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Hardly a Matter of Black and White : Modifying a Centuries-Old Blend to Make a Modern Chianti


In the world of wine titles, none is more readily recognized than Chianti. Defining this wine's taste qualities, however, can be tricky because there are as many Chiantis in Tuscany as there are clarets from Bordeaux.

Chianti wine is produced in the picturesque region of rolling cyprus- and olive-covered hills between Florence and Siena, and its makers were among the first to form a protective alliance to control its quality: The Chianti League was established in the 14th Century. Nothing is forever, though, and the taste of Chianti is undergoing radical but benign changes within the structure of its classical blending.

The dramatic scenario of change began in the 1860s at a lavish ball in Florence that celebrated the appointment of Baron Bettino Ricasoli as the prime minister of newly united Italy. The tall, lean, cross-eyed "Iron Baron"--named for his unbending drive--had been married only a few months. When he saw that his beautiful young wife, Anna, was being courted by admiring swains, with whom she danced several times, he took action. He led her from the scene, down the marble staircase to where their carriage waited, climbed in next to her, and told the coachman: "To Brolio." None of the Ricasolis had lived in that great, grim castle near Siena for years. The baron and his bride rode over the long road, he in black evening clothes, she doubtless shivering in her ball gown. They stayed in the medieval castle for the rest of their lives.

A feudal fortress, Brolio Castle sits atop a hill with a commanding view of terrain ribbed with grape vines and bordered by olive trees. Ricasoli was a deeply religious man and was also dedicated to politics and the study of agriculture. He experimented with new vines and producing wines with the goal of a finer blend of black and white grapes. To the dominant black Sangiovese and Canaiolo he added judicious amounts of the white Trebbiano and Malvasia, giving a novel taste and translucent quality to the formerly heavy black wine.

His formula became popular and was adopted by other vineyard owners of the region. When a consortium of growers was founded in 1924, they defined Chianti Classico by the formula instituted by Ricasoli: Sangiovese 50% to 80%, Canaiolo 10% to 30%, Trebbiano and Malvasia 10% to 30%. The use of Trebbiano (the white grape of Soave) was--and continues to be--controversial; many still believe that it gives a hollowness to the body of Chianti.

In an effort to control the quality of wines, the Italian government established regulations in 1963 for the most important districts. These regulations are called Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or DOC, and they retained the baron's blending formula.

Enter the soft-spoken yet revolutionary wine maker of Tuscany today, the Marchese Piero Antinori. Last May, I attended a formal dinner in the Palazzo Antinori celebrating the 600th anniversary of this aristocratic Florentine family. Antinori has departed from the DOC formula for Chianti by using 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, a sturdier and more regal vinifera, to replace both white varieties, and by aging the wine in French oak barrels. He calls it "Tignanello." The results brought instant acclaim, and more controversy in the DOC ranks. Here was Chianti, still with violet scents, but a lush, more fleshy wine of rare depth and with great aging potential. Then came Antinori's uncle's wine, Sassicaia, made of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Cabernet Franc, also matured in French oak barrels, and totally beyond all DOC regulations. Bottled and distributed by Antinori, with about a 3,000-case production, it is a prestige wine.

In 1980, the dynamic Marchese Antinori, with his wine maker, Giacomo Tachis, recognized the sad state of Tuscan white wines and led a movement of independent producers to create a fresh, crisp, white wine made, basically, from Trebbiano grapes. Called Galestro, and as yet unapproved by DOC, it is a runaway success. One of its innovations is its low level of alcohol--a maximum of 10.5%. Up to 40% of other varieties, including Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco, may be added. The accent remains on crisp, tart freshness.

When Piero Antinori introduced Robert Mondavi at the 600th-anniversary celebration last May, he acknowledged the Californian's fame as an innovator, saying lightheartedly that he was always flattered to be referred to as "the Robert Mondavi of Italian wines."

The name Antinori on a bottle of Italian wine is a hallmark of quality, no matter whether it is Chianti Classico, Tignanello, Sassicaia or Galestro. Those Chiantis are well distributed in the United States and are the pride of wine lists in the better restaurants.

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