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Chianti touring and tasting between Florence and Siena.

"Where there is good wine, there is great happiness," wrote Leonardo da Vinci, asserting that, in the sun-kissed northern Italian region of Tuscany, people are no doubt born happier than elsewhere. If so, they must be even happier these days: 1984 legislation imposed strict new standards on the production and quality of the region's Chianti wines,

The new standards, along with earlier voluntary efforts to improve quality, have resulted in a handful of vintages that are well worth discovering especially if you remember Chianti only as the raffiawrapped red you could buy for $2 to drink with spaghetti.

The best place to do some sampling is between Florence and Siena, in the Chianti Classico region the area with the highest standards for Chianti production (only a fifth of all Chiantis are Chianti Classico). A 1929 law defined the boundaries of this area, whose symbol is the black rooster (gallo nero).

Signs bearing the rooster dot the region, which includes some of Italy's prettiest country. Roads are not heavily trafficked and are easy to drive for wine-touring trips of a day or longer, You might wind your way from Florence to Siena on winery roads and return on the speedier Superstrada del Palio. An excellent English guide, published last fall by the Chianti Classico Consortium, now makes touring easier than ever.

Some 800 wineries repose in centuries-old villas, farmhouses, castles, and abbeys. You'll spot their tile roofs or crenellated towers and honey-colored stone fronts or more formal, classically ordered facades. Their historic roots go deep into the green fields, into the gentle hillsides quilted with the striated patterns of vineyards.

Watch for signs pointing to wineries. If you see the words vendita diretta, it means the winery sells directly to the public. Such wineries are generally best set up for visitors-but don't expect a tour unless you call ahead for an appointment. Since at least the early 13th century, Chianti wines have been made here ftom the dusky purple Sangiovese and Canaiolo Nero grapes and the translucent pale green Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia del Chianti. A silver neckband with the word vecchio means the wine has been aged two years before release. A gold band with riserva means three years' aging, and riserva speciale means four years' aging. For best aging, look for wines in high-shouldered Bordeaux-type bottles.

Besides their Chiantis, wineries sometimes sell other wines, grappa, vinsanto, extra-virgin olive oil, aged vinegar, honey, and even ham, salami, cheese,. or marmalade made on the premises. What is Chianti Classico?

The best-labeled with the rooster and the letters DOC (for denominazione di origine controllata, certifying production within the legal limits of Chianti Classico)-has long been known for brilliant clarity, for a bright ruby color that ages to garnet, and for a strong winy bouquet with a hint of violets. Taste is dry and slightly tannic when wine is young, mellower and more velvety with age. Alcohol content is a minimum of 12 percent. The traditional formula: 50 to 80 percent Sangiovese, 10 to 30 percent Canaiolo Nero, 10 to 30 Trebbiano and Malvasia, 5 percent correctives (wines, musts, and concentrates from outside the region).

What's new since 1984?

The new label distinction to look for is DOCG (for garantita, adding a guarantee of authenticity to that of origin). To earn this, a winemaker's vineyards must pass inspections of elevation and exposure, soil conditions, and growing techniques. The new mandate includes reductions in yield per acre and in the allowance for correctives. The new formula: 75 to 90 percent Sangiovese, 5 to 10 percent Canaiolo Nero, 2 to 5 percent Trebbiano and Malvasia, up to 10 percent of authorized corrective grapes (Cabernet, Merlot). Chemical and taste tests complete the inspection.

Professional reactions are very favorable for the best 1980s vintages ('82, '83, and '85, with '86 looking promising). But production has been cut nearly in half, and prices have doubled: you may pay up to $10 for the best, even in a rural trattoria.

A new guidebook and guidance

The Chianti Classico Consortium's 340page paperback, Chianti-Locations, Culture, Itineraries, Wines, divides the region into 14 mapped areas. A chapter on each area locates its towns (with directions from major highways), wine producers (with hours, telephone numbers, history of wines and buildings), and other points of interest. Inns and trattorias are rated for quality and scenic appeal. Subsections discuss such subjects as food and historic families.

Glossily illustrated with photographs, maps, and wine labels, the book justifies its $23 price. Buy a copy in Florence or Siena at a bookstore well stocked with guides. Or pick it up at the consortium's Florence headquarters, at Via dei Serragli 146 (telephone 229351), where you can also get help making winery appointments.
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Oct 1, 1988
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