During a lunch with Alessia Antinori a couple of months ago, the conversation turned, perhaps inevitably, to the revival of Italian wines, particularly Chiantis. Less than three decades ago, Chiantis were synonymous with cheap straw-wrapped ‘fiasco’ bottles, not much more than “pizza wines”. So, what lay behind the transformation? How did the image of something dismissed as trattoria plonk alter so dramatically?
The reasons listed by Alessia, daughter of Italy’s wine moghul Piero Antinori, ran on familiar lines. Among them changes in vineyard practices, improvement in post-harvest technologies, and amendments to the stifling government regulations that codified wine-making. From the late ’60s onwards, these regulations required all wine bearing the Chianti tag to blend in at least ten per cent of white grapes (Trebbiano and Malvasia) with Tuscany’s native grape, Sangiovese.
Chianti was born again at a time when the region’s winegrowers preferred to drop the name from its bottles. Ironically, revival was umbilically linked to this rejection. It began in the 70s, with a small breed of wine-makers experimenting with blends, mixing non-traditional grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with Sangiovese; others blended in local reds; yet others bottled 100 per cent Sangiovese.
The result of such experiments was the birth of Super-Tuscans, some of the most delightful wines in the world today. One of these early innovators was Alessia’s father Piero, whose Tignanello label is a household name. Piero began by blending in only local reds, but in a while Tignanello was using Cabernet Sauvignon in the mix. Alessia serves up a bottle during lunch, supple and fresh, and with a nice brisk finish.
She also introduces us to one of her light and velvety Chianti Classicos. You still need to follow strict production codes to earn the Chianti label, but the ground rules are vastly different. The most important one is what is referred to, excessively wordily, as the ampelographical base, or the type of grapes permitted. It is now legal to make Chianti without adding local whites; moreover, you can mix in French grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot in any ratio as long as you retain the minimum percentage of Sangiovese.
Today, Italy remains the number one wine exporter to hugely competitive markets such as the U.S., fending of spirited challenges from countries such as Australia and France. Indians seem to be partial towards French and Australian wines — particularly, the shirazes and the cabernets. When was the last time someone offered you a Barolo, a Barbaresco, a Chianti or a Valpolicella?
This is surprising because the last two are crisper, lighter wines, the kind of reds that go well in the summer and with a wider variety of foods.
Perhaps, it will be only a matter of time before the Italian wine revival begins to have an impact on India as well.The writer is a regular wine enthusiast. He is learning along the way.( firstname.lastname@example.org)