While we celebrate 150 years of Italian culture in Hong Kong this month, I can’t help but think back to thirty years ago when my most prized possession was a Chianti bottle decorated with candle drippings.
My straw wrapped bottle, called a fiasco, was a fiasco for the Italian wine industry. The flasks sold like wildfire in the 1970’s and Italian wine became known for inexpensive décor, not its quality wine. Fans of defunct La Taverna Restaurant will fondly remember the many fiascos decoratively suspended from its ceiling.
It took dedication, strict quality controls and decades for Chianti to regain international respect and attention.
Chianti is a famous wine district within Tuscany, which lies in central Italy. Many grapes are used to craft Chianti, but the key grape is Sangiovese, known for its high acidity. Acidity, or tartness, makes a wine refreshing, but too much leaves your mouth uncomfortably puckered. Tomatoes are also high in acid, so Chianti is a perfect match with red pasta sauces.
When saddled with especially tart harvests, traditional Chianti winemakers added sweet white wine to soften acidity. Thus Chianti was traditionally light colored and light bodied. Cecchi, Chianti 2002 (Wellcome Market, HKD$108) is an example of this genre: pale-garnet colored, simple red fruit aromas, light bodied and refreshing. Drink with Spaghettini Marinara.
Chianti Classico wines are from a sub-region within the Chianti district. The highly regarded Classico wines are easily spotted by the black rooster pasted on the bottle’s neck, an emblem the Chianti Classico Consortium selected in 1924.
But why did the Chianti Consortium select a black rooster? The Chianti region, framed in the north by Florence and the south by Siena, wasn’t quite so idyllic in the Dark Ages. After interminable border disputes, legend asserts that Florence and Siena chose to settle their differences on a gamble. Their much-disputed Chianti borderline would be delineated at the point where two horseman would meet after setting forth at earliest cockcrow from their respective cities. The Sienese selected a plump, dandyish white rooster for their gamble. The wily Florentines opted for a black rooster, which they deviously starved three days before the challenge. As anyone on a weight-reduction regime would guess, the black rooster awoke in the middle of the night crowing for food, the Florentine ride set forth and the Florentines ended up with the bulk of the Chianti wine region. The border was drawn at Fonterutoli only a short distance from Siena.
Pour a glass Chianti Classico, Castello di Fonterutoli 2000 (Watson’s Wine Cellar, HKD$395) in honour of the famished black rooster. It is a superb Classico wine, rich with spicy black-cherry and dark berry flavors. Italian wines often have an earthy or mineral character, but this wine is all fruit; dense and powerful. Or, try the more reserved Chianti Classico, Riseccoli 2002 (HKD$265, Oliver’s).
At the south end of Tuscany’s soft rolling hills, called poggios, lies a district called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. These high quality wines provide friendly neighborhood competition to the more well known Chianti district. Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, Ruffino Lodola Nuova 2000 (HKD$238, Oliver’s) has concentrated Bing cherry flavours and fine, velvety tannins making it a sexy blind-date for rabbit pappardelle.
California’s Sonoma and Napa Valleys echo Tuscany in climate and beauty, with soft rolling hills that resemble Tuscany’s famed poggios, so it is not surprising that a crop of winemakers is experimenting with Italian grapes. The so-called Cal-Itals are wines made with Italian varieties, but in opulent California style. They’re tricky to track down, but worth the effort. Producers to watch are Rabbit Ridge, Bonny Doon and Altamura.
Tuscany’s climate is gloriously consistent, so there is little need to fuss over vintages. However, 2000 is considered a very fine year, so if you are planning to collect Italian wines, decorate your cellar, not your ceiling, with 2000 Chianti—and without the candle drippings.