THE CHIANTI formula, once inviolate, is undergoing changes. Today, we are finding blends that combine Cabernet Sauvignon with the red wines of Tuscany.
Even the 142-year-old formula for Chianti Classico has been modified. Wine makers have reduced the percentage of white grapes (Malvasia and /or Trebbiano) used and made the wine more mellow by adding more Sangiovese, a red-wine grape.
With the recent changes in Chianti, and because of my long friendship with the Chianti-making Ricasoli family, I eagerly accepted an invitation to eat lunch in Newport with Barone Bettino Ricasoli.
We began our lunch with one of Ricasoli's newest releases--not a Chianti, but the delightfully fresh, crisp and clean Ricasoli 1987 Galestro ($6). This is the new quintessential Tuscan white. It combines 60% Trebbiano (the same grape used to make Soave in Veneto), 40% Pinot Bianco and some Chardonnay. It is light--about 10% alcohol--and its popularity is well-deserved.
Remembering those green knolls of Chianti country punctuated with swords of dark cypress, the background landscape for the paintings of da Vinci and Botticelli, I was predisposed to taste Barone Ricasoli's Chianti with a prejudiced aura of awe. The changes I noticed in the wines that follow emphasized the need for another look at Chianti in today's market, particularly by those people who don't generally buy the wine.
The 1986 Ricasoli Chianti ($5), dominantly Sangiovese /Canaiolo, a traditional blend modified with less Trebbiano, is a rare bargain. It is splendidly drinkable and has no trace of tannic astringency.
The 1985 Brolio Chianti Classico ($6.50), is smooth and harmonious with a well-etched taste profile that includes suggestions of violets and plums. It's also an award-winner. In October, Barone Ricasoli journeyed to London to receive a medal from the House of Commons honoring this wine.
The 1983 Brolio Chianti Classico-Riserva ($11) has a jeweled translucence. It is complex, full-bodied yet delicate. And the Brolio 1982 Riserva del Barone ($16) mingles hints of almond and vanilla in its aroma, with suggestions of blackberries and anise in its taste-robe.
I was introduced to the glories of fine Chianti in 1951 by Bettino Ricasoli's late father, Barone Luigi Ricasoli, at a tasting in Brolio Castle. That tasting concluded with pourings of vin santo, an amber elixir of hand-selected Malvasia grapes.
"It is not a 'holy wine' as some believe," Barone Luigi told me, "but takes its name from the Isle of Xantos off the Greek coast. Most of our farmers in Tuscany make this wine for ceremonial occasions--for weddings, for christenings or for special guests."
Curtains of sugar-rich grapes are hung in drafty lofts for 40 to 60 days. The air dries the moisture on the grapes, making them sweeter. Then they are pressed with small amounts of older vin santo, encouraging the fermenting. They are finished in caratelli , small oak barrels, which are sealed with airspace to allow fermentation to continue for more than two years. To complete its maturation, the wine stays in casks for about six years, achieving an alcohol content of 15%. Then it is aged for at least one year in the bottle.
The resulting bouquet is intense, the taste reminiscent of honeyed apricots, the color a deep amber. It was the wine, once more, that concluded a Chianti luncheon, this time, in Newport. Brolio 1980 Vin Santo ($13.50) is a treasure worth collecting.