Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Finding a Really Nice Chianti

Who hasn’t seen that fat-bottomed bottle of Chianti? It’s the one with the basket around the bottom of the bottle. Or, if you’re old enough, perhaps you remember burning a candle in such a bottle in your younger days.

Italian wine has come a long way from the days of those Chianti jug wines, but if you’re nostalgic enough you can still find those. Chianti and Chianti Classico are readily available with a wide range of value and quality. The history of the grape is a lot of fun. It’s a history that dates back to the 13th Century!

Let’s start with geography. Italy and France are the real “old world” wine countries and designate their wines by region. Chianti is an area just south of Florence, Italy, in the heart of Tuscany. The Chianti Classico region is the very best growing region at the heart of Chianti.

The great Italian red grape is Sangiovese (sän'jō-vēz', -vēs'), the most widely planted grape in Italy. The grape is at the heart of Chianti as well as the big and expensive Brunellos and Super Tuscan wines. Many U.S. west coast producers have started growing Sangiovese in recent years.

Italy, just like France, has a carefully governed wine industry. Wine regions are regulated and wines must contain certain percentages of certain grapes to carry the famous wine names.

Sangiovese is generally high in acidity and moderate in alcohol, which makes it a great food wine – especially with those red sauces associated with Italian food.
For years Chianti was seen as not much more than jug wine or a step above that derisive label. But in the 1970s and 1980 Chianti producers really took the grape seriously and started producing much better wines.

Sangiovese is a tricky grape so producers have experimented with blends. To be called Chianti, the wine must be 80 percent Sangiovese. A number of varietals have been, and continue to be, used to balance the wine. The two most popular choices are Merlot and Italy’s native Canaiolo.

As a matter of fact, there has been controversy in the last few years over the amounts of Merlot added to the bigger Italian wines to soften their taste.
Never hesitate to ask questions at your wine shop. If the bottle doesn’t tell you the amount of grapes used in the blend just ask. I like the traditional Canaiolo much better than Merlot. If you want a true representation of Chianti, I strongly recommend the Sangiovese-Canaiolo combination.

That combination gives you the rich and deep cherry flavor of classic Chianti. The Merlot blend tends to club the wine with overpowering blandness.

Howard’s Picks:
2008 Ruffino Chianti - This is a wine available in shops and many supermarkets. It’s a Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Colorino blend. It’s got the cherry flavor with a hint of spice. The basket is gone but it’s a nice choice for $9.

Il Fiorini Chianti – This is an amazing Chianti Classico for roughly $13. It’s full flavored with cherry hints and very smooth tannins. This is great Sangiovese-based Chianti with 20 percent Canaiolo.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Two Great Winery Visits in Tuscany

FLORENCE, Italy - One of the great joys of wine is great wine experiences. I just returned from 10 work-related days in Italy but had a full day in Tuscan wine country and a couple of great wine experiences.

The highlight was visiting two wineries in Tuscany. Tour companies wanted up to $200 Euro (or $300) for a day-long wine tour, so I kept looking. I found a U.S. transplant, Anthony Finta, who has lived in Florence for five years. He is trying to start a business bringing small production wines to the U.S. for internet sales.

He arranged visits at two small wineries deep in the Tuscan hills. So while the column is about my visit, it’s also to suggest getting off the beaten path and finding stops many will miss.

Neither winery has a current U.S. distributor, but there are hundreds of small wineries in Italy, and other old world countries, facing the same challenge. Our first visit was to Corzano e Paterno near San Pancrazio, about 30 minutes south of Florence.

The winery was purchased in the 1970s by a successful Swiss architect, Wendel Gelpke. His daughters Arianna, the wine maker, and Sibilla, who heads the cheese making, gave us a wonderful tour.

The estate included the ruins of three old homes the family has renovated as guest houses. They produce a Rosso (table wine), Chianti, Chianti Reserva, and a Tuscan. All Italian restaurants serve table wine but most during our trip was, frankly, terrible. The Corzano Rosso was better than many Chianti wines I tasted – and it sold for just 6 Euro.

The Corzano Tuscan wine was a big beautiful blend of Cabernet, Merlot, and, the traditional Italian grape, Sangiovese. The Tuscan was 23 Euro, aged in new oak, with 14.5 percent alcohol. It was a dynamic bottle of wine. The Chianti Riserva was equally outstanding.

Sibilla was a gracious host in the new cheese-making facility. The farm has 600-700 sheep at any given time. The sheep cheeses were smooth and not quite as earthy as a traditional goat cheese.

Our second stop was at Fattoria di Rignana, located in an old farmhouse that dates back to the eleventh century. The assistant manager was running late but still gave us a tour of the fascinating wine cellar. We tasted their wines in the kitchen of the main house.

Rignana’s Chianti and Chianti Classico were the best Chianti wines of my visit. They were well-structured wines with big cherry flavor and balanced tannins. Rignana makes less than 4,000 cases of wine a year. The two wines sold for $15 and $20 US dollars.

The great thing about both of the wineries was they make wine in a very traditional method. They use no additives, they age their wines in oak and much of the work is done by hand.

So the point is whether it’s Italy or Napa Valley the best treasures and experiences are off the beaten path. As my new friend Anthony put it, you want something that just tastes the same or something that is handcrafted and a little different?

If it’s Napa, visit Mondavi and all the big wineries but stop at some of the smaller wineries for a real treat. If you’re in Italy there is nothing wrong with finding Antinori and Frescobaldi, but the little places are making great wines and need your business!

You can do the same thing when you buy wine in the shop near you. Ask the proprietor for wines from producers who make small amounts. You might be surprised by the quality and the value.


In the photo: Arianna Gelpke talks about the wine of Corzano e Paterno with Howard Hewitt

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

HH's Top Ten Wines of 2009

Looking for a great wine to start the new year and decade? Here is my first-ever “Top Ten Wines of the Year” culled from a year of writing about wine.

I reviewed my blog ( to refresh my memory and offer up the “best of” list from all the wines I sampled in 2009.

I also used a little geography in creating the list. All of these wines were purchased in Indiana wine shops for less than $20. Several of them are widely available!

No. 10 - Domain Lafarge Catalan Cote EST – This is a fabulous French white for a paltry $11. It’s 50 percent Grenache, with Chardonnay and Marsanne to finish it off. It’s a light flavored wine with lemon and green apple flavor. It will remind you of a cross between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

No. 9 - Turtle Run’s Dry Tortuga – I sampled a lot of Indiana wine this year and the best was Jim Pfeiffer’s Dry Tortuga for $15. It is a non-vintage Chardonel and Vignoles blend. The grapes come from Pfieffer’s property just east of Corydon. It’s great with food and has a hint of vanilla and orange. It will remind you of a dry Chardonnay.

No. 8 - Burgan’s 2007 Albarino – I fell in love with this grape over the summer. It’s a great alternative to the usual whites. This wine has strong hints of lemon with a little orange thrown in. It has an unusual – almost creamy – finish! Parker gave it 90 points – a heck of a buy for $12.

No. 7 - Dona Paula 2007 Malbec – I start wine newcomers, those emerging from supermarkets, off with Malbec or Tempranillo. This $13 bottle of Malbec is a beautiful wine with flavors of dark berries and it’s as smooth as a piece of chocolate.

No. 6 - Creta Roble 2006 – This 100 percent Tempranillo red wine rocks! It’s really smooth, easy to drink, with a bit of earthiness and a little spice. It comes from 70-year-old vineyards in Spain. It’s rather high in alcohol at 14.5 percent but very affordable at $13.

No. 5 - Pasanau Ceps Nous 2006 Priorat – This Garnacha, Merlot, Mazuelo, and Syrah blend was the best Spanish red wine I had this year. It’s a big mouthful of lively fruit with enough acidity for great balance. Robert Parker gave it 92 points! The wine retails around $19.

No. 4 - Milbrandt 2006 Traditions Cabernet Sauvignon – This Washington state Cabernet is great $16 wine. It is a blend of 75 percent Cab, 12 percent Merlot and a little Petit Verdot. It’s a big enough, but smooth enough Cabernet for any wine drinker.

No. 3 - Domain Lafarge Grenache Noir – Note this is the winery’s second appearance on the Top Ten! This $12 French Grenache has tons of “wow” for the price. It has big fruit with a rich feel at the mid palate. It’s a bit of a fruit bomb with some spice.

No. 2 - Klinker Brick 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel – This $17 bottle drinks like a $30 wine. It has an intense fruit-forward flavor of dark cherry and a bang of an alcohol finish at 15.8 percent.

No 1 - Patrick Lesec’s Cotes du Rhone Bouquet – This is my (drum roll please) 2009 ‘Wine of the Year.’ This $13 French wine is great alone or with food. It has herbal notes on the palate with a big, rich texture. You can almost taste the terroir (dirt) from the Rhone River Valley. Parker gave it an 89. But for a wine under $15, it makes the top of my list!

Thanks for reading Grape Sense. I’d love to hear from you with questions or comments!
Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, In., is a wine enthusiast. You can write him at: