Who does not remember Dr. Lecter’s, of “Silence of the Lambs” fame, quip: “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti”? As it turns out, we share similar taste.
Chianti wine is a red blend from Tuscany, Italy, made mostly from Sangiovese grapes. This unbearably beautiful place is the land of the Renaissance, the cradle of the Italian language (based on the Florentine dialect), and Lorenzo The Magnificent; the pet name I always requested from my wife but to no avail (so sick of her obstinance…). The etymology of the grape’s name arises from the Latin sanguis jovis; the “blood of Jupiter” (aka Jove). Tuscany, since the time of the Etruscans beginning in the 9th century BC, has had wine as a central part of its society.
Chianti’s delimited geographical boundaries date back to 1716 when the Grand Duke of Toscana, of Medici lineage, issued an edict to protect the reputation of these wines by forbidding the use of their name elsewhere. This demarcation subsequently evolved into what today is known as Chianti Classico (roughly the historical area that lies between Florence and Siena) and “general” Chianti. The latter is a result of a 1930’s expansion of the vineyards around the historic/Classico area. The “general” Chianti, at about twice the size of the Classico area, is in turn divided into 7 sub-zones. The Classico bottles are nowadays instantly identified by the seal of the iconic Black Rooster (“Gallo Nero”). Legend has it that during the days of open hostilities between Florence and Siena, the cities decided to settle boundaries by having two knights ride towards each other starting with the rooster’s crow at dawn. Florence chose a black rooster as their symbol while Siena chose a white one. But since the Florentines sought to keep their rooster in a small dark coop for days without food, the morning of the event, as soon as the hungry black rooster was freed, it began to crow well ahead of dawn. This allowed the “black rooster” knight a head start to ride to almost 7 miles from Siena, hence Florence controlling most of the Chianti territory.
Chianti’s wine history went beyond this first ever attempt to protect the geographical integrity of a wine appellation. For instance, in the 19th century Baron Ricasoli established what for years would be the “recipe” for Chianti wines: 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo Nero, and 15% Malvasia. Nevertheless, Chianti’s history was one fraught with a stuttering course. The region had to contend not only with the effects of world wars and domestic political turmoil, but also with the ravages of plagues. Alas, subsequent economic downturns were remedied with large investments that resulted in emphasis on quantity over quality. These were the days when the market was flooded with mediocre wines often packaged as “fiaschi”; those now kitschy round bottom bottles partially wrapped in a straw basket. I had one in college covered with candle drippings which, in conjunction with my mullet, I kept around for romantic purposes.
But the production of plonk wines all changed in the 80’s (the BEST decade ever!) when producers started to focus on quality and innovation. Nowadays, some of Italy’s finest wines hail from this appellation. By law, Chianti Classico must be made from a minimum 80% Sangiovese with maximum 20% of the other auxiliary red grapes. On average the wines spend 1-2 years in oak. There are 3 categories of Chianti Classico: 1. Vintage (“annata”) – Minimum 12% alcohol 2. Riserva – Minimum 12.5% alcohol and aged for 24 months 3. Gran Selezione – A new category since the 2010 vintage. These are from the best vineyards with a minimum 13% alcohol and aged at least 30 months. Apart from the Gran Selezione bottles, which can hover around the $50 mark, good Chianti wines tend to be priced in the $15-$25 range.
A nice Chianti typically offers notes of red fruit (sour cherries), sweet tobacco, leather, and the expected hints of oak. On the palate it has good acidity and sensible tannins. It obviously goes well with the foods from Tuscany: roasted meats, red sauces, pizza, and yes…fava beans and liver!
In fact, the story goes that Dr. Lecter’s line is actually an inside joke because a psychiatric patient like him, who would have likely been on medications such as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), cannot absolutely ingest those 3 foods…let alone in combination, as they would potentially cause harmful side effects.
“I wish we could chat longer, but…I am having an old friend for dinner. Bye”
Lorenzo, the wine guy
Friends, food, and wine...I'm happy there.