Saturday, February 24, 2018

Levels and Levels – Chianti Three Ways

Ah, Chianti.

Lovely Sangiovese-based blend from Tuscany, how do I love thee? As you all know, here around Vine HQ, we love our food, and there are few better food wines anywhere than those that come out of the Chianti region.

Now, as you might have guessed from the first paragraph, Chianti is the name of a place, not a grape. Italian wines are generally named after the locale where the grapes for the wine are grown, with a few exceptions.

There are rough quality delineations among Chianti, roughly mirroring the price points. A wine simply labeled “Chianti” can be made from grapes harvested anywhere in the region. At least 70% of the wine must be made from Sangiovese. The balance of the wine is usually a blend of other Italian indigenous varietals, along with the occasional addition of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Chianti tend to be relatively lighter-bodied, full of cherry and raspberry fruit flavors, and with a mineral character that feels a little “chalky” to me.

You might see “Chianti Classico” on a bottle if you’re looking. “Classico” has nothing to do with being a “classic” wine. The term refers to the area in the heart of the Chianti region bordered by Florence on the north and Siena on the south. This was the “original” area of Chianti which produces arguably some of the best wine. Chianti Classico must be a minimum of 80% Sangiovese. The flipside of Chianti Classico is “Chianti Superiore,” which is typically higher quality wine made from grapes sourced from anywhere in Chianti other than the Classico region.

If you see “Chianti Riserva,” that means that the wine is aged for a longer period of time in barrel – a minimum of two years. A standard Chianti is only aged for 4-7 months. Chianti Superiore must be aged for at least nine months and Chianti Classico for at least ten. The terms can be stacked, so you might run into a “Chianti Classico Riserva” in your travels.

There is also the recent addition of “Chianti Gran Selezione” into the lexicon, which is supposed to reflect the highest quality. The minimum alcohol level is slightly higher – 13% compared to 12.5% for riserva. The wine must be aged for 30 months minimum. These wines tend to run towards the very expensive end of the spectrum. When I’ve had the opportunity to try them, I’ve not thought that they were quite worth the extra shekels.

In any case, I went on a Chianti kick last week after I received a bottle for sampling. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I did a side-by-side-by-side tasting with three different levels of Chianti. The contestants:

DaVinci 2015 Chanti ($11)
Fattoria Rodano 2015 Chianti Classico ($17)
Castello di Albola Chianti Classico Riserva ($28)

The DaVinci was light-bodied, with that cherry covered chalkiness that I mentioned before. It’s fairly high in acid and makes a very straightforward table wine.

The Rodano Chianti Classico was actually the fullest, most concentrated wine of the three. Full and round, I found plums and cherries on the palate, which was softer and not quite as sharp. I thought it tasted like a “concentrated” version of the DaVinci flavorwise. The finish was more tannic, with coffee and chocolate flavors alongside the chalk.

The di Albola Chianti Classico Riserva was  the most “serious” of the wines – much more complex than the other two, with a smokier, silkier flavor. While the chalkiness was present, it was largely in the background, not detracting from the cherry and blackberry flavors that were dominant. While the body was lighter styled than the other Chianti Classico, the finish was longer and fruitier to go with its wisp of smoke.

I don’t generally care for Chianti on its own. It’s not usually my choice for a wine just to pop and pour. Of these three, the Rodano was probably the best for a “drink
alone” wine. But Chianti is made for food, and we tried the three over the space of a couple of nights.

First, with a pan-roasted salmon with tomatoes and fennel, the best of the three wines turned out to be the least expensive. The higher acid level in the straight Chianti cut through the fattiness of the fish easily, while still retaining its character. The Chianti Classico was too concentrated. It didn’t play well with the flavors, running over them instead. The Chianti Classico Riserva was fine, but you could tell that it needed more substantial fare.

We got that fare the next night, when I got out my meat tenderizer and pummeled some round steaks into submission to make my semi-famous Brasciole. The Chianti Classico got heavy and dark alongside this pairing – turning into something akin to an inexpensive syrah. The regular Chianti was good, but the real champ was the di Albola. Its flavors snaked around the beef and garlic, yet had enough of an acid backbone to stand up to the long-simmered red sauce. A real winner.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Wine Headache Hazard

No one can work with wine without tipping back too much from time to time. The morning after. The headache, the nausea, and the sun, as Nicholas Klar once wrote, "is like God's flashlight." Nobody to blame but yourself.

But what if the pain isn't your fault? What if you only had a glass or two and your head feels like Zeus on Athena’s birthday? At a wine tasting I led, two different people shared versions of, "I like wine -- but I can't drink it. If I even sip the stuff, I get a massive headache." Is there a code we can crack to avoid this malady?

One explanation I hear often: "It's the sulfites in the wine! Red wine has all these sulfites in the U.S. I've gone to [insert European country of your choice here] and the wine doesn't have sulfites in it, so I can drink it just fine. And I can drink white wine until the cows come home, but red wines just lay me out." I do enjoy Italian whites, so I sampled Palazzone 2015 “Terre Vineate” Orvieto Classico Superiore. ($13-15) This wine has a nose of flowers and licorice. It's medium bodied with some soft citrusy flavors and a little bit of oak. It has a very easy finish. Tasty to drink on its own, but with shellfish or a light fish dish, it's very nice.

After a little digging into the sulfite question, I discovered there is such a thing as a sulfite allergy. So, find unsulfited wines and you're fine, right? Well, not exactly. Sulfite allergies are  pretty rare. People with sulfite allergies generally can't eat dried fruit and the like, and if their allergies kick in, they tend to end up with breathing problems, not headaches.

Still, if you want to avoid sulfites, stick to whites, right? Wrong. White wines almost always have more sulfites than red wines. Sulfites are preservatives. Whites, in general, need more protection from spoilage as the wine gets older. Red wine has a natural preservative built in to the mix: tannin, which comes from the skins of grapes as well as from barrel aging. Wines built to age well are usually tannic, so…maybe tannin is our headache culprit.

For a low tannin wine example, think something along the lines of DuBoeuf 2015 Brouilly Beaujolais ($15-17). Gamay grapes, from which Beaujolais is made, are naturally low in tannin. This wine sports a fairly strong nose of cherries and blackberries. There's plenty of cherry and cola flavors balanced nicely with a solid acidity. Nice crisp finish, too. It cuts nicely through spices, like in the Thai beef noodle soup I made to go with it.

Drinking tannic beverages – drinks like red wine, black tea, and coffee -- can cause a release of serotonin in the brain, and studies have shown that high levels of serotonin can trigger a migraine. However, wine's not the only source of tannin in one’s diet, and no one I know has ever complained of a coffee or chocolate headache.

A third possibility is histamines. Histamines occur in many fermented foods and high exposure levels can trigger an allergic reaction brought on by a lack of a certain enzyme in the bloodstream. This reaction can cause headaches, skin flushing, or runny nose. The levels of histamines in red wines are between 20-200% higher than in whites. Spanish reds are often lower in histamines, so I tried the Martin Codax 2014 "Ergo" Rioja Tempranillo. ($13-15) The nose contains dark fruit and spices, almost like cherry cobbler. The wine's lighter than it smells. Some nice berry flavors and well-balanced light tannins lead to a finish which is easy and somewhat dry.

Histamines seem a somewhat more likely culprit for the headaches, although there hasn't been conclusive research on the effects of low vs. high histamine wines. Even so, if a person is susceptible to the reaction, there are natural defenses against histamines. Compounds exist in tea, especially black or oolong tea, which suppress the histamine response. Drinking a cup of strong tea before consuming red wine might help, as could taking an aspirin before drinking. An antihistamine might also stop the headache if the headache has already kicked in, but you might be in for a very short night if you pop a Benadryl after a couple of glasses of wine.

If you are one of those unfortunate souls who thinks they suffer from "red wine headaches," there's a simple (potentially painful) test. Drink half a glass of red wine on an empty stomach. If the wine is truly the cause of your headache, you'll get one within 15 minutes. Otherwise, it's not the wine itself that buried a hatchet in your forehead.

More likely, your fear of headaches likely stems from a good old fashioned hangover. The sheer amount of wine, and the memory of the pain the next morning, probably has more to do with it. B-12, Gatorade, ginger ale, and a sub from Penn Station the next morning are better bets, in that case.