The “No Fear” Italian Wine Guide: Chianti

Chianti. Pinot Grigio. Barolo. Prosecco. We see these words pop up on every Italian restaurant’s wine list. They’re recognizable and familiar, and they’re meant to give us confidence when ordering a glass to go with our meal. But how are you supposed to decipher the long list of words that comes along with each option? Is Chianti the grape? Is this Prosecco sweet? Why is Barolo so expensive? If you don’t have a helpful sommelier on hand to guide you, ordering wine can be a daunting experience.

During the month of June, we’re focusing on taking the fear out of Italian wine. We’ll dig into the nuts and bolts of some commonly seen wines, explore some tried-and-true standbys and fail-proof food pairing options, and discover a few not-so-common alternatives if you’re looking to freshen up your wine drinking experience.

Chianti: What a Fiasco… 

chianti classico

chianti riservachianti rufina

What to Expect: Chianti, the common term in all 3 wines listed above, is the name of the region the wine comes from. Located in the heart of Tuscany, the wines of Chianti primarily use the Sangiovese grape as the base for all their red wine production—by law, all Chianti must use a minimum of 75% Sangiovese. (It’s common to blend Sangiovese with a slew of other native Tuscan grapes—both red and white!—as well as some international grapes like Cab and Merlot.) The romantically rustic vision that many people have of Chianti wines is of a squat, round bottle nestled in a wicker basket holder called a fiasco (that later becomes a kitschy candle holder once the wine is gone).

The Classics: Try out Selvapiana Chianti Rufina for a tried-and-true, classically-styled Chianti. Made from 100% Sangiovese, this is a perfect wine to understand exactly what Volpaia Chianti Classico Riserva 2012the grape is all about–minimal oak aging, and no addition of other grapes. Just pure, unadulterated, gorgeous Sangiovese. If you want to know what a “step up” looks like in Chianti, revel in the Volpaia Chianti Classico Riserva. This sumptuous wine is made from a selection of only the top grapes harvested from Volpaia’s estate vineyards, and sees 2 years of oak aging before bottling. Everything is accentuated in Riserva wines: the color is deeper, the flavors are more intense, and the finish goes on for a mile.

Caparzo Brunello 2012

Something Different: Chianti isn’t the only region to work with Sangiovese. You’ll find beautiful examples of it in Montalcino—a little town made famous for a particular strain of Sangiovese called Brunello. Coming only from select vineyards and aged for 2-4 years in barrel before release, Brunello di Montalcino commands premium prices and can be cellared for many years. The Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino is a great place to start for understanding this side Sangiovese. But Montalcino also produces a more cost-effective wine, called Rosso di Montalcino, using the same special strain of Sangiovese, aged for less time in barrel and using younger vines sourced from bigger vineyards. The Ciacci Piccolomini Rosso di Montalcino is silky, gracious, and expressive on the palate, and stands out for its overall balance and harmony.

ColleMassari Rigoleto Montecucco Rosso 2014

We’ve seen how well Sangiovese takes to being blended in Chianti wines, and that’s no less true in other regions as well! The term “Super Tuscan” came into popularity in the 1970s and 80s, when a few producers became disgruntled with the poor, thin, watered-down quality of wine that bore the government’s stamp of “high quality” Chianti. Taking matters into their own hands, they decided to forgo the government’s approval and began planting international varieties like Corzano e Paterno Il Corzanello Rosso 2014Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to add to their Sangiovese, hoping to boost international opinion of Tuscan wine. Some of the most important wines to come of this experiment are well-known today, including Sassicaia, Ornellaia, and Tignanello. While these exquisite wines come with hefty price tags, there are a number of other “Super Tuscan”-styled wines at fantastic everyday prices. The ColleMassari “Rigoleto” Rosso is a fantastic example of a well-produced, organic blend using indigenous Tuscan varietals, and the Corzanello Toscana Rosso will show you how beautifully Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot can play with Sangiovese.

Perfect Pairings: Sangiovese has high natural acidity, a medium/medium-full body, and ripe, juicy red fruit notes. Sometimes they’ll have hints of savory, rustic herbal notes as well. Because of these characteristics, Chiantis are a fantastic match for tomato-based sauces. The acidity of the wine matches the acidity of the tomatoes—truly a perfect match! Chiantis find their way onto most restaurant wine lists because of the beautiful versatility they have in pairing with almost every Italian dish.

Image result for wilde weide goudaTry the Selvapiana Chianti Rufina with a hearty cheese like Wilde Weide Gouda. This pairing works because of the wine’s ripe, juicy red fruits, medium-full weight, and cleansing acidity–all of which balance out the cheese’s dense, fudgy, and slightly sweet notes. Selvapiana Chianti Rufina 2014There’s some beautiful dried herbal notes in the Chianti, too, that parallel the gentle savory element in the cheese. What a Gouda pairing!

The Many Faces of Venetian Wine

Amarone: just the name induces a widening of the eyes, involuntary salivation, and a nostalgic smile. If you’ve had it, you know what kind of an impact it makes—one that you don’t forget easily. Amarone is one of the most iconic wines of northern Italy, sharing the same level of prestige as Barolo. But what is it exactly, why is it so darn expensive, and are there alternatives you can explore?

Italy’s Veneto region, where Amarone comes from, is the biggest wine producing region in the country. Its climate is temperate, the soils are rich, and the hills are gently sloped to just the right angle for perfect ripening. But Amarone isn’t the Veneto’s only gem.

The region of Valpolicella, located just north of Verona, is broken up into several different subregions, each with their own detailed classification system. But rules are boring and complicated (let’s just call them “guidelines,” am I right?), so the Veneto is rife with dozens of different styles, expressions, and interpretations of wine—depending on where they’re located… and which “guidelines” they feel like following.


Tommasi Valpolicella 2014

The most basic, straightforward, least-complicated appellation is Valpolicella (and Valpolicella Classico—a more delineated subregion within the bigger one). Made in the same way as every other normal table wine you’ve ever had, it’s made from a maximum of 70% Corvina, which is the Veneto’s star grape. Fresh, fruity and easy-drinking, most Valpolicella is meant to be consumed in its youth. The Tommasi Rafael is technically Valpolicella Degani Valpolicella Classico 2015Superiore, comes from a single vineyard (“Rafael”) within Valpolicella, and is absolutely delightful to drink. Besides Corvina, there’s a good measure of Rondinella (Corvina’s “sister grape”) that helps add color to the blend, as well as a slew of other indigenous grapes. Bright red fruits, including strawberry and cherry, are framed by a pretty floral note. The tannins are soft and pliable, making this a winner by itself or with lighter meals and cheese and meat plates. The Degani Valpolicella is made in a similar style, but with a touch more of an herbal note to it along with the fruit.


Tedeschi Amarone 2012On the other end of the spectrum is Amarone. This special appellation dates back to the 8th century in Verona, when it became necessary to differentiate a dry wine made from dried grapes, from a sweet wine (called recioto). Grapes to go into Amarone are hand-Tommasi Amarone 2012picked, laid out to dry in shallow crates, and then tucked away in “drying houses” with big, open-air windows to let the wind come in. (It’s the wind that dries out the grapes—not the sun!) After a minimum of 100 days, the grapes are pressed and a long, slow fermentation happens. The Tedeschi Amarone is packed to the max with thick, dark fruit, rVenturini Amarone della Valpolicella 2007aisin and prune notes, and a beautifully balanced structure with firm tannins but a lingering acidity which keeps this wine powerful, but dry. The Tommasi Amarone is just a touch lighter, with deep, rich flavors and an enlivening spice weaving its way across your palate. For a unique experience with an aged Amarone (these wines can last a long time), try the 2007 Venturini Amarone. In this expression, the ripe fruit dies away to reveal nuanced aromas and tastes of spice box, sweet tobacco, and potpourri.


Tommasi Ripasso 2014

In the middle of these two extremes (and for less than half of what Amarone costs) you’ll find the Ripasso style. Literally meaning “to re-pass,” this method consists of pouring normal Valpolicella wine over the grape must (the skins, seeds, stems and pulp) left over from the Amarone. This gives the ripasso wine a noticeable Amarone cRemo Farina Ripasso 2014haracter, but with a lighter texture and body. These wines are fantastic values, and are incredibly unique to experience. The Tommasi Ripasso and the Remo Farina Ripasso have rich, sappy fruit (reminiscent of Amarone) but also a fresh, green herbal note. In Tommasi’s case, they actually throw the Amarone skins directly into the ripasso’s fermentation tank so it gets as much Amarone character as possible.


Allegrini Palazzo Della Torre 2013

 And when all those styles just mentioned aren’t enough for the creativity of Veneto winemakers, you can just label your wine IGT Veneto. This designation lets wineries do projects like Allegrini Palazzo della Torrewhere a portion of dried “Amarone-style” grapes are used in the blend with normal Valpolicella wine, or Tedeschi “Appassimento” Nicalo, where the Tedeschi Valpolicella Nicalo 2012grapes are hand-picked and dried in the exact same method as Amarone, but for only one month instead of three. The result of these wines is something in-between Ripasso and Amarone.

The Veneto has a wine style for everyone: light-bodied or full-bodied; fruity or earthy; easy-drinking or serious; wines for cellaring or drinking now. This historic region is one of the most traditional–and yet one of the most innovative–that Italy has to offer.


Satisfy Your Inner Wine Geek: Wine Trivia

Think you know a thing or two about wine? Have a go at the France44 Wine Trivia quiz! Answers are at the bottom—no peeking!


1)      What is a crémant?

a)      A cream-based wine

b)      A French sparkling wine produced outside of Champagne

c)       A French sparkling wine noted for its creaminess

d)      100% Chardonnay Champagne

2)      What is Napa Valley’s Frog’s Leap Winery named after?

a)      There used to be a frog farm on the estate

b)      It’s the measurement of a frog’s leap from the winery to any of the estate vineyards

c)       They wanted to poke fun at Stag’s Leap Winery

d)      They want to highlight how important biodiversity is to their winery

3)      Pinotage is a cross of what 2 grapes?

a)      Pinot Gris and Hermitage

b)      Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah

c)       Pinot Noir and Cinsault

d)      Concord and dirt

4)      How do you pronounce Freixenet, Spain’s #1 producer of Cava?

a)      frightened-eh?

b)      fresh-uh-net

c)       freaks-in-net

d)      fray-shnay

5)      Bobal is a little-known grape from ______ that is rapidly gaining popularity.

a)      Australia

b)      Argentina

c)       California

d)      Spain

6)      We love dogs, and so do winemakers! Out of our almost 3,000 wine labels at France44, how many of them sport pictures of hounds (or their canine relatives)?

a)      23

b)      11

c)       18

d)      68

7)      What grape is used to make Vino Nobile di Montepulciano?

a)      Montepulciano

b)      Sangiovese

c)       Nebbiolo

d)      Noble grapes

8)      What grape is used to make Brunello di Montalcino?

a)      Montepulciano

b)      Cabernet Sauvignon

c)       Sangiovese

d)      Nebbiolo

9)      What grape is used to make Morellino di Scansano?

a)      Colorino

b)      Sangiovese

c)       Barbera

d)      Dolcetto

10)   What the heck is on Matthiasson’s wine labels?

a)      Ballet dancers

b)      Grape vines

c)       Nut crackers

d)      Pruning shears

11)   What is the “Mistral”?

a)      A strong wind that blows constantly in France’s southern Rhone Valley

b)      A specific soil type found only in Jura

c)       The head honcho at every French winery

d)      The national after-dinner digestif of Greece

12)   Our General Manager, Chris, has worked harvests for this superstar California winemaker.

a)      Fred Franzia

b)      Russell Bevan

c)       Chuck Wagner

d)      Dale Peterson

13)   How is Madeira wine made?

a)      It develops a layer of yeast called flor and ages within a solera barrel system

b)      It’s fortified, then heated for 3 months

c)       It’s mixed with clarified sea water to give it its slight brininess

d)      It’s distilled, then poured over smoked palm leaves

14)   Bell’agio Chianti’s straw basket is called a _______.

a)      Straw basket

b)      Wine hammock

c)       Fiasco

d)      Diablo

15)   This dude is the patron saint of vineyards and winemakers, and his picture is here.

a)      St. Vinotheque

b)      St. Sylvan

c)       St. Knoll

d)      St. Urban

16)   This France44 staff member went to high school with the designer of the Rabble wine labels.

a)      Dustin

b)      Adam

c)       Doug

d)      Zach

17)   What grape is Prosecco made from?

a)      Pinot Grigio

b)      Prosecco

c)       Glera

d)      B and C

18)   This French wine is made in the same way as dry Sherry from Spain.

a)      Pineau des Charentes

b)      Sauternes

c)       Vin Jaune

d)      Beaujolais Nouveau

19)   What does “LBV” stand for on some Port bottles?

a)      Lost Baby Viper

b)      Les Beaulieu Vino

c)       Last Bottle Vine

d)      Late Bottle Vintage

20)   Which wine label sports Salvador Dali and his pet ocelot?

a)      Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir

b)      Tridente Tempranillo

c)       Field Recordings “Wonderwall” Pinot Noir

d)      Orin Swift “Pretty Kitty” Red Blend



1)      B. Try the Clavelin or the Antech—a couple staff favorites!

2)      A. Read Frog’s Leap story while you’re sipping on their incredible Chardonnay.

3)      C. Pinot Noir and Cinsault, known as Hermitage in South Africa. This is a great introductory bottle if you’re not familiar with Pinotage yet.

4)      B. Now you know Catalan!

5)      D. We have two in the store!

6)      C. Double points if you can spot all of them.

7)      B. Tuscany’s “noble wine,” Sangiovese (known in Montepulciano as Prugnolo Gentile) has to make up at least 70% of the blend in Vino Nobile.

8)      C. A special clone of Sangiovese that only grows in the tiny Tuscan town of Montalcino.

9)      B. Apparently the answer to every question is “Sangiovese.”

10)   D. Use your imagination a little—you’ll see it.

11)   A. Rouge-Bleu’s “Mistral” is a delicious, funky little wine made in honor of this crazy wind.

12)   B. Larger than life, and a Minnesota native! His Pinots are incredible.

13)   B. This method is meant to replicate what would happen to the wine on its long sea journeys back in the 18th century.

14)   C. What a fiasco!

15)   D. And the Knolls’ exquisite Gruner Veltliner pays him dutiful homage.

16)   A. Check out her amazing website!

17)   D. Same grape!

18)   C. This is an experience in a bottle—Rolet makes a fantastic expression of it. Make sure you have some olives and cheese to go along with it!

19)   D. Want to try a vintage port but don’t want the hefty price tag? LBVs see more wood aging than regular vintage ports, and unlike vintage ports they are ready to be drunk upon release.

20)   C. Juicy and ridiculously fun to drink.


How’d you do?

1-7 points: Well… you’ve gotta start somewhere, right?

8-14 points: Not bad! You clearly know more than the Average Joe.

15-19 points: I bet you’ve read through The Wine Bible a few times.

20 points: Either you cheated, or you work at France44.