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Producer aims to restore chianti's nobility

Dave DeSimone
| Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009

Italy's Tuscany region boasts a delicious array of cold-weather dishes that match beautifully with chianti, the region's famous trademark red wine. And who better to speak about chianti than an ambassador?

In this case, Roland Marandino serves as wine ambassador for the Cecchi (pronounced CHECK-kee ) family, one of chianti's leading producers. Marandino traveled a circuitous route to his current role. After obtaining a doctorate in English Renaissance literature, he taught at the university level. But passions for wine, food, travel and opera led to a more worldly business career as a technical writer.

Eventually, at the age of 55, Marandino founded a highly successful Web site -- www.Tablewine.com -- dedicated to demystifying wine and lauding affordable everyday drinking wines. His mission naturally embraced chianti's terrific table wines.

"The beauty of Italian wines is they are made for the table, not for the wine judges' stand," Marandino says. "In Italy, wine is food and made to accompany meals."

Chianti's centuries-old wine-growing pedigree epitomizes this philosophy. Aiming to create food compatibility and refreshing balance, the traditional chianti "recipe" allowed five grapes -- the three red-skinned grapes of sangiovese, Canaiolo Nero and Colorino, and the two white-skinned grapes of Malvasia and trebbiano.

After World War II, however, Europe's chaotic economy moved many struggling chianti producers to increase the recipe's proportion of the more prolific, less-expensive white grapes. Production quantities increased dramatically to generate cash flow, but quality suffered significantly. Chianti's infamous squat "flask" bottle in a straw basket became synonymous with inexpensive wines of dubious quality.

"Little by little, producers said this is not the way to make true chianti," Marandino says.

Seeking to restore chianti's noble heritage of exquisite table wines, the chianti producers' consortium eventually prohibited using white-skinned grapes and required a minimum of 75 percent sangiovese, unquestionably the recipe's most noble grape.

New regulations also permitted quality international grapes such as cabernet and syrah, but Cecchi's estate, according to Marandino, uses only traditional red-skinned grapes to achieve truly authentic character and quality.

In the 1970s, the Cecchi family moved its wine-producing activities to Castellina, a town in the heart of the Chianti Classico subregion. The subregion's stunning swath of prime vineyards between Florence in the north and Siena in the south enjoy a unique geology, topology and Mediterranean climate that enable sangiovese grapes to ripen perfectly.

"Chianti Classico has what we call the Colline Dolci, the sweet rolling hills," Marandino says. Winemaker Andrea Cecchi uses this priceless patrimony to full advantage by creating traditional wines emphasizing elegance, rather than brute power.

"The wines have great acidity to cleanse the palate, so you can taste the flavors of food with the wine," Marandino says.

As required by law, prior to bottling, Cecchi Chianti Classico ages in oak barrels, but not to excess.

"We never want the oak to overwhelm the wine's immediacy and approachability," Marandino says. "The fruit, acidity and tannins should always be totally integrated and round on the palate. Chianti should never be a big wine."

Enjoy the following wines with Tuscany's classic Brasato al Chianti (Italian beef braised in red wine). Or, like my brother, George, enjoy the wines with braised chinghiale , a wild boar dish popular in Tuscany.

To identify authentic Chianti Classico wines, look for the "Gallo Nero" or "black rooster" picture on the bottle's neck label:

2006 Cecchi Chianti Classico, D.O.C.G. (4132, $14.99): This lovely wine's dark ruby color offers black cherry and violet aromas with pleasant earthy nuances. Elegant, fruity black cherry flavors with cinnamon notes wrap around refreshing acidity and smooth, elegant tannins through a well-balanced and fruity, yet dry finish. Highly recommended.

2006 Rocca delle Macie, Chianti Classico, D.O.C.G. (5865: $15.99): The Zingarelli family's relatively new, 30-year-old firm cultivates more than 400 acres of vineyards and 160 acres of olive trees spread primarily over six Chianti Classico estates. This tasty 2006 wine blends hand-picked sangiovese (90 percent), merlot (5 percent) and Canaiolo (5 percent) for a dark ruby color. Black cherry and earthy aromas open to black cherry flavors with sweet brown spice and oak notes. Bright acidity and elegant tannins frame an expressive, fruity finish. Recommended.

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