If I were to pick a song for karaoke that reflects how I feel about red wines from Italy, I'd quickly cue up Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In." One of the most compelling things about Italian reds is the range of weights and styles that run the gamut from light and fruity to heavy and port-like. It's the breadth of this category that makes it difficult to do it justice in one column.
So whether your next food outing involves a visit to your favorite local trattoria or a night in the family kitchen, one of the best choices for your Italian wine experience can be found in venerable and versatile Chianti. Put away those old stereotypes of bottles wrapped in straw destined to be an old-school tabletop candleholder. Today high-end bottles of Chianti can run into the triple digits, depending on their vintage.
Chianti is generally composed of the sangiovese grape, which is usually high in acid and medium levels of tannin, sometimes blended with other Italian grapes such as trebbiano and malvasia and even cabernet sauvignon.
The wine is hallmarked by its generally dry, fairly structured style and a healthy dose of acid, which helps make it a fairly versatile and friendly partner with food. It's easy to relegate Chianti for traditional pasta dinners, but it also works with other dishes, particularly those involving tomatoes.
Many refer to Chianti as a type of wine much like zinfandel. But like many European wines, it's actually a geographical area found in the Tuscany region of Italy, located toward the top western edge of the "boot." Within the region of Chianti exists several sub-regions, including the more recognizable Chianti Classico. Wines from this sub-region are considered higher quality and demarcated by a black rooster on the label. Wines marked with "Riserva" are of superior quality and have been aged for a minimum of three years.
When shopping for Chianti, pay particular attention to vintage. While it's still early for the 2003 wines, I suggest avoiding 2002, where possible, given its less-than-stellar ratings. Instead, pay a little more for wines from either 1999 or 1997, which were excellent, and those from 2001.
Some options to look at your favorite wine merchant are the Castellare di Castellina Chianti Classico, Vignamaggio Castello di Mona Lisa Chianti Classico Reserva, Fonterutoli Chianti Classico and Dievole Novecento Chianti Classico Riserva. Shoppers should also try the offerings from Antinori and Badia Coltibuono, which offer multiple wines at several price points friendly to weekday and Saturday night budgets.