Noah May on Wine: A Love Letter to Chianti
By Noah May
Mar 14, 2023
I’ll wager that the name Chianti is as familiar and evocative as that of any wine on earth. For some, the words will conjure up hazy memories of those bulbous, raffia-clad fiasco bottles hanging in oregano-scented and Silk Cut-stained trattorias of the 1980s. Others might have nightmares of Hannibal Lecter enthusing about the wine’s charms with fava beans and a nice bit of liver; or the chaps in the famous Goodfellas prison scene, smuggling in a bottle as they slice up garlic with razor blades and fry steaks in their cells.
Chianti is pitched as the pliable everyman of Italian wine. It can be soft and simple and eminently gluggable. It can be pizza wine, Christmas party wine, and of course, can be extremely forgettable wine. But I would argue that the reverse is also true: that at its finest, it can be one of Italy’s most enchanting, historic and noble wines.
From now on, I will be referring to the wines of the Chianti Classico designation. There are fabulous wines that fall outside of this important, central region: Chianti ‘normale’ can be delicious, as can the lifted, perfumed wines of Chianti Rufina or Chianti Colli Senesi; but the most vital and age-worthy wines are almost always those that carry the mark of the black rooster.
The history of Chianti Classico is ancient and fascinating. The emblem of the Gallo Nero, which defines the region and its most famous wine, purportedly goes back to the 14th century, and its roots further still. According to the website of the Corsorzio Vino Chianti Classico, the name Chianti existed on texts about the region from 1398, making it one of senior wine regions in Europe.
The capitals of the region are Siena and Florence and the land that runs between these two ancient provinces is the heart of the Classico region. The land amounts to 71,800 hectares and includes a varied range of terroirs. From the haunting, perfumed beauties that come from Radda-in-Chianti, through to the more powerful, structured wines of Castelnuovo Berardenga, and Castellina in Chianti, this is a huge geographical area of myriad elevations, soils and micro-climates. The wines that come from these vineyards are as diverse in style as one might imagine.
Chianti Classico’s backbone grape is always Sangiovese. Sangiovese is an adaptable grape, one that’s planted across many regions of Italy, and indeed further afield. That said, it is here in the Tuscan hills that it reaches its bright, yet somehow dusty, zenith. Today, the wines are produced with Sangiovese at a minimum of 80%, allowing for the addition of up to 20% of other red varieties, which often include Canaiolo, Colorino, or international varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. There was a time when it was mandated that a portion of white wine was blended into the mix, but that slightly eccentric requirement was phased out in 2005.
Great Sangiovese should be transparent, luminous, and garnet coloured. It is a relatively thin-skinned variety, and generally shows most of its singular charms when aged in old, neutral oak that doesn’t impart too much of its own character or gloss. My favourite Chianti wines are red fruited, lithe, with a balsamic edge and soaring aromatics of wild, bitter herbs, game, and roses. My preference is for wines produced in villages with slightly higher elevations and winemakers who favour classicism and minimal intervention in the cellar. The best winemakers in the villages of Radda, Ghiaole, and Lamole all produce sensational wines.The raison d’etre of all wines, but particularly these wines, is to be a dance-partner to food; this is where the magic always happens. These wines are relatively high in acidity, with moderate to high tannins in youth, so it is no shock that they scream for protein and fat to create a sense of
That brings us quite perfectly to 25 Via della Porcellana, in Florence. Trattoria Sostanza is, I’m sure, well known to many readers of Drake’s. This stalwart of the city sits on the banks of the Arno, not much further than a stone’s throw from the Pitti Palace. The modest trattoria has been there for over 150 years, serving what’s known to be some of this gastronomic city’s greatest dishes. The restaurant is tiny - there’s no more than ten tables - and the chef primarily cooks over an open wood grill in a modest kitchen at the back. The results are staggering.
This is where you should drink Chianti. This, my friends, is the epicentre; the eye of the storm for the trinity of joy that is Bistecca alla Fiorentina, Chianti, and beans - fagioli or fava beans to be precise. I bet Mr Lecter would have loved it here, fegato or no fegato. If you get the chance, go, and drink deep of these soulful, haunting, beautiful wines.