Recently I received 3 Chiantis to try (full disclosure: these were sent to me as samples), so I set up a tasting party with some friends who are Chianti fans. We paired all 3 wines with a variety of appetizers and snacks – the kind you might serve at an informal party. If you're hosting a holiday party this year, make it a wine tasting! Chianti pairs well with Fall weather!
It's always a good idea to start with a little background information about the wines. We used the Chianti Cheat Sheet to familiarize ourselves with what we were drinking. I find this extremely helpful for answering the basic questions that everyone has at the start of a tasting, like where the wines are from, what the names mean, which grapes are involved, etc. All my Wine Cheat Sheets are designed for easy printing on standard 8.5 x 11 paper, so you can easily print a few to have on hand.
We also used wine aroma wheels to help us figure out what we were smelling and tasting in the wine. It’s a good idea to provide pen and paper too, in case people want to record their impressions.
Offering a separate glass for each wine is a great idea, if you have enough glassware, and if it’s a sit-down event. (More on choosing glassware here. I use these.) It really helps to be able to compare the wines next to each other. For a walk-around party, one glass per person would work. To help everyone keep track of which wine is in which glass, I find a numbered tasting placemat helpful (though not essential). I made these myself using PowerPoint, then printed and laminated them at a local office supply store.
To make your own tasting placemats, view the picture below in full size, then print.
A new addition to my table was the chalkboard table runner. It did quadruple duty by numbering the wine bottles to match the placemats, showing basic information about the wine, letting people share their impressions creatively by writing (or drawing?) them on the runner, and protecting the table from spills. I am officially in love with it. (Items made from chalkboard fabric have been appearing online and in craft stores a lot lately. Buy chalkboard markers to write on them, and then you can erase using a damp paper towel.)
We tasted 3 Chiantis: 1 basic Chianti DOCG, 1 Chianti Classico, and 1 Chianti Classico Riserva. A combination like this is a good choice for a tasting, because you’ll get three fairly similar wines, but they’ll also have noticeable differences, due to slightly different requirements (see below). The ability to compare and contrast creates the most interesting tasting (for more about that, see "Building a Better Wine Tasting").
Wines from the Chianti region of Italy have to meet different requirements based on how they are labeled:
- Chianti requires 75% Sangiovese grapes and 3 months of aging.
- Chianti Classico requires 80% Sangiovese grapes and 10 months of aging.
- Chianti Classico Riserva requires 80% of Sangiovese grapes and 24 months of aging.
1) Bolla Chianti
Bolla Chianti has bright, tart cherry flavors with a bit of blackberry mixed in. Medium acid and tannin levels make it easy to drink and easy to like. It's 90% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo (remember that Chiantis must be at least 75% Sangiovese, but many exceed that minimum). 12.5% abv
It paired especially well with spicy salami (more about the food in a minute).
2) Banfi Chianti Classico
Banfi Chianti Classico is a bit deeper in color and flavor than Bolla, with black cherry and tobacco aromas. The acids and tannins are both a bit more intense, but the alcohol is the same at 12.5% abv. Chianti Classico is typically a bit more rich and intense than Chianti. As required, Banfi Chianti Classico is predominately Sangiovese, but is mixed with small amounts of Canaiolo Nero and Cabernet Sauvignon.
This Classico paired especially well with sheep's milk cheese, raspberries, and apricot jam.
3) Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva
The main difference between Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva is additional aging, which imparts more vanilla and smoke aromas. This wine is heavier, richer, higher in acid, higher in tannin, and higher in alcohol (at 13% abv) than the previous two. Riservas are built for aging, and I think this one, which was already the favorite of the night, would be even better after a few more years in the bottle.
The Riserva paired especially well with strong cheeses and the saltier foods.
True to style and as expected, tasting the 3 Chiantis in this order revealed a progression from lighter and fruitier to heavier and richer. Our group, comprised mostly of lovers of big red wines, preferred the wines in that order with the Riserva being the overall favorite. The general sentiment went from “this is good” (Bolla Chianti) to “this is even better” (Banfi Chianti Classico) to “this is REALLY good!” (Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva).
Because these wines are all reasonably priced, you could drink them as an everyday red to go with dinner, or serve them for a group at a tasting party without breaking the bank.
On this particular week night, when most of us had to get up early for work the next day, 3 bottles were more than enough for 4 people. Of course, on a weekend that could vary. Keep in mind that each bottle holds 4 full glasses, so for larger groups you may need more than 1 bottle of each wine you want to taste.
Here are some recommendations for foods to serve at wine tasting parties, and with Chianti in particular.
Herb bread: Herb bread is always yummy, but it goes particularly well with Chianti, which tends to have a more herbal, savory quality than many other reds.
Sliced Meats: For Chianti, I recommend things like salami, pastrami, or prosciutto. You’ll find that some wines will hold up better against a spicy sausage, and some not as well, but the experimentation is half the fun. Foie gras (or any another type of paté) is another good option, which provides a rich, mellow contrast to Chianti’s strong favors. (These days you can even find tasty vegetarian styles!)
Selection of cheeses: Go for a mix of styles – sharp, creamy, soft, hard/aged. Not only will you have something for every person’s taste, but you’ll discover that they pair differently with the different wines.
Fresh fruit: We had raspberries, which went very well with the Chianti. Cherries and blackberries would have been great too. Try to pick fruits that will match some of the fruit flavors you expect to find in the wine.
Raw veggies: Baby tomatoes and sliced red and yellow bell peppers went well with the Chiantis. I tried raw jicama for the first time and learned it’s a fantastic palate cleanser between wines, as well as being delicious on its own – sort of the texture of an apple, but with much less sweetness and tartness. Of course, carrots are always crowd-pleasers.
Olives: These are just a great addition to any appetizer plate, but sometimes they play nicely with wine and sometimes not. Chiantis have a good chance of standing up to the strong flavors of olives.
Jams/preserves/honey: A bite of something sweet is always welcome when you’re serving so many strong, savory flavors. Again, try to pick a flavor that will fit with the flavors of the wine. In our case, we had apricot-rosemary preserves. The rosemary echoed the herbal flavors in the bread and the wines and kept the preserves from seeming too sweet.
Dessert: Speaking of dessert, chocolate and red wine are a match made in heaven. We happened to have dark chocolate ice cream, but anything dark chocolate would do nicely – brownies, a good quality chocolate bar, etc. (If you’re making brownies and happen to have some Port handy, use it as part of the liquid ingredient in the recipe!)
If you throw a Chianti tasting party, or any kind of wine tasting party, I’d love to know how it went. Did these ideas work for you? Did you think of better ones? Send pictures!