A friend in the industry recently sent me 3 Chiantis to taste (this was the original inspiration for the Chianti Cheat Sheet). So I had a few friends over, and we tasted the wines side by side with some snacks - whole grain bread, herbs in olive oil for dipping, feta, turkey pepperoni, and giant green marinated olives. Here's what we tasted and what we learned...
#1: First we tasted a basic Chianti DOCG, 2011, made by Cecchi. It had aromas of tart red fruits, like cherry and cranberry, and some herbal qualities. Typical of Chianti, it had high acid, medium-plus tannin, medium body, and medium alcohol (13%).
This was the underdog of the night. No one disliked it, but it was the least favorite until we realized how well it went with the food. Chianti is usually food-friendly, but this wine's strong flavors, acid, and tannin could even hold their own against the marinated olives. This is a wine that will not get lost when served with strongly flavored dishes. It's available at the Bay Area Spec's for only $9, which is a good value.
#2: The second wine tasted was the Banfi Chianti Superiore from 2011. Remember from the cheat sheet that "superiore" means that this wine, by law, has a higher minimum alcohol requirement than basic Chianti. (This doesn't always mean that it has a higher final alcohol content - in this case the alcohol level for the Banfi was the same as for wine #1, the Cecchi - 13% abv.)
Compared to the Cecchi Chianti (#1), the Banfi Chianti had more black fruit aromas, richer fruit character, more vanilla aromas (which means more oak aging), slightly less tannin, and was generally smoother and more approachable.
The richer fruit flavors and easy-drinking quality of this wine made it the initial favorite of the night. If you're drinking a glass of wine without a meal, this is an excellent choice. It would be good with food too, but couldn't stand up to the strongest flavors that the Cecchi could. I'd confidently serve the Banfi with most Italian dishes, but if I were having puttanesca sauce, I'd grab the Cecchi. The Downtown Spec's sells the Banfi Chianti for only $10, which is a steal, because this stuff is delicious.
#3 The third wine was Villa Cerna's Chianti Classico Riserva from 2010. Remember from the cheat sheet that "classico" indicates this wine is from the oldest and most traditional part of the Chianti region, which often indicates better quality. "Riserva" indicates a longer aging requirement.
As expected from a "classico," this wine was the most concentrated and full-bodied of the three. It had darker, richer, earthier flavors, more evidence of oak aging (where the "riserva" comes in), and the strongest tannins. This makes sense because this wine was built to age longer than the other two - you could drink it 10 years from now with no problem. If you drink it now, consider aerating or decanting. The alcohol level, at 14%, was slightly higher than the other two.
Everyone liked this one too, and for some it was the best of the three. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of place in Houston that sells it, but the internet tells me the average price is $22 - quite reasonable.
I made my friends guess the prices after tasting the three Chiantis. Everyone correctly predicted that #1 was the least expensive and that #2 and #3 each stepped up in price. However, for each wine they guessed they would have had to pay about 5 to 10 dollars more than what the bottle really cost, which is basically the definition of a successful wine purchase, right?