(For all the wine tastings I've done in 2016, click the "wine2016" label at the end of this post, or simply "wine" for all the writing I've ever done on the subject.)
So to give new readers a brief recap: One of my New Year's resolutions this year is to get better educated about wine (which dovetails nicely with two other resolutions, to finally start throwing dinner parties at my apartment regularly, and to start doing more creative and intellectual things simply for the sake of being creative and intellectual); so the first thing I'm doing as part of this education, which will last approximately the first four months of this year, is making my way through a rainbow of 20 different popular wine types, and doing them in order from the darkest reds to the lightest whites, each time picking wineries from areas that are particularly well-known for that particular type of wine. (After that, a couple of months of learning just about French wines, which should be interesting; and if you have a suggestion for a topic for me to take on after that, by all means drop me a line at email@example.com and let me know!)
I've already been through Shiraz* (from Australia), Malbec (from Argentina), Cabernet Sauvignon (from South Africa) and Pinot Noir (from the US's Washington State); and tonight, Chianti! (And yes, in answer to your question I know you're already asking, it is federal law that lazy journalists must always refer to Silence of the Lambs when writing cheesy "Wine 101" guides to Chianti.) Chianti is the first "Old World" wine that I've tried this year, which is another way of saying "European" (seriously, that's all those terms mean -- "Old World" means European wine, "New World" means "everywhere else on the planet"); and like many Old World wines, the word "Chianti" doesn't refer to a type of grape (most Chiantis are made primarily of Sangiovese grapes, most often blended with a small amount of local grapes), but rather a region in Europe, in this case the Chianti region of Italy whose most famous cities are Florence and Pisa. (Chianti is actually a small section of the much larger and more famous "Tuscany" region of Italy, and for many years the word on wine labels referred to just that tiny section of Tuscany; but in 1932, crazy ol' Mussolini expanded the definition of "Chianti wine" to include most of Tuscany itself, a definition that still exists to this day. If you want to get highly particular about what kind of Chianti you're drinking, wine from the original Chianti boundaries is known as "Chianti Classico," and is legally the only type of Italian wine allowed to include a black rooster on their label; the wine I tried tonight is "Chianti Rufina," from a little valley immediately northeast of Florence.)
*And some bad news to report -- in an attempt to delete an extra posting of my Shiraz tasting, the very first wine I tried this year, through my buggy Blogspot user interface, I accidentally deleted both postings so that it no longer exists. I do have my original tasting notes about the wines themselves, though, so maybe one day I'll get around to rewriting the blog post about the subject. Now that I've started getting really active again with my Blogspot blog this year, in fact, I've come to realize that their user interface is really buggy, in a way that it used to not be; makes me wonder just how much support Google is giving to this platform anymore, and whether I should maybe move this entire blog to a place like Medium or WordPress or Tumblr.)
Let's just admit it, that Chianti has suffered a major blow in reputation in the last few decades; originally a highly respected local variety that goes back hundreds of years (like so many now-famous European wines), Italy cranked up its production to massive proportions after World War Two in order to stimulate their economy, eventually becoming famous in America in the Mid-Century Modernist years for its distinctive straw baskets served on red-and-white checkered tablecloths (the literal origin of these American stereotypes for "Italian restaurant"). And while this was enough to make Chianti the most popular red wine in America during the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the sloppy quality of their unregulated industry caused the entire region to suffer a huge backlash among American wine lovers starting in the 1980s, as both US drinkers became a lot more refined and the California wine industry suddenly became a world-class one. It's a backlash that still continues to this day, but be aware that most vintners in Chianti are now much like the professionals in New World countries; dedicated to bringing quality back to their much maligned community, that is, including a trend to make modern Chiantis almost entirely out of Sangiovese grapes so to better advertise their "purity."
My tasting notes below are from a few days ago when I first tried the wine, so will repeat a few things I've mentioned here in my recap; but in particular I wanted to mention again how funny it was to taste Chianti for the first time and realize that this smells and tastes exactly like the ideal I've always had in my head of "how wine should smell and taste," undoubtedly a result of being a child in the 1960s and '70s when Chianti was still the go-to red wine for American dinner parties among all my hippie parents and their friends. It was also interesting to try Old World wine for the first time in 2016, and to realize why Old World fans say that European wines are so much more "refined" than New World; since European grapes grow in generally a much cooler climate than the most famous regions of New World wine (such as California, South America, Australia and South Africa), the flavors of Old World wines are less "in your face" and thus more nuanced and complicated. But then again, it's easy to understand why the general wine-buying public has been turning more and more to New World wines recently to begin with; because you have to have a refined palette and some education in order to appreciate refined wines for what they are, while New World wines are much more akin to such modern developments as craft beers and dark roast coffees, a thing to enjoy just unto itself and not necessarily because it "pairs" well with food. An interesting schism to say the least, and I must admit that I don't know enough about wines yet to have a strong opinion one way or another.
Chianti Rufina (95% Sangiovese, 5% Colorino), 2012
Wine Advocate rating: 90
Look: A strong dark purplish-red like the other wines I've so far tried this year, only more transparent and easier to catch the light. Liquid surface displays the same magenta glint as Malbec.
Smell: It's funny that Chianti was known as the defacto “red wine” in America during the Mid-Century Modernist years, because so far in my 2016 tastings, this smells more like my definition of “what wine smells like” than any other wine I've tried, clearly a reflection of being around so many bottles of Chianti in my childhood in the 1960s and '70s. An extremely strong musty smell that reminds me of a suburban home's basement, which I'm coming more and more to realize is the same thing that wine lovers call an “oaky” smell, the result of the wine being aged for an extra-long time in a subterranean cellar within oak barrels (over a year in this case).
Taste: Thick like the other dark reds I've tried this year, but definitely sweeter and lighter than the Shirazes, Malbecs and Cabaret Sauvignons, with the kind of “mid-sweet sweet” you might find in a fruit like cherries (versus the “not-sweet sweet” of something like Shiraz, reminiscent of blackberries). Less intense a flavor as well, something that in general just goes down a lot easier than most of the other dark reds I've tried this year; this is in fact my first Old World wine of 2016, and it's easy to see why Old World fans call wines like these a more nuanced and complicated flavor than the out-and-out brashness of New World wines.
After a Full Glass: After having an entire glass with a dinner of chicken and vegetables, it's easy to see why so many people prefer the more “refined” taste of an Old World wine with food, because the uniqueness of this Chianti almost entirely disappeared while eating, as if I was literally having a glass of flavored water instead. I have to admit, though, as someone who loves the so-called “harshness” of things like black coffee and stout beer, I already find myself starting to gravitate more towards the bold nature of New World wines (featuring grapes grown in generally much hotter temperatures than Europe, and thus display a much more intense flavor).
More: The winery's website describes this wine as having an aroma of “violets,” which after the fact I realize is an excellent way of describing an Old World wine like this versus a New World wine – an Old World wine is delicate like a flower, at its most enjoyable when you yourself can appreciate subtle things (and have the education to detect the subtlety).
*And a piece of trivia – this was my first wine of 2016 to come bottled with an actual real cork, versus an artificial cork or simply no cork at all (i.e. a screw-on top), a BIG feature of hipster wineries who take more of their cues off craft breweries than off traditional European vintners.