Cheap Wines That Don't Suck: Marchese de Petri 2003 Chianti Riserva

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Chianti used to be one of the great bargains of the wine world. Farmers in the several Tuscan Chianti regions grew a lot of good to excellent Sangiovese, a grape that, in the hands of a skilled winemaker, can make wines as fine as any in the world. However, until recently, when making Chianti they blended 70% Sangiovese with 30% lower-quality grapes Canaiolo Nero, Malvasia, and Trebbiano, resulting in wines that, while often very pleasant, could not be sold at premium prices.

This changed in 1971 when the major Chianti producer Antinori made an unblended wine from its best Sangiovese grapes and aged it Bordeaux-style in small oak barriques. Since this wine did not follow the DOC rules, it could not be sold as Chianti, so Antinori registered it as a relatively unregulated vino da tavola and gave it the proprietary trademarked name Tignanello, after the vineyard. (Subsequent vintages contain around 20% of the equally noble Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.)

The international demand for and unprecedented prices commanded by this wine led other Chianti producers to create their own proprietary "super-Tuscans." The diversion of the best grapes into these new wines resulted in a corresponding drop in quality of the producers' Chiantis.

So for a longtime Chianti lover like me, it's always a pleasure to find Chiantis that taste like they used to. Case in point, the Marchese de Petri 2003 Chianti Riserva I picked up for $6.99 the other day at Trader Joe's (555 9th St near Bryant, 3 Masonic near Geary, 401 Bay near Mason, 265 Winston in the Stonestown mall).

When first opened, the wine had a light, wine-cellary nose, mature and rustic old-school flavor but with bright fruit, good acid, and some tannin, light body, and a classic Sangiovese finish with hints of dried fruits and bitterness. Despite the lightness of the wine, it stood up to the spicy jambalaya-like andouille and bean dish I served it with, so I'd feel comfortable drinking it with just about anything.

After the bottle had been open for half an hour or so, the wine had opened up and was more aromatic and flavorful. There was no sediment to worry about, so the next bottle I open I'll try dumping vigorously into a pitcher to aerate, then let it sit uncovered for half an hour before serving.

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