When I noticed the leaves changing on Cross Campus as I ran to class this morning, I was thrilled that fall, my favorite season, had finally arrived in New Haven. To me, fall calls to mind scarves, butternut squash soup, the return of my beloved television shows — as well as Sangiovese, the grape that made me fall in love with wine.
California wineries are starting to embrace Sangiovese, but the grape variety’s true home is Italy, primarily in Tuscany. Sangiovese is the grape responsible for Tuscany’s famed Chianti as well as the highly celebrated, but pricey, Brunello di Montalcino. Pairing Sangiovese with classic Tuscan cuisine, you really get a sense for “la dolce vita,” but even drinking it with Papa John’s can make for a perfect college night in.
Today, I’m drinking two bottles of Tuscan Sangiovese: La Pieve “Chianti” 2010 and I Piaggioni “Rosso Toscano” 2011. As I sip, I will guide you through the not-so-complicated practice of proper wine tasting.
My mother likes to think she is Italian (she’s not), so growing up, Chianti was always the wine of choice in the Wiatrak household. For many people, Chianti conjures the image of a rustic, dimly lit Italian restaurant and a straw-covered squat bottle, often later repurposed as a candlestick dripping with wax. Nostalgia aside, there is a lot of schlock Chianti on the market, so this isn’t necessarily what you want to look for when buying a bottle. That being said, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get good Sangiovese. Both the La Pieve and the I Piaggioni cost $15 at The Wine Thief, and certainly give you your money’s worth.
Before we even pour the wine, a few words on proper stemware. As convenient as it may be to drink your wine out of a ceramic mug or even straight out of the bottle, drinking out of an actual wine glass can make a world of difference when tasting. Riedel is often considered to produce the finest stemware in the world, with a specific wine glass designed for every grape. I have two of their basic red wine glasses, and they’re fantastic, but I also have a set of six I bought for $4.79 at IKEA that get the job done.
Always hold the glass by the stem or the base, because if you hold it by the bowl, you’ll end up heating the wine and dimming its flavors. Raise the glass of wine against a white surface and observe its color. This Chianti is actually a rather opaque, garnet color (darker than most Chiantis), but it does get lighter toward the rim. The Rosso Toscano is just a few shades lighter, clearer and more translucent, with an even wider rim. From this analysis alone, I would predict that the Rosso Toscano would be a more delicate wine, and the Chianti would be fuller bodied.
Now that you’ve examined the wine with your eyes, it’s time to do the same with your nose. Critics say that the majority of wine tasting is actually smelling. To best smell a wine, try swirling it beforehand to release the wine’s aromas. Swirling wine in the glass is a skill I have yet to fully master. They say the action is in the wrist, but if you fall on the less coordinated end of the spectrum, a solid trick is to set the glass on a table and spin it in little circles. Then really dig your nose into the glass and take a whiff. The Chianti has a bouquet of ripe Bing cherries, basil and other dried herbs. In contrast, the Rosso Toscano smells spicier on the nose, with a secondary note of orange peel.
And at last, the main event — the drinking. When you taste the wine, check and see if the flavors you just smelled carry over to the palate. In the Chianti, the cherry flavor definitely remains, but the spicy earthiness really takes charge on the tongue. Subtle notes of dark fruit enter the arena as well. With the Rosso Toscano, you get more of what you expect. The citrus notes lend to a more acidic wine, with a pleasant touch of nutmeg on a gentle, lingering finish.
Although the tasting process may seem daunting, the more practice you get, the more sophisticated you’ll become when dissecting a wine. Of course, you’re still drinking, so the idea is to become less stressed, not more. So sit back, relax, and welcome our New England autumn in all its glory with a glass of Sangiovese.
Both the I Piaggioni “Rosso Toscano” 2011 (Tuscany, Italy) and the La Pieve “Chianti” 2010 (Tuscany, Italy) are available for purchase at The Wine Thief (181 Crown St., New Haven) for $15.