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Chianti in the Fast Lane

Renaissance: Ancient vineyards of aristocratic families have gotten a fresh infusion of cash and care. Now they're producing some of the world's most exciting red wines.

May 16, 1996|MATT KRAMER | Kramer, author of several books on wine, including "Making Sense of Wine" (Morrow, 1992), will write biweekly on wine for The Times

Of all of Europe's ancient fine-wine districts, it's safe to say that none has experienced such an astonishing renaissance as Chianti. What's more, a freeway had a lot to do with it.

Seemingly almost as old as Italy itself, the Chianti region has produced wine for as long as any ancient text can tell us. And those texts were hardly breathless with the news. The Chianti name, however, first appeared only in 1404.

Such long familiarity ultimately brought contempt to Chianti. It became a favorite holding of the Florence and Siena nobility during the Renaissance, and many of its aristocrat-owned estates continued to be run in a virtually feudal way well into the mid-20th century. Many owners saw their country properties once a year, if that. They made no investments.

The workers were sharecroppers (mezzadri) in thrall to the landowners, to whom they had to hand over half of any livestock or crop--olive oil, grain, wine--they produced. Overseers called fattori ran the estates with impunity. Detailed records were kept between fattore and mezzadro, literally right down to the number of zucchini.

All of this helps explain why Chianti wine quality languished for so long. There was no incentive for investment and, above all, no ambition. The producers just wheezed by.

Then the freeway rolled in. Actually, it was a toll road, Italy's first, the autostrada designated A1. Completed in the 1960s, it connected Milan to Rome, and Chianti lay right in its path.

New urban wealth spawned in Milan and Rome suddenly had fast, easy weekend access to the gorgeous Chianti countryside. The new wealth wasn't among the old landed aristocracy. Instead, the beneficiaries were the new Italian meritocracy, who made fortunes in small manufacturing, design and trading companies. They needed retreats from their hectic urban work lives.

The stone houses of the Chianti countryside were ideal. They needed restoration, but that was no problem; the buyers had money and ambition. Almost invariably, the country houses came with vineyards attached. They, too, needed work. So the same ambition that made their new owners such successes in the city was applied to the vineyards.

The new owners, for the most part, knew nothing about winegrowing, so they turned to consulting winemakers or enologists. Chianti probably has more such consultants than any other wine region in the world.

Their consultants told them that if they were ever to make fine wine, they had to invest money in vineyard plantings and modern equipment and strive for a much higher standard of wine quality. And, by the way, they had to market the wine when it finally appeared.

The new owners were undaunted. After all, they had made just such efforts in their urban businesses, so why not in wine? They left the old aristocratic landowners in the Tuscan dust. A few of the aristocrats, to their credit, dusted themselves off and gave chase. Some did well, but many just gave up and sold off their ancestral properties.

Today, Chianti makes some of the world's most exciting red wines. The best bottlings are vibrant with flavor. The traditional Tuscan red wine grape, Sangiovese, has been restored to its rightful place as a variety worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. A few ancient indigenous grapes, such as Canaiolo Nero and Mammolo, have been recalled to life. The old blends, oxidized to early oblivion by the addition of white grapes, have nearly vanished.

Today, with a strong dollar against a weak lira, these "renaissance Chiantis" are fine-wine bargains. Happily, the 1993 vintage, now on the market, was a good one.

* 1993 Selvapiana Chianti Rufina ($12.95): Here's a superb example of an old property springing vibrantly back to life. Selvapiana is an ancient estate in the Rufina zone of Chianti. For years it made a pleasant, even intriguing wine, but it didn't make you sit up and take notice. Now it does.

This newly released 1993 bottling is a bargain in top-drawer Chianti. It's filled with the savor of Sangiovese. This is a supple, detailed red wine that you know, after one sip, is meant for food. Look for a street price as low as $9.95, which makes it a standout deal.

* 1993 Castello della Paneretta Chianti Classico ($12.95): Chianti Classico can rightly be said to be the heart of the Chianti region. It holds hundreds of estates, many of them Cinderellas in need of an awakening kiss. Castello della Paneretta is one that got such a smooch. Indeed, its comeback is so extraordinary that it's not farfetched to assert that Paneretta is today one of Chianti Classico's finest estates.

Yet few have heard of Castello della Paneretta. Its wine is marketed discreetly. Many retailers do not even know how to find it (San Francisco's Monte Bianco Imports distributes it). But supplies are available in several states, including California.

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