones. Your basic Chianti hails from within the Chianti borders but not from within any of the subzones.  The label will simply state “Chianti.” Wines from one of the seven subdivisions however, are often better in quality.  The best of the seven is the “Classico” region. Chianti Classico can be identified by a black rooster on the label, inevitably on the neck of the bottle.  Wine from any of the remaining subzones may list the name of zone on the label, or may only be labeled “Chianti,” like it’s generic brethren. The word “riserva” on the label indicates a wine of superior quality that has been aged for three years prior to distribution.  Avoid Chiantis in the traditional straw covered bottles, (known as a fiaschi). They are usually of poorer quality.

     Although not as important in Chianti as compared to other wine areas, (e.g., Bordeaux, Burgundy and Piedmont to name a few), it doesn’t hurt to know who the better producers are. Two chefs can utilize the same ingredient from identical sources, but one produces an average dish while the other concocts a meal fit for a king.  For the cerebral, there are many books that list well known producers. For the experiential, try different brands and keep tasting notes to guide your future choices. Or, if you’re well rounded and zealous, do both. 

     Chianti is a dry, red wine that can be light and somewhat vapid, (at the lower end of the quality continuum), to medium or full-bodied with respectable tannin and acidity.  However, good Chianti will also embrace a balance of fruit flavors, cherry being the most often noted. This marriage of tannin, acid, and fruity or flowery essences produces a flavorful harmony appealing to the entire palate.  Tannins by the way are a group of astringent substances found in grapes which bestow wine with structure, texture and flavor.  Wines with higher tannins will have greater “backbone” and need time to age as the tannins mellow, intermingle with the other compounds, and deepen the character of the wine. Good Chiantis can age five to eight years while top quality wines from exceptional vintages can age beyond ten. 

     Because Chianti is generally a medium bodied wine, it possesses diversity with the foods it can be paired with.  But a little common sense is in order. For example, I would not serve a light, cheaper Chianti with a roast. It’s simply too weak to stand up to the robust flavor of the meat. That’s when you splurge on the Classico or the riserva. Likewise, I would not match a top Chianti with more delicate foods or dishes with light sauces.  It would be too overpowering.

     Chianti is superb with pasta and other tomato sauce based dishes.  The acidity of Chianti complements the acidity of the tomatoes to create a balanced fusion. Oh, and beer move over.  Try Chianti with your next pizza. It’s a perfect match. Chianti however, also goes well with a variety of meats, especially veal dishes such as Marsala or any other brown sauces. 

     Chianti is generally an inexpensive wine. Your basic Chianti will run you less than $10.  The upper echelon will rarely exceed $30. You can easily find Classico or riserva Chiantis in the high teens to $20. My absolute favorite everyday wine is Ruffino Chianti.  You can find it in any liquor store for under $10.  Chianti should be served at a temperature in the mid 60s.  And if Dr. Lechter’s coming for dinner, just have him bring the wine.  You do the cooking.

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