Chianti is not a type of grape, but rather the region that this particular wine comes from, and the Chianti region of Italy is in Tuscany.
The primary grape used to make Chianti wine is called Sangiovese (san-jo-veh-zeh), and that's where Chianti's magical food pairing ability comes from.
Sangiovese is a thin skinned grape that ripens slowly. It produces a wine with as much acidity as Syrah, but with a lighter body. Sangiovese has a medium body similar to Tempranillo.
Sangiovese is Italy's most commonly planted red grape varietal, but for wine made with Sangiovese to be called Chianti, the wine must come from a specific region in Italy. Outside of the Chianti region, wine made from the Sangiovese grape goes by a variety of names, depending on where it is made, such as: Brunello, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Morellino, or just Sangiovese, which is what it goes by in Washington State.
Grab a bottle, any bottle, of Sangiovese, and pour yourself a glass.
The first thing you're going to notice is the color - its brick red, the color of dried blood.
Hey, guess what? The word "Sangiovese" derives from "Sangue di Giove", which translates to "The Blood of Jove", Jove being Jupiter, the King of the Roman Gods.
The Romans thought so highly of this wine that it seemed that it must be the Blood of the King of the Gods! So maybe we should give this wine a try...
The second thing you're going to notice is the tart cherry flavor - that's a key marker for the Sangiovese grape. Think Morello cherries, which are also used to make Kirsch, a cherry brandy, and Kriek, a Belgian lambic beer.
You might also sense some violets, maybe roses, maybe tomatoes, as well. If you don't pick up any violets, do not worry - you don't have to pick out any of these things to enjoy the wine.
The third thing you're gonna notice is how much your mouth is watering. That's what's going to help this wine pair with a wide variety of foods. Saliva is what gets the flavor from the food to your taste buds. Kinda gross, but kinda important.
Why is Sangiovese a great wine to pair with a wide variety of food?
Because it makes your mouth water. Literally.
The Sangiovese grape produces a high acid wine, and acid makes your mouth water. Lemons are full of citric acid. Imagine biting into a lemon - your mouth is gonna water.
The more your mouth waters, the more saliva there is to break down your food and carry chemicals from your food to your taste receptors. And remember, saliva is what gets the flavor from the food to your taste buds.
In Tuscany, Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a grilled porterhouse steak, is served with Chianti, but this wine pairs well with almost anything! Beef steak, roast meat & poultry, cured meats, ragu, mushrooms, or liver with fava beans. And it doesn't have to be meat either - Sangiovese works well with vegetarian dishes.
The high acidity helps this wine work with foods that present a wine pairing challenge (like spinach) and also helps the wine stand up to high acid foods like tomatoes. In fact, Sangiovese is a perfect accompaniment for almost any dish incorporating a tomato sauce.
To help ensure a delicious pairing, incorporate an ingredient to act as a bridge between the entrèe and the wine: raspberries, plums, cherries, maybe some orange, or something savory, like mushrooms, tomatoes, olives, or capers. Maybe even walnuts, dijon mustard, or prosciutto.
Here are a few wines made with the Sangiovese grape:
Notice how the clean, fresh tart cherry flavor is the star of the show. That cherry flavor is a natural with duck (or any poultry, really). It also works well with pork, perhaps with some savory cherry jam to tie things together. Mmmm.
If your local wine shop doesn't carry this particular wine, ask your knowledgeable wine steward to suggest a substitute. You're looking for a New World Sangiovese - something that was not made in Europe - and it will probably be from Washington, California, or Argentina. Wines from these areas should all have similar fresh, fruity characteristics.
Here's a Chianti from Giocomo Mori made in a clean, fresh, modern style. Its from Tuscany, Italy, and we know that because it says "Chianti" on the label.
You'll get that bright cherry flavor up front, but this one has a something else on the finish. A hint of damp earth maybe, it could be herbal tea, dry leaves, what is that? - its just a little sumthin' that hangs on the back of your tongue a little bit longer than the Cavatappi does.
èlsina. I picked up this Chianti Classico at West Seattle Cellars for $23. Its awfully good.
Its got the tart cherry fruit flavor we'd expect, but its also more complex than the previous two wines, with hints of smoke, a little leather, maybe some subtle licorice, and what the French call garigue - but I'm not French, and this wine isn't French, so let's just call it "underbrush" instead, OK? Thanks.
If you want to splurge, pick up Fèlsina's Chianti Classico Reserva. Reservas are only bottled from exceptional vintages, and I think Fèlsina's Reservas taste amazing - they taste like the second coming of Christ in a bottle, by Jove!
In Thomas Harris' book The Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Hanibal Lecter does not pair liver and fava beans with Chianti. He pairs them with Amarone. We'll try that wine some other time.