Chianti just isn't what it used to be

October 26, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

To anyone on the grayer side of 40, the name Chianti will always evoke memories of red-checkered tablecloths and fat-bottomed bottles covered in straw.

The wine in those bottles was usually pretty dreadful, but Chianti has come a long way since those days. It now comes in standard bottles, and Italian regulations were changed in 1984 to limit crop yields and to give winemakers more flexibility in their blending practices. Meanwhile, importers began to bring in more fine estate-bottled wines from the Chianti Classico zone and other high-quality sub-regions.

The result has been a transformation of the image of this ancient Tuscan wine region. Its reputation has soared so much that it's time to take it down a peg by pointing out that Chianti remains a source of expensive rotgut. Nevertheless, there's much to like about modern-day Chianti. In general, the wines are being produced with more fruit and less volatile acidity. At their best, Chiantis can compete with all but the top echelon of the best wines.

One particularly attractive quality about Chianti is its versatility with food. A well-made, inexpensive, medium-bodied Chianti can stretch to go with everything from salmon to steak.

A recent sampling of the Chiantis on the market -- excluding the luxury bottlings costing more than $20 -- found an astonishingly wide range of quality. So here, in tribute to the spaghetti Westerns of old, we present the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good

* 1993 Castello di Poppiano Chianti Colli Fiorentini Riserva ($16). Up front, this full-bodied wine shows you its soft, lush, black cherry fruit, but you soon find that there's a steel backbone behind it. Gradually, the nuances of chocolate, herbs and smoked meats unfold. The wine is mature enough to show some of its complexity, but the peak period is probably five years off.

* 1995 Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico ($17). Patience will be rewarded for those who cellar this full-bodied, excellent wine for five or 10 years. It offers classic, pure sangiovese flavor, supported by ample tannins. For now, it's a bit tight -- though still enjoyable.

* 1995 Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico, Antinori ($14). Sophisticated winemaking shows in this elegant, finely structured wine with unusually pure black cherry flavors. Highly approachable now, the Passignano will improve for up to a decade.

* 1994 Il Cortile del Castello di Poppiano Chianti Colli Fiorentini ($11). For value and pleasure, this medium-bodied wine is as impressive as any in the tasting. It's soft on the palate and delightful to drink right away. It probably won't improve much, but it can be held for a couple of years.

* 1991 Nozzole Chianti Classico Riserva ($15.49). This complex, mature, full-bodied wine shows fine black cherry and earthy flavors, but there's a touch of overripe plum that seems out of place.

* 1990 Uggiano Chianti Riserva ($19). One could wish for a bit more elegance from this lush but somewhat bulky red wine. But time has brought out some impressive black cherry, black raspberry, coffee and chocolate flavors.

* 1995 Il Turchino Chianti ($6.49). This is not classic Chianti, but it's a pleasant, well-balanced, medium-bodied red wine with touches of black cherry and herbs. At this price, that's saying a lot.

The Bad

What these wines have in common is a paucity of fruit and a failure to leave much of an impression on the palate.

* 1995 Castello di Poppiano Chianti ($9).

* 1994 Uggiano Chianti del Colli Fiorentini ($7.49).

* 1995 Cetamura Chianti ($12).

* 1995 Fossi Chianti ($8.49).

* 1995 La Cinciole Chianti Classico ($16).

The Ugly

* 1994 Villa Antinori Chianti Classico ($19.49). There seems to have been a core of decent fruit here, but this tight, ungenerous wine appears to have been filtered half to death. All that's left is harsh tannin and a thin, astringent finish.

* 1994 La Cinciole Chianti Classico ($16). On the bright side, La Cinciole followed this downright grotesque 1994 with a merely ,, mediocre 1995.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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