CHIANTI DISCERNED – Memories from the 70s

It would appear that memory distortion in humans is common and according to scientists, no one is immune. This suggests we should be cautious when relying on “living memory” which, studies point out, can be poor at recollecting past events accurately. According to researchers, it is easy to implant false memories in subjects and just as easy for subjects to romanticise past events or describe them in worst terms than they were.

Only recently, it was brought home to me when my wife bought me a 1956 edition of Andre L Simon’s book on wine “A Wine Primer” at a local charity shop for a fiver. This is how Simon ends his introduction of his book:

“Wine is a friend, wine is a joy; and, like sunshine, wine is the birth right of all, rich and poor alike, in wine-producing lands and in others. Wine is cheaper, where it is made, than oranges and lemons which, in England, are not the privilege of the rich. Wine is. Why? Simply because wine is taxed so heavily that none but the rich may enjoy its message of good health and good will. May the day come, and the sooner it comes the better for all, when wine will no longer be penalised as it is at present on reaching these shores, and when it will be once again within the reach of all.”

Simon is right, of course, that wine was the privilege of the few. I clearly recall looking forward to our weekly bottle of wine early in our married life. Always on a Friday and always Cap Bon, a powerful red wine from Tunisia which we felt was good value for money. It is easy to forget that wine even back in the early 70s was not only expensive but also available only from specialist wine merchants manned by suit and tie, ex-public schoolboys with posh accents. Supermarkets would change all that and within a few years, wine would become widespread as living standards rose and people became more adventurous as package holidays abroad took over from Blackpool and Skegness. With a closed frontier,  here in Gibraltar, we would have been pretty much the same even though wine culture would have been indistinguishable from that existing in Spain, at least until the border closed.

The advent of cheap wine started in the 70s, ask anyone from that era and with a smile on their face, they will inevitably recall Chianti, that ubiquitous, raffia covered bottle produced in their millions to be quaffed in Italian eateries all over the world. Such was the novelty then that Italian restaurants would use the empties as candle holders, their red candles slowly dripping wax on to the red paper tablecloths whilst the heady garlicky atmosphere enveloped us like a warm blanket in what we thought a genuine Tuscan experience – in reality as false as the waiter’s Italian accent. The raffia should have been a dead giveaway – dressing mutton as lamb and no wonder that many preferred sweet wines with food. Anything to get rid of that mouth-puckering lean and mean acidity, the only known cure a quick mouthful of spaghetti.

What is Chianti anyway?

Chianti is a region between Florence and Sienna in Tuscany. Here, the Sangiovese grape, Italy’s most planted variety, is turned into the red wine we know as Chianti though other grape varieties are also permitted within limits (some would say too many). Chianti is a red wine, high in acidity described as having a “dusty” cherry flavour. At its best Chianti can be beguiling, at its worst it’s downright unpleasant. Chianti is generally not for the long haul, however, wine from some good producers keep for decades. Whilst too much is made of food and wine matching, Chianti and pasta generally go well together.

Has Chianti improved since the 70s?

Yes and no. The raffia bottle seems to have disappeared but the quality of Chianti remains variable from exceptional to downright poor. In the 60s, as people migrated from the country to cities, the authorities decided that quantity rather than quality was the way to regenerate the area. The bottom line is that regulations were relaxed and growers were encouraged to increase yields and to plant clones with the sole purpose of producing large quantities of wine irrespective of quality. Irrationally, it was deemed illegal to make 100% Sangiovese wine and as many as 40 other grape varieties were permitted.

Is Chianti a single wine region?

No. Chianti is made up of seven sub zones and you will normally see the word Chianti followed by the name of the sub zone for example Chianti Rufina or Chianti Colli Senesi. In theory, Chianti followed by the name of a sub zone should provide a higher quality than otherwise and there are notable producers to be found in their ranks. A wine simply labelled Chianti without a sub zone will be of questionable quality, usually produced in very large quantities for supermarkets and the like. Avoid.

So what about Chianti Classico?

This is also a region producing wine from Sangiovese and considered a region capable of producing top notch wines. It was given its own DOCG and is no longer a sub zone of Chianti. Its regulations are the strictest in the region and there is impetus amongst many producers to concentrate on quality rather than quantity. Look out for the Gallo Nero or black rooster which is the symbol in bottles of Chianti Classico. Notable producers include Fontodi and Antinori (available from Anglo-Hispano).

Some Chiantis are labelled Riserva – are these superior?

Not necessarily. It means different things in different parts of Italy. Usually, a minimum time in barrel or bottle. Old stock has been known to be re-labelled as Riserva. Approach with caution.

The rise of the Super Tuscans – are they worth three-figure sums?

Such were the irrational practices demanded by the DOC authorities in the 70s, such as the obligatory practice of using white grape varieties in the Chianti blend, that some innovative producers left the DOC system to find their own way in life. In so doing, they were obliged to sell their wines as Vino de Tavola, the lowest quality level, or simply Table Wine. Antinori, amongst others, started to use international varieties such as Cab Sauvignon in their mix (leaving the DOC regulatory body would have allowed him to make wine any way he chose).  Antinori’s Tignanello and Sassicaia sold as simple Table Wine but achieved international recognition and astronomical prices much to the embarrassment of the authorities. Many tried to follow the Supertuscan route to stardom and riches though other producers stuck to the Sangiovese route. It would seem that demand for Supertuscans, after decades, is on the wane whilst demand for ultra-quality Sangiovese is taking over. Perhaps many feel that Antinori’s efforts to make the Sangiovese acceptable to international palate by adding Cab Sauvignon, whilst hugely successful, missed the point of Sangiovese. Today it would seem we crave that our wines reflect indigenous grape varieties, terroir and tradition – as long as the quality is there, of course.