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Hold the Fava Beans, It’s Time to Get to Know Chianti

The word Chianti conjures up red table wine perfect for sauce-heavy Italian-American cuisine. It’s the portly bottle known to wear a fiasco, or straw basket, for extra Old World kitsch.

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That is one kind of Chianti, sure, and a perfectly serviceable one at that. But you can’t put this world famous wine in a small, decidedly Americanized box. The world of Chianti is one of the most recognizable around, yet most know very little about what ends up in the bottle and how truly diverse those flavors can be.

Let’s start with the basics. Chianti hails from Tuscany, in the breathtaking Italian countryside in and around cities like Florence and Siena. These are the postcard images that many associate with wine in general, fit with neat rows of vines, verdant hills diced up by pointy cypress trees, and ancient villages. While the regulations vary a bit depending on where exactly the wine is produced, the focus is very much on Sangiovese, the main grape in the Chianti picture.

Oddly enough, the first documented version of Chianti wine was a white, made from grapes grown near the Chianti Mountains. The makeup of the wines is a bit of a mystery and a long one at that. Ultimately, though, a man by the name of Bettino Ricasoli settled on a recipe of sorts in the mid-1800s. He proclaimed Chianti to be a mix of Sangiovese (70%), Canailo (15%), Malvasia (10%) and the 5% balance composed of some native red varieties.

Italy’s famed wine body, the DOC, would essentially immortalize the blend a century later, making it official in the 1960s. By then, the world had become used to the red blend, thirsting for the food-friendly wine especially after the Second World War. As mass production took over, the wine quality was lessened and imbibers lost interest. Thankfully, a Super Tuscan movement, focused on additional native varieties, along with some experimentation and new rules years later, reinvigorated the Chianti movement.

Here’s the jest: Chianti is made up of eight sub-regions within its expansive Tuscan boundaries. Chianti Classico is the best-known, built around four communes and originally set in stone way back by the Medici family. Wines made from here, located in the core of Tuscany, wear it proudly on their bottles, designated by the quintessential black rooster. Here, the Arno River winds through a mix of chalky and clay-dominated soils. To the northeast is another pretty iconic Chianti region in Rufina, a name red wine drinkers might already know.

So, if you want the traditional stuff, look for the black rooster on the label. Otherwise, simply look for the Chianti name as it’s tied to both Tuscany and Sangiovese-driven blends. Part of the fun is the flexibility — the blending regulations allow for a certain amount of freedom and new styles, like what the fruit is fermented in and how it’s aged, broadening the flavor possibilities.

Know this: Chianti is much more than a dry red suitable for spaghetti. It can be anything from light and fruity to bold and lower-toned, showing earth and leather. It can even offer some tobacco and spice and juicy red fruit flavors that beg for some balsamic or fresh tomatoes (or both). I’m constantly in awe of the sizable style spectrum at play via Tuscany’s most celebrated wine.

As one of the largest Italian exports, there’s a lot of Chianti to choose from. Even better, it tends to be a value with many of the best options falling within the $20-$35 range. Here are some to look out for that will elevate your appreciation of the famed Old World red:

Fattoria Selvapiana Chianti Rufina

Fattoria Selvapiana Chianti Rufina
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Made from grapes grown in the small subregion of Rufina, this take on Chianti reflects the resident high-elevation vineyards in the form of glowing flavors and food-friendly acidity. It’s also a tremendous value.

Cavaliere D’Oro Chianti Classico Riserva

Cavaliere D’Oro Chianti Classico Riserva
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A well-distributed wine that sums up classic Chianti in a nutshell, this offering mixes savory elements with tart cherry pie flavors. Sporting the “riserva” name, the wine was aged two years in the barrel, the minimum requirement for the title.

Monte Bernardi Retromarcia Chianti Classico

Monte Bernardi Retromarcia Chianti Classico
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Made entirely of biodynamically farmed Sangiovese, this wine is fermented in a mix of stainless steel and concrete. It’s got a lot going on, from baking spices and dried herbs to plum and citrus.

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
Meet Montepulciano, the Italian Wine That’s as Fun to Say as It Is to Drink
what is montepulciano italian red wine

There are a lot of visually pleasing, storybook tales in wine, and surely Montepulciano is one of them. The name is essentially three-pronged, referring to the gorgeous Tuscan town as well as a pair of distinctive red wine types.
Let’s start with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Think of it as Chianti’s lesser-known cousin. It’s made mainly from the same grape, Sangiovese, and usually blended with other reds like Caniolo Nero, among others. It is aged for two years, although many winemakers extend that timeframe to even out the wine even more.
The Montepulciano name here is merely a reference to the Italian city. An ancient wine, its first reference appeared in the 8th Century. Prior to the early 20th Century, it was given the long-winded title of “Vino Rosso Scelto di Montepulciano.” One of the first commercial producers, Adamo Fanetti, offered the “nobile” (meaning noble) moniker in 1930. His wines were beloved in Tuscany and soon many other producers hopped aboard. By 1966, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was handed official DOC status.
Thought to be a quintessential Tuscan red, the wine is medium in weight, generally showing stone fruit flavors, well-integrated tannins, and a healthy amount of acid. It’s arguably the ultimate pizza wine but does well with all kinds of dishes. As with a lot of popular Old World wines, there’s typically a pastoral element to the wine, often in the form of earth and spice or tobacco, even leather.
Moving on to Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. As the name indicates, the wine is made from grapes grown in the Abruzzo region. Strangely enough, it’s nowhere near Tuscany. This photogenic spot east of Rome is set around the coastal town of Pescara, overlooking the stunning Adriatic Sea. Pretty as the coastline is, much of the winegrowing happens in the foothills of the nearby mountains.
Here, a large share of Montepulciano is grown, Italy’s second-most grown native grape species behind only —you guessed it — Sangiovese. Experts aren’t quite sure how the grape got its name but some assume that early on, it was believed that Sangiovese and Montepulciano were the same grape. It’s a reasonable theory given that the flavors are pretty similar and the grapes behave alike in the cellar.
The wine is very popular with production estimated at well over 20 million cases per year. A good chunk of that output makes its way to the States, where it finds a good home in specialty stores and supermarkets alike. Most is crafted in the Chieti province of Italy and the wine is known for having deep color, primarily due to anthocyanin content in the grape skins.
It’s a deep wine, with dark fruit flavors and, often, a bit more extraction. Compared to its namesake Nobile wine, the Abruzzo version is equally chewy and tannic, but less acidic. Often, it’s a bit more on the concentrated or jammy end of the fruit spectrum. It can show a dash of herbs, like oregano or tarragon. In addition to Abruzzo, the wine is made in regions like Marche and Puglia.
It should be mentioned that there’s also Rosso di Montepulciano, basically a shorter-aged version of Nobile. Picture it as the Beaujolais of Montepulciano, resting just six months before going to bottle and generally a bit fresher and more vibrant on the palate. Some even make a Rosé out of the deeply-colored variety.
You can't go wrong with either the Nobile or Abruzzo versions of Montepulciano. Just remember that they're two quite distinctive wines in terms of grape content but both very much up to the task of pairing with pastas and other vintage Italian fare. And while full in terms of flavor, they're medium-bodied and great with lighter dishes so look to them this summer, especially as fresh tomatoes start showing up.
Ready to get your Montepulciano on? Here are a handful to try:

Crociani 2016 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

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Soave Used To Be The Most Popular Italian White Wine in The U.S. Here’s How It Has Changed
guide wine dryness white in glass on table

About fifty years ago, Soave was the most popular Italian wine in the states. For a hot minute, the white even outsold Chianti.
Those were the days. Today, the northern Italian wine is more obscure stateside, tucked away in bottle shop aisles and on restaurant by-the-glass lists. This isn't to say to it's not worth tracking down, though, as the workhorse white is great on its own or paired with Italian dishes like gnocchi or squid-ink pasta. 
Soave is a regional reference, not a grape one. There’s a medieval commune by the same name that’s home to about 7,000 people. The wine is made from a handful of approved varieties, including Verdicchio and Garganega. The latter must be at least 70% of the wine to take on the Soave title.
In its native Italy in the province of Verona, the Garganega grape does especially well, a late-ripening grape that boasts thick enough skins to fend off the incessant mist of the region. The Po Valley is famous for such humidity, especially in the fall when the grapes ripen and are most susceptible to disease pressure.

The Soave Classico region was designated such back in 1927. Generally, the soils of the west side of the region are limestone-based, producing bigger, fruit-driven wines. On the opposite side, the soils are volcanic, leading to wines that can show a more focused minerality. No red wine is produced in Soave (although Valpolicella is made nearby) and the area has several co-ops that vinify wine together.
Soave is generally light-to-medium bodied, with fruity flavors that fall somewhere between a Pinot Gris and a Chardonnay. Many suggest the mass-produced options offer nutty flavors and even a slight bitterness. Producers have pushed lighter, more approachable takes lately, making for trim wines that show melon and citrus and pair well with summer salads and lighter pastas.
Critics of the wine point to the region's rather large boundaries and some producers' tendency to push for heavy crop loads. The region absorbed some lesser growing zones during the height of Soave's popularity to keep up with demand and focused more on quantity than quality. But today's Soave benefits from two things: Established old vines in the areas where it truly flourishes, and the present generation of winemakers, many of whom are looking to make memorable, contemplative wines.

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What’s Valpolicella? Exploring One of Italy’s Most Famous Wine Regions

Valpolicella is one of Italy’s most famous winegrowing regions, but most of us stateside know very little about it.
To begin, it resides in the north close to Venice in the Verona region, near Alto Adige. Winemaking goes back thousands of years, all the way to the ancient Greeks. It remains a cornerstone of the region today, based predominantly the approved grape varieties of Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, and Molinara.
Valpolicella’s most famous boozy export is likely amarone, a hefty wine made from grape skins. This stuff comes in hot, often surpassing the 15% ABV mark and showing deep, concentrated fruit tones with very little acid. The fruit tends to get harvested later, when the rains come in, making disease pressure a real issue. Fending off potential faults and flaws is one of the biggest challenges in making amarone.
Strangely enough, Valpolicella is also known for the opposite — a bright and fresh red wine that begs for summer weather. It’s the kind of feathery yet flavorful red you can chill and should accompany you often as you bring fresh produce, seafood, and poultry out to your grill.
Much of this freshness comes from the climate. Neighboring Lake Garda and the Adriatic Sea keep conditions pretty temperate. The “classico” zone resides to the north in the many folds of the Monti Lessini topography, cooler still thanks to winds coming in from the Alps. An estimated 40% of the region’s wine production occurs here.
Some of the freshness is owed to the cellar style, which is somewhat inspired by nouveau (famous for Beaujolais). Fermentations are cool, aging is limited, and the resulting wines are light and fruity on the palate, showing things like sour cherry and pomegranate. Intriguingly, they tend to manage to hold on to some Old World-ness as well, in the form of moderate earth and spice.
In addition to the above grapes, there’s also Barbera, Sangiovese, and Bigolona. More intrepid vintners are looking to bring back native varieties like Oseleta as well, adding another voice to the local terroir conversation. A sweeter style, dubbed recioto, is also quite popular in Valpolicella. The name refers to the ear-like sections at the top of some fruit clusters, which tend to be the richest as they get the most sunshine and produce the most sugar.
While young, another popular Valpolicella style is Ripasso. It emerged in the late 20th Century and involves bringing in some of the pomace (or, fruit pressing remains) or partially-dried grapes from the recioto and amarone styles during maceration. It offers more structure and body without overwhelming the palate. It's become more and more popular since the 1980s and in 2009, ripasso earned true DOC recognition. 
You don't have to switch over entirely to whites and Roses during the summer stretch and Valpolicella is tasty proof. Here are a few to try:

Tenuta Sant’Antonio "Nanfrè" Valpolicella

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