We are fortunate enough to have renowned wine expert, Chris Baker, tell us a bit about Italian wines today. He covers interesting facts about Italian wine and answers questions we have about Chianti vs Amarone to figure out why the famous Hannibal Lecter quote was changed. Chris writes a regular article on wine for Fragrant Harbour, Hong Kong, and ran the Hong Kong Wine School for many years.

Arch villain Hannibal Lecter, in the book Silence of the Lambs, casually talks thus about one of his victims: ‘I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone’. In the film of the book, screenwriters have amended this to ‘I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti’. Why so? It was felt that many of the movie-going public would understand Chianti is an Italian wine while Amarone wouldn’t mean much at all. But Chianti and Amarone represent two complex Italian wines and the screenwriters, probably by accident, happened upon two wines which, at some stage of their development, share very similar characteristics.

Chianti is a local name for wines made in particular districts of Tuscany; Amarone is the name for a particular style of red Valpolicella made in the north central districts of Veneto/Verona. Both wines come in many variations of quality, the basic Chianti and Valpolicella can be very indifferent while at the upper end of the scale the wines will be amongst the world’s best.

Italy has been making commercial wine from cultivated wine grapes for at least 2,500 years, and has no doubt been producing wine in more basic form for thousands of years before that. The province of Trapani in Sicily alone makes more wine than an entire good Australian vintage. The region of Puglia is the 9th biggest wine producer in the world. In Italy, you could taste 75 wines a day for 75 years without repetition; wines of style, richness, complexity, wines with guts, wines with alcohol, wines that can compete with and beat their international competitors.

In Italy there is no such thing as just “wine”; wine is history, geography, culture. Each region, each district, even each town has its own wines and foods and there is a diversity of such as to make exploration a lifetime occupation. In Italy, wine is a fundamental part of every-day life and a foundation in Italian culture, just like Italian food.

Italy has a history of ancient wine production methods and many of these ancient practices are still used. Oldest is that of Passito, taking harvested fruit into drying sheds to reduce the water content before pressing. This expensive and labour intensive practice is also known as Appassimento, Ripasso, Ripassa, Governo and more names throughout Italy. Both Valpolicella and Chianti at some stage in their development go through this system;

Vineyards in the Tuscany region, central Italy.

Tuscany is a beautiful region that is the home to some of Italy’s finest wines. Always a region known for its experimental and development work, the region is also noted for top winemakers. Tuscany is the home of Chianti and the Sangiovese grape which occupies more than 10% of Italy’s planted area. Very versatile, this grape is capable of producing wines of great style.

Chianti wines are of high quality and are the most popular style exported from Italy. Unfortunately Chianti still suffers from its image of cheap and cheerful wines sold in raffia/straw covered flasks; such things still come out to plague tourists to Italy. The straw covered flasks, called “fiasco”, were made from brittle, cheap glass as a blown “bubble” without a base, and needed the woven straw container so that the fiasco could stand upright.

Whilst modern high quality Chianti can hold its own amongst the best of the worlds wines, there is still a lot of poor quality stuff about so it helps to be able to decode the bottle labels which will reveal all. Chianti wines are nearly all sold under a brand name, a house name, or just as Chianti. With Italian wine labels, the more information the label contains, the more progressive that information, the better the quality of the wine.

Vino da tavola (table wine) is the basic classification given to any Italian wine, of any sort, of any quality. It guarantees nothing but some winemakers are marketing their best wines under Vino da Tavola as this allows them to make the wine as they want to. The thing about Italian wine laws is that they are not compulsory. If you think you can make a better wine using alternative grapes you have the freedom to do so but you cannot claim or use the high quality DOC/DOCG system. Some of Italy’s best wines are made outside the classification system and marketed as a plain table wine.

If all the bottle label says is ‘Chianti’, it indicates a basic wine from anywhere in the official Chianti area. If it says ‘Chianti Superiore’, then the wine is made from better quality grapes, has more alcohol and is aged longer. ‘Chianti Superiore Classico’ is as Superiore but is from grapes grown in the historically best sites. ‘Riserva’ on the label indicates grapes harvested in a top vintage and are better quality fruit. ‘Gran Selezione’ is all the aforementioned and with hand selected grapes, more age, limited editions and a top vintage of exceptional quality. 2015 for example. The best Chianti will carry the name of a top producer (such as Col d’Orcia, San Felice, Frescobaldi, Antinori, Melini, Cecchi, Machiavelli and many others); it will have a named vineyard area (such as Colli Senesi).

Around the neck will also be the bottle collar denoting the local growers association, founded in 1924, the Consorzio della Gallo Nero (rather than the Consorzio Putto which is for lesser districts), the border for the Gallo Nero neck label (“bollino” or seal) will be gold also denoting Riserva. There will be a stated vintage year, meaning the year in which the grapes were harvested. 2004 was an exceptional vintage and most of the areas in Tuscany received the first 5 star rating since 1997. Since then vintage have been hit and miss; only 2015 being rated 5 star. Top Chianti will age, but bank on 5 years after the harvest for premium quality. Earlier vintages than 2004 are by now too old for more modest wines. Earlier great vintages like 1995 for top estates and top wines, may still be hanging in there but more probably beginning to fall off the perch. Old wines are not necessarily better wines; just old.

Vineyards in the Province of Verona, Veneto region, northeast Italy.

Verona, or, if you prefer, Veneto, is the north-central wine region stretching from the shores of Lake Garda to the west, the Adriatic sea to the east and a spit of land on the Slovenian border to the north. This is Northern Italy’s most abundant source of wine. Output is high, so is quality. Veneto ranks third in national output after Puglia and Sicily, but has no rivals in terms of DOC wines made, 170 million litres annually, more than a fifth of Italy’s total. Two thirds of this come from Verona where Bardolino, Soave, Valpolicella and newcomer Bianco di Custoza show their styles. 

As with Chianti, so with Valpolicella: the more precise the information on the bottle label the better the wine. A basic Valpolicella is not as good as a Valpolicella Superiore and so on, in order of increasing quality. If the label just says Valpolicella, the wine is from anywhere in the official area. As with Chianti, the progress on the label goes ‘Valpolicella Superiore’, ‘Valpolicella Classico’, ‘Valpolicella Classico Superiore’, ‘Valpolicella Classico Superiore Reserva’. Then come the speciality wines: ‘Valpolicella Superiore Appassimento Ripasso’ with better quality grapes, more alcohol, aged longer, made from semi dried grapes added to the fermentation or using a finished Valpolicella Classico wine added to the sediments of a maturing Amarone.

Next comes ‘Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG’, made using shed dried grapes from the best vineyards, fermented in large vats for 5 years or more, racked-off the sediments and further aged for two years, then two or more years in bottle. Higher alcohol content (up to 17%), will further bottle age for 10 years or so but then starts to dry out. This is one of the finest wines in the world and MASI and Zenato are two of the best makers. After this comes ‘Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG’, as Amarone but fermentation finished sooner so that the wine has higher sugar content. This is liquid Christmas pudding. If you like sweet wines this will blow your mind. The ancient appassimento styles of Recioto, Amarone, Ripasso are wines of huge dimension, unique style and construction; strong and long lived, wines for meditazione, for contemplazione; wines not so much to go with food, but to have instead of.

Grapes here are Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara, Oselata, Rossignola, Dindarella, Negrara. Using the best of shed-dried fruit, with a long two-stage fermentation, initially producing sweet Recioto reds and whites, later drying out and with more alcohol for Amarone reds; then introducing a finished Valpolicella Classico onto the yeast-laden lees (sediments) of the Amarone for further fermentation and maturation, resulting in the unique Ripasso style. A modified, more modern Ripasso style is also made with a portion of dried and crushed fruit added to the still fermenting Valpolicella, resulting in a lighter, more fruity wine that has its enthusiasts.

Amarone and Recioto,are some of the world’s most profound wines, with huge structure, complexity, Christmas-pudding richness, a length of palate that goes on forever, yet, given good winemaking, never aggressive, harsh, rough whatever the age. Once tasted, you’re hooked. No other wine can ever be regarded in the same light again.

Back to the menu: lambs liver, especially from salt-meadow fed animals, will lend itself well to a good Chianti Classico Reserva and also to a Valpolicella Ripasso (MASI) or Ripassa (everyone else). A top Amarone will probably be too rich and powerful but a lesser Amarone might do; but you shouldn’t be buying a lesser Amarone. Chianti Colli Fiorentini yields an ultra fine rich, robust, complex wine that seldom escapes from Italy; this wine is also made to the appassimento, shed dried grapes system, called locally Governo. So finally the two wines, Chianti and Valpolicella, come together. The choice is yours.