As Riesling is to whites, Chianti is to reds … a friend to share meals with. Italians, of course, have known this for years, but in typically insular American fashion it's taken us a gazillion years to get the message. In our defense, I must say the better Chiantis didn't appear stateside until recently, when smaller, high-quality producers realized the cash-cow opportunities here. Now, after years of humiliating prison time in tacky straw baskets, this Tuscan red is finally getting respect, and we're getting some of the good stuff that will happily augment pizza, pasta and everything else in between.Winemaking in the Chianti region dates back to the early 1200s, when quality standards were established that are still practiced today. Probably the best-known wine from Italy, Chianti has a lot going for it -- full-frontal fruit, tart acidity and an earthy flavor that tends to meld well with food. Made predominantly from the soft-flavored Sangiovese grape -- a native of Italy -- it ranges from light 'n' fruity to rich 'n' intense, depending on the producer's taste.
The backbone acidity in the Sangiovese grape is the key to Chianti's way with food, and the reason why pizza and highly seasoned red sauces love this wine. But it goes both ways -- the salt in these tomato-based dishes, not to mention fatty meat dishes, helps balance the wine's acidity.
But how to choose which Chianti goes with your mushroom and pepperoni?
Getting comfortable with the names is important. As with many other European wines, the name, Chianti, refers to a region. Within this region in central Italy lie seven districts or appellations. If all the grapes in a bottle were grown in one of these appellations, the label will reflect the name -- much like the California AVA Russian River -- but if the grapes are a mix of appellations, the bottle will be labeled simply "Chianti." It is this tier that has increased in quality over the past years. Chianti Classico, a sub-appellation of Chianti, is not always worth the extra cost, but add the moniker "Riserva" -- which indicates the wine was aged at least two years in oak barrels -- and it's often worth the $5-$6 more you'll pay. If it's my money, though, I'll buy regular, ordinary Chianti and leave it at that.
On the super-affordable level there's Sangiovese di Toscana, a Chianti wannabe made with grapes grown outside the Chianti appellation in the generic Toscana zone. It's labeled with a lesser quality designation -- IGT (Indicazione di Geografica Tipica) rather than DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), but it drinks great all the same.
Cesani Ireos 2003 Chianti Colli Senesi Friendly, approachable wine with bright cherry and oak on the nose and tongue. Smooth, juicy raspberry with a cherry Jolly Rancher ending. Amazing with food. $13.
Da Vinci 2003 Chianti Light-hearted, extremely fruity wine meant to be swigged, not swirled. Practically nonexistent tannins. Raspberry and red cherry candy aromas and flavors flirt while delivering a fantastic finish. Perfect intro to Chianti. $11. 1/2
Monsanto 2000 Chianti Classico Riserva The mother of Chiantis, with a bigger earthy bite than most. Dark cherry and lavender show up to the table, showing great acidity and personality. $19.
Fattoria L'Ottavo 2001 Chianti Classico Riserva Even, balanced acids and tannins, providing a peaceful sipping moment. Oozing with ripe, black cherries and plum. $14.
Castello di Querceto 2003 Chianti Fun wine with food, because of its interplay with other flavors. Has baked cherries, plums -- and a dash of tobacco, oddly enough. $12.
Il Bastardo 2003 Sangiovese Rosso di Toscana Red berries with an even finish and a dash of earth. Great stuff for the price. $8.
THE WINE LIST
CHILLIN' AT CHANNELSIDE Tampa Bay Uncorked, a wine education organization for young professionals, hosts a happy hour with appetizers and discounted wines by the glass. $5 at the door. 6-8 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 21. Grille 29, 615 Channelside Drive, Tampa. More info at tampabayuncorked.org.
CALIFORNIA WINE FESTIVAL Vintage Wine Cellar's 11th annual Cali wine fest, featuring over 30 wines. $15 (includes $5 coupon). 6-9 p.m. Fri., Oct. 22. Vintage Wine Cellars, 3629 Henderson Blvd., Tampa (813-879-2931 or http://www.wintagewinecellars.net/). R.S.V.P. requested.
NEW WORLD WINES Uncorked Fine Wines and Accessories explores the wines of newbies on the scene. $10, includes souvenir glass. 6:30-8:30 p.m. Fri, Oct.22. Uncorked Fine Wines and Accessories, 2706 Fourth St. N., St. Petersburg (727-892-WINE or http://www.uncorkedwines.com/).
GOT WINE EDUCATION? Florida Estates Winery presents a wine education class. Topics include grape varieties, and how to taste and rate wines. $20 advance/ $25 door. 5:30-8 p.m. Sat., Oct. 23. Florida Estates Winery, 25241 S.R. 52, Land O'Lakes (813-996-2113, e-mail email@example.com or visit http://www.floridaestateswines.com/).
HOLIDAY GIFT IDEAS Get ideas for the holidays at Wine Warehouse's sixth annual holiday wine tasting. Over 100 wines, with food catered by area restaurants. $30, includes souvenir glass. 1-4 p.m. Sun., Oct. 31. Carrollwood Wine Warehouse, 14341 N. Dale Mabry, Tampa (813-264-7273). Tickets suggested.
AMERICAN SPIRITS WINE TASTING American Spirits hosts free wine tastings every Thursday. 5:30-7:30 p.m. American Spirits, 280 Third St. S., St. Petersburg (727-895-8700).
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