|Last month I had the pleasure of meeting Ferdinando Frescobaldi, vice president of the Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi Group and senior member of an old and distinguished Florentine family, that has been producing Tuscan wines for generations, including one of Italy’s most important red wines, Chianti.
Note, this article was first published as Reva Singh’s wine column in Outlook Magazine.
For 300 years they were bankers and originated the idea of issuing cheques in Europe. “But,” as the marquis said ruefully, “this fantastic idea was for us a disaster because we were giving too much credit and we went bankrupt.”
No bad thing either, in retrospect, because for the next 700 years the family concentrated on producing wine which was good enough to be supplied to the royal courts of Europe and England. Indeed, original letters of order signed by King Henry VIII can still be found in the family archives. Artists of the Italian Renaissance such as Michelangelo and Donatella also favoured the wines produced on the family’s Tuscan estates.
Today, the Marquesi de’ Frescobaldi wines are exported to over 60 countries throughout the world, including India, where it is the leading Italian wine available in all major five star hotels and better restaurants.
Chianti wines first started to distinguish themselves in the 15th and 16th centuries as a result of the blending of Sangiovese and other grapes, long fermentation and “governo” with dried grapes to enrich the “musts” (fermenting juice) with colour and natural sugars. Both red and white grapes were used in the Chianti blend and sometimes still are.
However, in the aftermath of the Second World War, demand led to the mass production of wine from inferior grapes and as a result the quality of Tuscan wines declined rapidly. This was the era of “spaghetti Chianti” more famous for its straw covered bottle than the liquid it contained. Just about every cheap red jug wine seemed to be called Chianti, doing the real Chianti a great disservice.
Although great wine families such as the Antinoris and Frescobaldis had been making fine wine for centuries, many Italian wines were still the product of peasant wine making with poor viticulture and winemaking practices. This changed in the 60s, when the government stepped in with laws governing wine production.
The Italian government regulates the making of wine now, stipulating which grapes can be used in a particular area, and how much of each. These laws are designated on wine bottles by the acronyms DOC and DOCG which indicate wines of good to exceptional quality and renown, and IGT which indicates a lower designation. (Although IGT wines fall officially at the lowest level, ironically some of these are the most expensive and exclusive wines produced in Tuscany.)
The 1970s brought still more changes when a handful of innovative producers decided to go their own way by producing wines that broke the rules and blended international grape varieties producing vastly superior results. A Chianti, for example, which traditionally comprised primarily Sangiovese grapes included Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot red grapes as well. The government considered these wines to be vini da tavola or table wines because they did not conform to the Italian wine making laws. Thus, a path-breaking wine like Antinori’s Tignanello, although produced in Chianti, was not officially a “Chianti”.
But 30 years later, uniquely stylized wines like Tignanello and the exceptional Ornellaia from Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia, (a wholly owned Frescobaldi estate in Bolgheri) have gained worldwide renown and are in a sense both Italian and international. These wines came to be known by the sobriquet, Super Tuscans and show a warmth, roundness and tannic structure typical of Cabernet-dominated wines, but with a finesse and acidic freshness that is quintessentially Italian. The name Super Tuscans, however, is only a consumer term and does not appear on the label which carries the wine’s own proprietary name.
Chiantis, too, have come a long way and appear in a variety of styles ranging from a pleasingly rustic quality to more complex wines. The wines from Chianti Classico, recognizable by its neck seal showing a black rooster, and Chianti Rufino are among the better known ones. Chiantis provide both the class of Bordeaux, the earthiness of Tuscany and the kind of ripe fruit we associate with New World wines. What’s more, they’re great with food. Wines made from the Sangiovese grape possess a good bit of acidity, the kind of acidity that clears your palate and makes you want to take another bite of food.
So the next time you cook Italian food, team it with a good Chianti. Keep experimenting and be open to new experiences, advises Fernando. You’ll be surprised how well the wines of Tuscany go with Indian food, he says. “Chianti particularly is so clean with high acidity that it will match very very well. Drink the white with fish or as an aperitif but for very tasty food, I suggest you have a good, strong red.”
Indian wine drinkers can buy a variety of Tuscan wines in the market from the lower end to the more expensive. The Marchesi de Frescobaldi Nipozzano Reserva 2003 and the Marchesi de Frescobaldi Mormoreto (Super Tuscan) 2001 are must buys. Other good Tuscan red wines to look out for are Brunello di Montalchino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, also available from the Frescobaldi estates.
Reva K Singh
Publisher of Sommelier India, the Indian wine magazine