Early in the running of 1991’s Academy Award-winning Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Hannibal Lecter gives us one of history’s most famous food and wine pairing. Come on now, everyone sing along. You all know the words:
“…I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”
If you remember – Lecter was a brilliant man (for a fictional character). Patron of the arts. Gourmand. Wine aficionado. So, why a Chianti? You know -- straw-wrapped bottles you see hanging near the ceiling in Italian restaurants that usually end up as a candle holder of some sort? Chiantis are known to be cheap, uncomplicated table wine. Why would a man with Lecter’s palate select one for his meal?
Thankfully for us, neither Thomas Harris nor Jonathan Demme decided to have Lecter explain his selection – instead focusing on…well…advancing the plot. Since we’re not trying to solve a murder, we have the luxury of re-examining this rather misunderstood wine. (Side note: a college friend of mine was almost denied entry to this film after responding to the ticket seller’s, “Which movie?” with “Silence of the Lambs – and it’s not a movie…it’s an instructional video.”)
First off, Chianti is not a grape. It’s a province in Tuscany in Central Italy. Chianti is primarily made from the sangiovese grape. (The roots of the word “sangiovese” mean “blood of Jupiter”) The Chianti region has been producing this wine for over 700 years. Chianti has been known for years as a classic "food" wine -- while just OK on its own, this varietal really comes to life if you pair it with some tasty vittles.
Over the last 30 years or so, the Italian wine industry has set more exacting standards for their wines – leading to higher qualities among relatively inexpensive selections. You might also hear some discussion of “Super Tuscan” wines These are high quality wines generally blended from sangiovese and grapes like cabernet sauvignon – producing big, powerful, tasty (and expensive) wines.
Chianti is an easy wine to understand from a quick glance at the label. There are only two things that you need to look for. First off – the bottle's origin. A wine simply labeled “Chianti” is the more generic wine – the grapes can be a blend of grapes from anywhere in the Chianti province. A “Chianti Classico” indicates a specific sub-region of the Chianti region. Classico is the most well-known and generally produces the highest quality in Chianti. (There are also six other lesser-known regions) Chianti Classico is also sometimes designated by a black rooster on the neck of the bottle. Second, there's aging. If “Riserva” appears on the label – that particular bottle has met a specific governmental aging requirement. For Chiantis, the wine must be barrel-aged for a minimum of three years to be considered a "Riserva."
In terms of price (generally), regular Chianti will be least expensive – then Chianti Classico or Chianti Riserva – then Chianti Classico Riserva.
Oh, and those wicker-wrapped bottles – the straw is a throwback to earlier days of glassblowing. Wine bottles were once globe-shaped. To prevent breakage during shipment from village to village, the winemakers would weave straw cushions, known as fiascoes, around the bottles. The tradition stuck around for awhile. In present times, Fiasco-wrapped bottles are generally a curiosity and are usually reserved for cheaper Chianti. Since we’re on the subject, we’ll start with one:
Banfi Bell'Agio 2004 Chianti -- The wickered bottles in your neighborhood Italian restaurant may well be this particular wine.. The nose of this wine is surprisingly fruity and gentle -- like ripe plums, but on your tongue -- whole new ballgame. The wine starts out sharply tart. It's a very light-bodied wine, almost watery. Like many sangiovese-based wines, this wine has a fair amount of acidity, but the acidity turns almost lemony as you drink it. The finish is very dry and chalky. The easily recognizable fiasco gives this wine a visual aesthetic and many people have this wine as their first Chianti. For this reason, it's easy to see why many people are turned off at first drink by this varietal. Interestingly, Banfi doesn't even put their name on the wine label, nor do they advertise it on their website. You can get a bottle of Banfi for between $8-11. Unless you want a centerpiece, I think you can find other inexpensive Chianti that will work for you.
Piazzano "Rio Camerata" 2003 Chianti -- Again, another regular Chianti -- this one's slightly more expensive…but pay the extra twelve bits or so. The Piazzano has a light cherry nose with what smells a little like spearmint or menthol. The flavor, again, is a bit tart, but is balanced with an easy earthiness and some more of that cherry flavor. The finish turns dry pretty quickly, but it's not nearly as sharp as the Banfi. There's also a slightly fruity finish to it, which makes the whole experience pleasant. Pasta primavera pairs nicely with this, as would a baked chicken, basic marinara, or minestrone soup. This one is more in the $10-14 range.
Gabbiano Chianti 2003 Classico -- The difference between "standard" Chianti and Chianti Classico becomes evident in the first seconds after you get a whiff of this wine -- the scent is considerably more complex. The cherries on the nose are much more pronounced, along with some smoky wood. The tartness of this Chianti is balanced nicely with a big dose of fruit -- berries and cherries. Unlike the previous two, the typical chalky finish of Chianti is balanced with a little sweetness -- which makes this a much stronger wine for bigger sauces. Roast pork or beef, risotto in mushroom sauce, or an aged cheese and crusty bread would be perfect here. You're looking at $9-13 for this.
Tiziano 2001 Chianti Riserva -- Tiziano makes a decent standard Chianti. However, on further aging, the difference in the wine is remarkable. Just the appearance is strikingly different -- the wine is much darker and heavier-looking than standard Chianti. The big fruit nose on this wine has a pronounced earthy character. You'd probably want to uncork this one and let it breathe for at least a few minutes before drinking. The flavor is big and tart, but the aging largely removes the strong chalky flavor on the end -- leaving you with a lingering fruit and spice. If you ordered a steak, pasta Bolognese, or any kind of meat or pesto dish -- you've got a winner here at $8-10, a steal for a Riserva.
So, returning to our old friend Dr. Lecter – liver is very pungent, and standard Chianti probably wouldn’t stand up to it. If you’re going to be dining on census taker any time soon, I would probably recommend a merlot. However, if you’re feeling traditional and you must have Chianti – find a big Chianti Classico Riserva…and a good attorney.
Until next time…Salute!